Martin, A.J. (2016). Musical prodigies and motivation. In G.E. McPherson (Ed). Musical prodigies:
Interpretations from psychology, music education, musicology and ethnomusicology. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
This chapter may not exactly replicate the authoritative document in the published book/volume. It
is not the copy of record. The exact copy of record can be accessed via the published book/volume,
Musical prodigies: Interpretations from psychology, music education, musicology and
Musical Prodigies and Motivation
Andrew J. Martin
This chapter attends to the motivational world of prodigious musicians. It summarizes seminal
motivation theories and the factors and processes central to them that feature in the literature on
musical prodigies. The chapter describes major theories of talent development that have positioned
motivation as an important dimension or issue. The discussion also focuses on the specific facets of
motivation inherent in each of these theories and other accounts of prodigiousness. In line with
recent developments in motivation theorizing, the supportive motivational role of significant others
is considered. There is also consideration of some of the motivation and engagement traps that may
challenge prodigies in music and which may pose a barrier to later development of their talents.
Taking both the facilitating and potentially impeding role of motivation factors into consideration, it
is evident that motivation is something that must be carefully managed and addressed in the
development of the prodigy.
Keywords: prodigies; motivation; music; talent; engagement
Motivation and Musical Prodigies
In many models and theories of giftedness, talent and prodigiousness, motivation emerges as an
important ingredient for practice, achievement, and performance. In a major review of giftedness
and talent, Winner (2000) identified motivation as one of five pivotal issues. In another review, Dai,
Swanson, and Cheng (2011) found that 6% of gifted and talented research involved motivation and
self-regulatory factors while 7% included the cognate factors self-esteem and self-concept. Indeed,
not only has motivation been cited as important for the early development of exceptional
achievement, it has also been claimed as the means by which early promise is translated into later
achievement (Bloom, 1985; Jenkins, 2005; Renzulli, 1978; Robinson, 1987).
However, motivation is not always directly or explicitly attributed as a factor in prodigiousness.
Instead, many researchers simply refer to psycho-behavioral characteristics and drive that are the
important means by which individuals develop talent and excellence – without any obvious or
formal reference to motivation and motivation theory. Indeed, some have been critical that the field
does not adequately address, unpack, and disentangle the specific psychological factors that
underpin prodigiousness: “Taken together, all the recent studies on prodigiousness concentrate on
the exploration of the micro-social (i.e. families and school settings) and macro-social (i.e. cultural
and historical factors) contexts in the development of prodigies. Such studies are important, but they
do not include a study of its psychological mechanisms” (Shavinina, 1997, p. 250). According to
Shavinina (1997), there is a need for more research into the “inner lives” of prodigies. This chapter
seeks to do so through an exploration of motivation as relevant to the musical prodigy.
Definitions, Prevalence, and Attributes of Musical Prodigies
Definitions, domains, and prevalence
There is a general lack of research on giftedness in music, even less on gifted children in music, and
even less on musical prodigies (McPherson, 1997). In a review of giftedness and gifted education
research, a total of 1,234 research studies were identified with only 8 research entries focusing on
prodigies (Dai et al., 2011). Feldman defined the prodigy phenomenon as “performance in an
intellectually demanding field at the level of an adult professional before the age of ten" (1986, p.
16). However, some have suggested this be expanded to adolescence (McPherson, 2014) or to the
time when children have completed secondary school (Jenkins, 2005). It has been estimated that
approximately 2% of the population is gifted, with approximately 1 in 47,000 being prodigious
(McPherson & Lehmann, 2012). According to Ruthsatz and Urbach (in press), prodigies are usually
found in rule-based fields such as music, mathematics, art, and chess (see also Jenkins, 2005; Piirto,
1989). Research suggests that most prodigies display their talent in a single domain (Ruthsatz &
Urbach, in press).
Trait approaches to understanding and mapping prodigies involve identifying the salient and
influential attributes that distinguish them from other children, including gifted children (Shavinina,
2010). Adopting this approach, it is evident that prodigies possess early accelerated learning
progress, self-direction, ‘rage to master’, attentional focus, and visual-spatial precocity (McPherson
& Lehmann, 2012; Winner, 2000). Other research has identified superior working memory and
attention to detail as critical factors in prodigious achievement (Ruthsatz & Urbach, in press; see
also Hansen, Wallentin, & Vuust, 2013; Ruthsatz, Ruthsatz, & Ruthsatz Stephens, in press). For
example, Ruthsatz and Urbach’s study found that every prodigy tested in the 99th percentile on
working memory. Similarly, Vandervert and Liu (in press) found prodigies to have high domain-
specific attentional control. Feldman and Morelock (2011) suggest that, prodigies have at least a
moderate level of general intelligence as well as exceptional skill in a specific domain. McPherson
(2007) and Winner (1996) report that prodigies master tasks earlier and easier than others (i.e., they
are precocious), they “march to their own drummers” (McPherson, 2007, p. 213) by solving
problems and making discoveries on their own, and they devote high attentional resources when
learning. Feldman (1993) reports that prodigies have a highly focused talent as well as a “powerful
drive” to develop that talent.
There are distinctions between individuals who possess superior natural ability and those who go on
to demonstrate and further develop the skills emanating from natural ability. According to Gagné
(1995), “the rule is quite simple: the label giftedness is reserved for individuals or groups identified
through measures of aptitudes or natural abilities, while the label talent applies to individuals or
groups identified with measures of their developed skills in a particular field of human activity” (p.
107-108). Applying this to the prodigy, it has been proposed they are gifted with exceptional natural
ability but require significant effort to evince and sustain high levels of achievement and
performance. In similar vein, it is also important to distinguish prodigiousness from precocity.
Precocity refers to the earlier possession of natural ability that appears in older individuals. It is thus
important not to confuse the gifted and precocious with the prodigy (Gagné, 1995).
As will be described in this chapter, definitions of musical prodigiousness, their attributes, and their
differences from other exceptional individuals hold implications for the discussion of motivation
factors relevant to musical prodigies as well as some of the motivational and performance-based
challenges facing them.
Motivation Theories and Factors Salient in the Musical Prodigy Literature
Motivation is defined as individuals’ inclination, energy, and drive to learn, work effectively, and
achieve to potential (Martin, 2007, 2009). Motivation is relevant to one’s interest in a given task,
enjoyment of that task, participation in the processes relevant to task completion, achievement, and
performance (Pintrich, 2000, 2003; Schunk & Miller, 2002). There are numerous theories that
describe and explain motivation as well as the factors salient to it. These include self-efficacy
theory, expectancy-value theory, need achievement theory, self-worth motivation theory, attribution
theory, control theory, goal theory, self-regulation theory, and self-determination theory. In order to
provide a theoretical backdrop to the present analysis of motivation and musical prodigies, each of
these theories is briefly described along with some foreshadowing of the processes and factors that
emerge in the musical prodigy literature, described later in the chapter. The purpose of this brief
theoretical summary is to make clear the motivational reference points to which many arguments
and concepts in the musical prodigy literature can be linked.
Self-efficacy and expectancy-value theories
One important aspect of motivation theorizing concerns appraisals of one’s competence –
considered here via self-efficacy and expectancies. Individuals high in self-efficacy are more likely
to generate and test alternative courses of action, function better in tasks through greater effort and
persistence, and respond to problems more effectively through enabling constructive cognitive and
emotional processes (Bandura, 1997). In self-system models such as expectancy-value theory
(Wigfield & Eccles, 2000), both efficacy and valuing are considered important foundations of
motivation: specifically, individuals high in self-efficacy, who hold high expectations, and who
value tasks and their subject matter are more motivated. Importantly, as discussed below, these
factors – self-efficacy, expectations, perceived competence, task value, and utility (instrumental)
value – are factors often emerging in the musical prodigy literature.
Need achievement and self-worth motivation theories
These theories characterize individuals in terms of the motive to approach success and the motive to
avoid failure (Covington, 1998). Three typologies arise when these dual motives are considered:
success-oriented, failure-avoidant, and failure-accepting typologies (see also Martin & Marsh,
2003). Success-oriented individuals are optimistic and adopt proactive orientations to tasks
(Covington & Omelich, 1991; Marti, Marsh, & Debus, 2001a, 2001b, 2003). Failure-avoiders are
motivated by a fear of failure and are uncertain about their ability to achieve success or avoid
failure (Covington & Omelich, 1991; Martin & Marsh, 2003). Failure-accepting individuals
(elsewhere also referred to as disengaged or learned helpless) have given up or are disengaged
(Covington, 1998). As detailed below, these theories not only describe many of the factors that
facilitate prodigious development (e.g., optimism, success-striving) but also the motivation traps
that prodigious musicians may face, including fear of failure, disengagement, anxiety – as well as
strategies musical prodigies may use to respond to their fear of failure (e.g., perfectionism).
Attribution and control theories
Attribution theory describes the causes individuals attribute to events (Weiner, 2010). Causes vary
along three main dimensions: stability, locus, and controllability (Weiner 2010). Stability is the
extent to which the cause is temporary – or, whether it is stable. Stable causes include ability or
intelligence; effort is an unstable cause. Locus is the extent to which the cause is internal or external
to the individual. An internal locus is effort and an external locus is good luck or bad luck. Control
(and theories to which it is central; Skinner, 1996) refers to individuals’ belief that they have a
major role in attaining success and avoiding failure. Effort is considered controllable, while luck is
not. As described below, these factors also arise in the literature on prodigies; effort, ability, and
control are quite consistent features in descriptions and explanations of musical prodigies.
Goal and self-regulation theories
Goal theory attends to the reasons individuals have for striving and achieving. The ‘classic’ goal
perspective emphasizes mastery and performance goals with extensions on these incorporating
avoidance and approach dimensions (Elliot, 2005). Mastery is focused on factors such as learning,
effort, self-improvement, and skill development. Performance goals are focused on social
comparisons, demonstrating relative ability, and outperforming others (Elliot, 2005). These
concepts are routinely addressed in discussions of musical prodigies, particularly on issues relating
to mastery, practice, rehearsal, performance, and goal-setting. As will also be evident in the later
discussion, the prodigy literature addresses the means by which mastery is operationalized in
children’s musical lives. This brings into consideration theories of self-regulation that identifies the
important role of factors and processes such as planning, monitoring, focusing, directing attention,
task management, determination, and persistence (e.g. Zimmerman, 2002). Each of these is salient
in researchers’ accounts of the musical prodigy.
Self-determination theory (SDT)
SDT distinguishes between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000),
arguing for the yields of intrinsic motivation in task accomplishment. Also central to SDT is the
issue of psychological needs – in particular, the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
The need for competence relates directly to self-efficacy and the need for autonomy is relevant to
control, each introduced above. The third need, relatedness, has often been identified as a predictor
or facilitator of motivation. Importantly, this is also evident in the literature on musical prodigies.
Across research and theory relevant to musical prodigies reviewed below, the vital role of
relatedness and social support for children’s motivation is clear.
Summary of motivation theory
The purpose of this brief summary of motivation theory has been to identify key elements, factors
and processes that traverse both motivation theory and literature on musical prodigies. As discussed
more fully below, this is important because researchers and theorists of prodigies do not always
attribute elemental concepts and factors to seminal motivation theory. Laying out the salient
motivation theories and motivational supports at the outset is intended to provide a motivational
reference point to which we can attribute many arguments and ideas presented on musical
Theories of Prodigiousness and Talent Development
There are many theoretical frameworks seeking to explain the prodigy phenomenon and which
directly or indirectly include or invoke motivation as an influential factor. These frameworks range
from strictly environmentalist approaches to nativist and brain-based models, with most recognizing
the dual roles of nature and nurture in prodigiousness. In this section, these theories are briefly
introduced; in the following section, their specific claims to motivation are discussed. Here, theory
is organized in order from the environmental to the nativist.
Environmentalist perspectives contest the view that musical ability is the sole or primary
explanation for expertise and prodigious achievement (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993;
Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996; Ericsson, Prietula, & Cokely, 2007; Howe & Davidson, 2003; Howe,
Davidson, Moore, & Sloboda, 1995; Howe, Davidson, & Sloboda, 1998; Sloboda & Howe, 1991).
According to Ericsson et al. (2007), “consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that
experts are always made, not born” (p. 2). Many holding this perspective promote ‘deliberate
practice’ as the core means of prodigiousness and talent development. Here, repeated and
purposeful practice impacts the development of skill and this leads the musician to tackle more
demanding challenges – giving rise to expertise development. Under deliberate practice models, it
is not simply the quantity of practice, but also its quality that is critical (see also McPherson &
It has been estimated that about 10 years of deliberate practice is required to become an elite
performer (Ericsson et al., 2007) and that the impact of deliberate practice on musical performance
attains a large effect size of approximately rc = 0.61 (Platz, Kopiez, Lehmann, & Wolf, 2014). It
has been further suggested that exceptional achievement is attainable by anyone: “high levels of
accomplishment invariably require lengthy and intensive training, and even people who are not
believed to have any special talent can, purely as a result of training, reach levels of achievement
previously thought to be attainable only by innately gifted individuals” (Howe et al., 1998, p. 407).
Moreover, even the factors that some would claim are innate or biologically and neurologically
based (e.g., working memory, reaction time, attentional superiority) have been suggested as skills
that can be acquired: “For example, acquired anticipatory skills circumvent general limits on
reaction time, and distinctive memory skills allow a domain-specific expansion of working memory
capacity to support planning, reasoning, and evaluation” (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996, p. 273).
Importantly, motivation plays a distinct role in deliberate practice and this is discussed in detail
Other frameworks accommodate both the environmental and the innate factors relevant to
prodigiousness and talent development. For example, under Gagné’s (1995) model, giftedness
refers to the range of natural abilities an individual possesses while talent is developed through
developmental process and environmental and intrapersonal catalysts. Thus, Gagné’s model is
multidimensional, recognizing that multiple factors and processes are relevant to talent
development. This is similar to other contentions that describe the means by which giftedness
translates to talent. For example, Reis (2009) reports on the significant role of ability, social
support, effort, opportunities and chance in talent development (see also Bloom, 1985).
Simonton (1999, 2008, 2013) also adopts a multidimensional stance in his framing of talent
development. Simonton defines ‘talent’ as a set of cognitive abilities and dispositional traits that
enable an individual to acquire expertise faster and exhibit higher performance for a given level of
expertise. In his most recent contribution to the field, Simonton states: “The phenomenon of
exceptional achievement is much too complicated to permit simplistic, one-sided explanations. In
particular, a full understanding requires (a) the identification of all individual-difference variables
that correlate with acquisition and performance and (b) the determination of the developmental
antecedents, both genetic and environmental, of these identified correlates” (2013, p. 2).
Thus, these multidimensional approaches are something of an alignment between nativist and
environmentalist views. According to Detterman and Ruthsatz (1999), for example, exceptional
achievement is the result of general intelligence, domain-specific skill, and practice. Importantly,
because prodigies cannot have amassed the ten years (or 10,000 hours) required under the
environmentalist position, it is believed that they must possess elevated levels of the other two
factors, general intelligence and domain-specific skill (Ruthsatz & Urbach, in press).
Another multidimensional (or multivariate) perspective is found in coincidence theory articulated
by Feldman (1986). He defined the prodigy phenomenon as "the melding of the many sets of forces
that interact in the development and expression of human potential" (Feldman, 1986b, p. 11). These
sets comprise biological, psychological, and contextual. Others have harnessed coincidence theory
to form sociocultural accounts of prodigious development. For example, Goldsmith (1990)
proposed different layers of critical factors, with the child and his/her abilities as the inner layer,
individual support (e.g., parents, teachers) as the second layer, and extra-individual support (e.g.,
institutions) as the third layer. Prodigies are developed through the interaction of all three layers.
Because multidimensional approaches tend to include psychological dimensions, they are
reasonably consistent in recognizing the role of motivation in prodigiousness. However, as
discussed in a later section, the specific ways in which motivation is operationalized and included in
these theories can vary.
Stage- and developmentally-based approaches
Other theories explain prodigies in terms of developmental stages and particular rates of
development during these periods. According to Shavinina (1997, 1999, 2010; see also Leites,
1996), for example, prodigies experience accelerated development during sensitive periods.
Shavinina (2010) defines age sensitivity as “a specific, heightened, and very selective
responsiveness of an individual to everything that is going on around him or her” (p. 33) and argues
that this sensitivity plays a particular part in the appearance of prodigies. Accelerated development
during these sensitive periods gives rise to rapid formation and development of a child’s mental
resources and cognitive experience that are expressed as exceptional achievement and capacity.
Shavinina (1999, 2010) distinguishes between psychological components (that relate to how talent
develops) from the cognitive components (that explain prodigies’ expert performances). As
described below, motivation is relevant to both psychological and cognitive components.
On a related note, Freeman (1999) describes the ‘crystallizing experience’ involved in musical
precocity. According to Walters and Gardner (1986), the crystallizing experience is "a remarkable
and memorable contact between a person with unusual talent or potential and the materials in the
field in which the talent will be manifested" (p. 308). They are said to occur early in life, in line
with prodigious development (referred to as the ‘initial crystallizing experience’) that may then lead
to ‘refining crystallizing experiences’ that occur after initial attraction and involvement in the
domain (Freeman, 1999). As with Shaninina’s (1999, 2010) developmentally sensitive periods,
there is a role for motivation in these crystallizing experiences.
Innate, genetic, biological and neuro-psychological processes
Finally, some theories heavily emphasize the role of innate ability, genes, and biological and neuro-
psychological factors. Indeed, prodigies are an interesting population to study because they
potentially challenge strict environmentalist positions. According to Ruthsatz, Ruthsatz, and
Ruthsatz Stephens (in press), “child prodigies provide a particularly fascinating view on the nature
versus nurture debate because of the extremely young age at which the prodigies demonstrate their
remarkable abilities, thus, limiting the extent to which their abilities can be solely the result of
extreme dedication to practice” (p. 1). Thus, nativist and inherent ability views posit that
exceptional cognitive functions, intelligence, and genetic predispositions are centrally relevant
(Hambrick, Oswald, Altmann, Meinz, Gobet, & Campitelli, in press; Jenkins, 2005). The interaction
between the cerebral cortex (responsible for planning, problem solving) and the cerebellum
(responsible for bodily control and working memory) has also been proposed as an important factor
(Vandervert, 2009). Importantly, nativist perspectives do not discount the role of environment
(Vandervert & Liu, in press ) – arguing that while prodigies have exceptional innate ability
(Feldman & Morelock, 2011) and that a reasonable proportion of variance in music performance is
accounted for by deliberate practice (e.g., 21%; Macnamara, Hambrick, & Oswald, 2014), they are
further developed and sustained through effort and various personal, instructional, and logistic
supports – once more bringing into consideration the role and importance of motivation and
Motivation in Theories and Research on Prodigiousness and Talent
The preceding discussion outlined major theories of prodigiousness and talent development and the
general case for motivation in their concepts and arguments. Having outlined these major
contributions in general terms, attention is now directed to the specific ways in which theory and
research include and harness motivation as an operational and explanatory mechanism. In this
section, the facilitating and enhancing role of motivation is discussed. It will be evident that many
of the concepts and factors raised here are the very concepts and factors detailed under the
motivation theories described above (see ‘Motivation Theories and Factors Salient in the Musical
Prodigy Literature’). In a later section – on motivation traps – the potentially impeding and
maladaptive role of motivation is discussed.
Deliberate practice and motivation
Motivation is inherent in deliberate practice models of music expertise. It has been claimed that
psycho-behavioral attributes such as tenacity, dedication, and persistence distinguish those who
engage in the effort required for elite performance and those who do not (Howe & Davidson, 2003).
Howe et al. (1998) also suggest that when motivation is controlled for, there are few differences in
ease of learning. Because deliberate practice involves the learner focusing on skills and tasks that
they cannot do or that they find difficult, there is a need for motivation to take them out of their
comfort zone (Ericsson et al., 2007). In similar vein, Ericsson et al. (1993) report that deliberate
practice requires “energy”. Further, in line with expectancy-value theory of motivation (Wigfield &
Eccles, 2000), individuals engage in deliberate practice for instrumental yields (e.g., achievement).
In fact, Ericsson et al. (1993) contend that deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and thus it
is its instrumental value that motivates the child.
Multidimensional approaches and motivation
Multidimensional approaches harness both environmentalist and nativist approaches. For example,
in describing the process by which giftedness develops into talent, Gagné identified various
intrapersonal catalytic factors, including motivation (Gagné, 1995): “Among the intrapersonal
catalysts, motivation plays a crucial role in initiating the process of talent development, guiding it,
and sustaining it through obstacles, boredom and occasional failure” (p. 107). According to Gagné,
these motivational elements include values, needs, interests, and passions. Another intrapersonal
catalyst is volition, comprising autonomy, effort, and persistence. Similarly, Renzulli’s (1978)
multidimensional three-ring conception of giftedness holds task commitment (reflecting motivation)
as an important component (the other two being above-average ability and creativity).
Simonton (2013) also places motivation in his consolidated model of talent development,
suggesting that motivation may be one of the more important dispositional elements in the process.
According to Simonton, “these dispositional predictors must be added because they usually account
for variance in creativity that is not accounted for by abilities alone … and especially motivation,
can prove far more important than cognitive ability” (2013, p. 6).
Through a social-cognitive lens, MacNamara, Holmes, and Collins (2008) recognize the role of
innate ability as well as the importance of psycho-behavioral factors that allow performers to
navigate the complex and dynamic terrain of talent development. Here, MacNamara et al. (2008)
state that motivation, commitment, metacognition, self-regulation, goal-setting, and planning are all
important in acquiring and maintaining expertise. In their own study of musicians that make the
transition to full-time music education and then a music profession, they identify self-belief,
persistence, and a capacity to learn from one’s mistakes as vital. Taken together, MacNamara et al.
(2008) traverse a range of motivation (and engagement) factors essential to the talent development
process. Moreover, they suggest that in cases where talent development fails, it is often because
musicians lack these psycho-behavioral characteristics. Interestingly, they single out motivation as
perhaps the most important factor that spans the entire process of talent development.
Stage- and developmentally-based approaches and motivation
In a stage-based approach to musical expertise, Reis (2009) emphasizes the role of self-efficacy.
Important stages of development involve the “escalation in the development of a firm belief in one's
sense of destiny, and the development of a high level self-efficacy. This sense of destiny and belief
in self contributes to success in concerts and competitions, resulting in additional training and
consistent practice” (p. 231). Similarly, Feldman states that prodigies “are highly motivated to reach
the highest levels of their fields. They are often marked as well by great confidence in their
abilities” (1993, p. 190). McPherson and Williamon (2006) also underline the role of self-efficacy
in talent development.
The crystallizing experience perspective (Freeman, 1999) described earlier also invokes the role of
motivation in precocious and prodigious development. According to Freeman, the crystallizing
experience is believed to have longer term effects on musical self-concept and confidence. It also
underpins children’s “intrinsic desire to excel” (Freeman, 1999, p. 80).
Innate origins of prodigious motivation
Some have suggested that the motivation underpinning the prodigy’s extreme efforts and focus may
also have a genetic origin (Jenkins, 2005). Interestingly, this is suggested in work by Ericsson et al.
(1993) who argue that while there are not innate differences in ability, there may be such
differences in motivation that then supports the deliberate practice required for expertise
development: “we reject any important role for innate ability. It is quite plausible, however, that
heritable individual differences might influence processes related to motivation and the original
enjoyment of the activities in the domain and, even more important, affect the inevitable differences
in the capacity to engage in hard work (deliberate practice).” (p. 399).
Goal and self-regulatory approaches
Among specific motivation factors, goal setting and goal striving emerge relatively frequently. In a
case study of a musical prodigy, McPherson (2007) emphasizes “the child’s personal learning
agenda which guides her mastery of difficult repertoire” (p. 213). This brings into consideration the
types of goals that prodigious musicians pursue. As implied by McPherson, the goals and ambitions
seem more personally characterized than competitively characterized. According to McPherson and
Williamon (2006), talented children “are ‘strivers’ in that they constantly seek to improve
themselves and become better in those tasks that they choose to study” (p. 245). Indeed, recent
research on personal best (PB) goals has demonstrated their adaptive yields (Martin & Liem, 2010).
Self-regulation also emerges relatively frequently. In McPherson’s (2007) study, the prodigious
child’s capacity to monitor and control learning at critical points in the learning process (e.g., during
the preparatory stage for learning a new repertoire) is a salient feature of his/her ‘everyday’
activities. Leites (1996) also emphasized self-regulation such that high-level mental activity
combined with self-regulation (in the form of monitoring and planning) is key to the emergence of
prodigiousness. Similarly, McPherson and Williamon (2006) noted superior self-management
among talented musicians. Self-management comprised, focus, attentional control, monitoring, and
Flow, challenge, and motivation
The issue of flow also receives much support in the literature on musical prodigies. This literature
defines flow in terms of constructs such as immersion, play, enjoyment, and fun. Sosniak (1985)
interviewed the concert pianists participating in the Bloom (1985) study of expertise and identified
three stages of musical talent development. The first was characterized by flow; musicians sense of
play. Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde and Whalen (1993) found similarly that enjoyment played an
important role in students becoming and staying interested in their area of talent (see also Renzulli,
Under the flow framework, the importance of task challenge is also relevant. Of the numerous
factors underlying flow, attainting an appropriate balance between task challenge and skill level is
essential (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Jackson, Martin, & Eklund, 2008; Martin & Jackson, 2008).
According to Robinson (1987), for exceptionally talented children, there is intrinsic satisfaction in
“succeeding at the hard, rather than the merely easy” (p. 163). This has escalating motivational
benefits such that “the challenge and the joy of accomplishment evolve as time goes by into much
more complicated motivational systems” (p. 163). McPherson and Williamon (2006) also identify
the importance of an appropriate balance between challenge and skill: “talented children seek
moderate challenges and risks, in that they are attracted to tasks that are neither too hard nor too
easy” (p. 245).
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
The classic intrinsic/extrinsic motivational divide is also relevant to prodigiousness and talent
development (Winner, 2000). Dai and Schader (2001, 2002) studied parents of children attending
pre-college music programs and found that their primary motivation was to foster their child’s
personal and skill growth rather than social recognition, awards, or fame. Thus, intrinsic motivation
and intrinsic motivators were salient. Intrinsic motivation is also reflected in the prodigy’s ‘rage to
master’ (McPherson & Lehmann, 2012; Winner, 2000) characterized by spending hours voluntarily
working to excel. McPherson (1997) reports that if achievement (extrinsic) is emphasized too early
in a child’s musical development, then intrinsic motivation will suffer. Part of this effect is due to
the child’s excessive concern with what others think of their performance, leaving little room for
creativity and deep engagement, while also evoking anxiety. Winner (2000) attributes a failure to
convert early talent to later achievement to excessive extrinsic control and pressure, leading to a
decline of intrinsic motivation – particularly during adolescence. Winner describes this as “the
danger of pushing so hard that the intrinsic motivation and rage to master these children start out
with become a craving for the extrinsic rewards of fame” (2000, p. 166).
Motivational Supports: Significant Others and Interpersonal Relationships
Positive interpersonal relationships and interpersonal support are vital for healthy human
functioning (e.g., De Leon, 2000), a cornerstone of happiness, a buffer against stress (Argyle,
1999), and important in help for tasks, challenges, and emotional support in daily life (Gutman,
Sameroff, & Eccles, 2002). There is much research demonstrating the substantial role that
relationships play in child and youth motivation (Battistich & Hom, 1997; Martin & Dowson,
Interpersonal relationships and social support also feature heavily as a source of motivation in the
lives of musical prodigies. This is the case for a number of reasons. Social interactions teach
children about themselves and about what is needed to function effectively in the music domain.
Through interpersonal relationships, children learn that particular beliefs are useful for functioning
and internalize the beliefs valued by significant others (Wentzel, 1999, 2010) – such as the
importance of practice, persistence, and determination. Relationships also have an energizing
function to activate positive affect and mood (Furrer & Skinner, 2003) that provides a pathway to
motivation. In addition, interpersonal relationships and social support help meet children’s
psychological needs that foster motivation (Martin & Dowson, 2009). Taken together, any
consideration of children’s motivation must also consider the interpersonal relationships and social
support that underpin and sustain that motivation.
In most theories and models conceptualizing talent development and musical prodigies, the role of
significant others is salient (Ericsson et al., 1993; Gagné, 1995; Jenkins, 1995; McPherson, 1997;
Piirto, 1989; Reis, 2009; Robinson, 1987). Thus, the motivation and talent development literatures
intersect on this very point. According to Reis (2009), “in any study of musical talent development,
as well as in research about talent development in general, it is clear that a musically talented
student needs the encouragement of parents and family who monitor and establish practice habits
and provide support and encouragement” (p. 227). Perhaps not surprisingly, Boyd and George-
Warren (1992) found that 95% of leading musicians’ early interest in music emanated from family
Gagné (1995) identifies the importance of environmental catalysts in talent development. Notably,
parents, family, peers, mentors, and teachers are central to this support. These people devote time,
attention and resources to scaffold the learner to greater talent (McPherson & Lehmann, 2012).
According to Gagné (1995), these people can exert positive or negative influences on a child’s
talent development. McPherson (1997) also notes that persistent young musicians receive
significant support from parents in the early stages of their musical development. Further, talented
children who give up playing tend to come from homes where there is little parental involvement in
the early stages of learning (McPherson & Williamon, 2006). Accordingly, McPherson and
Williamon (2006) suggest that family (particularly parents) is the most important environmental
influence on young musicians.
Interestingly, Ericsson et al. (1993) identify the importance of parents’ and teachers’ own
motivation in motivating the child to engage in deliberate practice. They go on to report that parents
who communicate positive messages about the child’s talent and potential, “most likely increases
motivation, boosts self-confidence, and protects young performers against doubts about eventual
success during the ups and downs of the extended preparation” (p. 399). Thus, consistent with
expectancy-value motivation theory (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000), the importance of parents’ positive
expectations is evident in the development and realization of expertise.
In Sosniak’s (1985) three stages of talent development, the first stage (play) relies on the
encouragement of parents. Beyond the family, in Reis’s (2009) multi-stage model of musical
development, musically-oriented peer relationships are important. Particularly during adolescence,
bonding with musically talented peers is considered as or more important than bonding with parents
and teachers. Coincidence (e.g., Feldman, 1986) and sociocultural (e.g., Goldsmith, 1990) theories
of prodigiousness also centrally place individual and social support in their conceptualizations.
According to Feldman, these social forces encourage, prohibit, or shape the expression of a child’s
potential. According to Goldsmith, individuals proximal to the child (e.g., parents, teachers)
monitor, guide and facilitate the development of the prodigy.
It has been further found that adolescents receiving little family support are more likely to fail in
developing their talents (Csikszentmihalyi et al., 1993). Instead, these teens tend to spend more time
with peers, away from music and practice. Based on this, Reis (2009) recommends the need for
close parental monitoring of talent development. Hence, when researchers discuss barriers to
musical development, many of the themes revolve around social support. According to Reis (2009),
a lack of parental support, a poor fit with teacher, absence of musically talented peers, lack of
involvement in music schools, and absence of other supports are factors impeding musical
development. In one way or another, each of these pertains to an absence or impoverishment of
social and contextual support.
In addition to the logistic and skills-based support provided by young musicians’ social sources,
there is also a role for warmth and emotional support in motivating prodigies. For example, in case
studies of prodigious musicians, there is comment on “the loving connection between mother and
child” (McPherson & Lehmann, 2012, p. 42). In early work, the role of a close mentoring
relationship with a parent (or sibling) was noted (McCurdy, 1960). Personal warmth is also an
important characteristic for a music teacher, particularly during the early stages of learning
(McPherson, 1997). It has been found that the best students remember their teachers very much in
terms of their liking for the pupil (McPherson, 1997; McPherson & Williamon, 2006; Sloboda &
Motivation Traps and the Prodigious Musician
Thus far, the discussion has centered on the motivational concepts and processes that facilitate the
development of the musical prodigy. However, across the literature, much less attention is given to
the motivation challenges and traps that pose potential barriers to the prodigious musician and
his/her musical development. According to Feldman, “prodigies are indeed remarkably advanced
within their specific areas of expertise but not particularly advanced emotionally or in their social
development” (1993, p. 190). Thus, because prodigies’ social and emotional development is
unlikely to match their musical development (Feldman, 1993), it is quite conceivable that the
psychological (including motivational) challenges facing many children are also likely to confront
In his review of motivation among gifted and talented students, Martin (2002) identified many
motivation traps that pose a barrier to exceptional achievement and performance. These include:
beliefs about ability, contingent self-worth, implicit theories of ability, fear of failure, fear of
success (and the related Impostor Phenomenon), perfectionism, imbalances between challenge and
skill, and problematic approaches to competition.
Beliefs about high ability
It can be relatively easy for the prodigious musician to experience success without a great deal of
effort. This may create difficulties if the child concludes that to be exceptional, he/she needs to do
things easily and without effort (Winebrenner, 2001). If children believe that being exceptional
means succeeding without effort, they may be quite unsettled in tasks that are challenging or require
some level of struggle. This may pose a barrier to them translating early prodigiousness to adult
achievement. In such cases, the yields of effort are important to emphasize. Although research
shows most prodigies do invest great amounts of effort into their music (McPherson & Lehmann,
2012), it may be the case that an inability to translate prodigious achievement into similar levels of
adult achievement is due to an over-reliance on natural ability over time and insufficient amounts of
effort. It is recommended, children’s conceptions of high ability must encompass conceptions of
high effort also.
Implicit theories of ability
It is not unreasonable for prodigious musicians to believe that success is very much a result of
natural ability. Their early ability and talent are grounds for this belief. For some exceptional
children, this can lead to the view that they do not need to extend themselves much beyond their
natural ability (Martin, 2002). This can lay a foundation for an ‘entity view’ of ability (Dweck,
2006; McNabb, 1997). Entity views of ability hold that ability is not something that can be further
developed through effort and application. An entity view has been associated with problematic
motivation. Responding to this, practitioners might cultivate an ‘incremental view’ of ability. This
holds that ability is something that can be further developed via the application of effort and
attitude. Through an emphasis on effort and skill development, incremental views are associated
with positive motivation (Dweck, 2006).
It can also be the case that talented youngsters develop a self-worth that is contingent on successful
performance, demonstration of high ability, and parental approval (Martin, 2002; Martin & Marsh,
2003). Because the need to preserve one’s self-worth is a fundamental drive (Covington, 1992), this
places great pressure on the child to achieve and succeed. It also renders performance scenarios
tests of self-worth as well as tests of skill. This can fuel a fear of failure. Relatedly, Winner (2000)
describes the psychological implications further in a prodigy’s life, alerting us to “the danger of the
psychological wound caused by the fall from being a famous prodigy who can perform perfectly to
a forgotten adult who can do no more than perform perfectly” (p. 166). As McPherson and
Lehmann (2012) observe, it is important that parental care, love and attention are not contingent on
the child’s success and exceptional ability. They also note the importance of making clear whose
goals are being pursued. If it is parents’ unfulfilled desires or hopes, this may render their love for
the child contingent on that child meeting the parent’s desires and hopes. In the discussion below,
the adaptive role of personal best (PB) goals are discussed. Emphasizing these may be a helpful
way of directing the focus onto more constructive goal pursuits.
Fear of failure
Fear of failure may pose another barrier for the prodigious musician. The self-worth and identity of
many exceptional performers is often based on their ability and their capacity to demonstrate that
ability to others (McNabb, 1997). When an individual’s self-worth is based on his/her ability to
achieve, any performance situation can threaten their worth. This may set in train a fear of failure.
There are numerous responses to a fear of failure. Perfectionism is one response; avoidance is
another (Martin, 2002). Winner (2000) has warned of “the danger of freezing a prodigy into a safe,
technically perfect but non-innovative way of performing” (p. 166). One way to reduce fear of
failure is through encouraging courageous and constructive views of mistakes and poor
performance (Martin & Marsh, 2003). It is a truism that mistakes are diagnostic information on how
to improve, are a potential launch pad for subsequent success, and are a growth opportunity.
Mistakes do not reflect on one’s worth, nor do they relegate an individual to inevitable future failure
(Covington, 1992). When mistakes and poor performance are seen in these ways, young people are
less likely to be so fearful of failure and less likely to pursue the maladaptive strategies (e.g.,
avoidance, perfectionism) often associated with it.
Fear of success and the Impostor Phenomenon
Fear of success is another motivation trap for the exceptional individual. For some children, success
may mean they are one step closer to failure next time. That is, a good performance means that the
only place to go from there is downward. Success may also make one stand out from one’s peers.
During childhood and adolescence when there is a drive to conform, such success may be feared.
Particularly if a child outperforms his/her peers, this may evoke concerns they will be unpopular
(Martin, 2002; Winebrenner, 2001).
The Impostor Phenomenon is another trap. For some individuals, success prompts anxiety that one
day they will be ‘found out’ or exposed as lacking the high ability attributed to them. That is, they
have thoughts and feelings that they are an impostor masquerading as a high achiever (Fried-
Buchalter, 1992; Winebrenner, 2001). Often at the heart of success-based fears is a lack of self-
efficacy and low self-concept (Martin, 2010). These stem from negative self-talk about one’s
capacities and the tasks and challenges ahead. It is important to encourage young people to
challenge their negative thinking and to recognize that their interpretation of themselves and events
may be unrealistic or exaggerated (Bandura, 1997). Encouraging them to focus on factors that they
control can also be important. For example, effort (how hard they try), strategy (the way they try),
and attitude (what they think about themselves and the task) are in their control (Martin, 2010). The
more they focus on these, the greater their sense of efficacy and agency.
Because an exceptional ability to excel can be such a part of some children’s identity (McNabb,
1997), they may go to excessive lengths to avoid performance that falls short of excellent. One way
to guarantee this is to strive for perfection (Martin, 2002). It has been found that perfectionists are
driven by feelings of conditional self-acceptance and are motivated to fulfill the perceived wishes
and hopes of significant others (Greenspon, 2000). The problem with perfectionism is that it is not
necessarily easy to attain or it can come at the expense of other important parts of life (Blatt, 1995;
Greenspon, 2000; Hewitt & Flett, 1991). Encouraging young people to focus on their own goals is
one way of directing their attention away from their perception of others’ expectations. Recognizing
that their worth is a given and not dependent on exceptional performance is a way of promoting
greater self-acceptance. Encouraging young people to enjoy other parts of life is a way to cultivate
greater work-life balance and reduce the drive for perfectionism (Martin, 2010).
Imbalance between challenge and skill
In the literature on musical prodigies, there is much attention given to flow and challenge-seeking
goals. Individuals are most engaged when the level of task challenge matches (or moderately
exceeds) their level of skill (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Jackson et al., 2008; Martin & Jackson, 2008).
This balance between challenge and skill has significant implications for optimal motivation of
musical prodigies. If the level of skill outweighs the level of task challenge, boredom may result
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Given that musical prodigies have exceedingly high levels of skill, the
risk of boredom and subsequent disengagement is increased. According to Winner (2000), “when
children are not sufficiently challenged in school, as so often happens to gifted children, they
sometimes lose their motivation and become underachievers” (p. 163). It is therefore important to
ensure that the level of challenge is commensurate with the level of skill. Particularly in school,
educators will need to recognize this as they seek to administer challenges that are appropriate
across the range of abilities (including exceptional abilities) in the classroom.
Competition can be another domain of motivational challenge. In many respects, competition is a
zero-sum game: for some to win others must lose (Covington, 1992). The stakes are high –
particularly when one’s ability and self-worth are on the line. ‘Losing’ for exceptional performers
may reflect very poorly on their core identity (being exceptional) and sense of worth (Clinkenbeard,
1994). It has been found that talented youth who are fearful of failure may prefer to avoid
competition if there is a risk they will not win (Davis & Rimm, 1998). Because competition is
central to the world of music, it cannot be avoided. Therefore, the aim is to assist young musicians
to orient themselves better to competition and the threat of ‘losing’. Recent work in the area of
growth goals (or, personal best – PB – goals) is promising. PB goals are where the individual aims
to do better than him/herself in a task or competition. Thus, they retain the potentially energizing
properties of competition, but compete with themselves. This, it has been argued reduces the fearful
and aversive properties of competition, whilst ensuring the competitor participates fully and does
not shrink from the competitive situation. Research has found PB goals to be positively associated
with motivation, engagement, and achievement (Liem, Ginns, Martin, Stone, & Herrett, 2012;
Martin, 2006; Martin & Liem, 2010).
Summary of motivation traps
In summary, there are many motivation traps that have the potential to impede the musical
development of the prodigy (Jenkins, 2005). The literature asserts that most musical prodigies do
not go on to demonstrate similar levels of exceptional achievement (McPherson & Lehmann, 2012;
Winner, 2000). Although many reasons have been posited for this, there has been relatively little
detailed attention given to the specific and multidimensional motivation traps that may explain the
disconnect between prodigious and adult achievement. Importantly, there are strategies and
approaches that can be adopted to successfully navigate these motivation traps; some of these were
introduced in this chapter.
Across research and accounts of musical prodigies, there is frequent reference to factors and
processes central to major motivation theories. Motivation features in major theories of
prodigiousness and talent development. Also central to the development of the prodigy is the role of
significant others in supporting the motivation to practice, perform, and persevere. Importantly,
however, motivation in the life of the musical prodigy is not a straightforward matter. Not only can
motivation be a facilitating mechanism, there are also impeding and maladaptive motivational
factors and processes that pose potential barriers to the development of the musical prodigy.
Understanding both the adaptive and maladaptive roles that motivation can play in musical
prodigiousness is essential to better assisting children to enjoy, aspire, and strive in their music, well
beyond the age of ten.
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