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The Gifted and the Talented – The Joys and Perils of Training Talent

By: , Posted on: March 20, 2017

Identifying and training talent are key ingredients in promoting and ensuring the advancement of all fields that rely on the expertise and ingenuity of its members. This is powerfully evident in the performing arts where talent is celebrated by society at large. Further, young performing talent is actively recruited by elite conservatory training programs. Countless training programs exist within formal and informal educational organizations. All are dedicated to the training of talented and gifted young people.

Some of the many challenges that parents, educators, and talent scouts encounter include, determining who has talent, who are gifted, who have both talent and giftedness, who remain unrecognized simply due to lack of opportunity, and who are early or late bloomers. Identifying talent is just the first step in a long process that takes years of commitment and dedication. Substantial resources (financial, social, personal) are essential to train someone to reach an expert level. During these years of training, massive changes transpire within the person (brain and body), the family system, the school system, and the profession (once elite level is achieved). Overlapping networks must continually interact to successfully train the talented and gifted.

Differentiating talent from giftedness is relatively clear-cut. In short, the term giftedness applies to intellectual abilities that are significantly higher than average, usually determined by IQ scores that are in the top 2 percent of the population (above 130). Talent is a term that applies to strong abilities required in specific domains and sub-domains such as sport, music, dance, theatre, singing, writing, design, culinary, visual arts, etc. These terms are often used interchangeably; however, they do imply different concepts and criteria.

Free Chapter Download: Training the Performing Artist

In the United States, there is a federal government statutory definition of gifted and talented students. This definition is similar in many countries around the world.

“The term “gifted and talented” when used in respect to students, children, or youth means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such capabilities” (Title XIV, p. 388). Identifying talent and giftedness addresses (1) a wide spectrum of areas in which performance is displayed, (2) comparison with other groups and individuals within the groups (developmental assessment), and most importantly, (3) a need to nurture and develop the gift or talent.

Despite educational policies that require provisions be granted to talented and gifted children, this practice is not sufficiently followed. Disadvantaged and minority students are under-represented in these programs, in part, because they are not exposed to opportunities or settings that nurture their talents. For example, children with innate talent to become ballet dancers may never be identified if they never see ballet. And even if they see a ballet, they may not have the financial resources to take a ballet class. This was certainly the early experience of Misty Copeland. Luckily, her talent was recognized. She was actively mentored and encouraged. Today, she is a prima ballerina and one of the leading  champions of early recognition and acceptance of disadvantaged children.

Being deemed gifted or talented based on ability alone is not the primary determining factor for actualizing this raw potential. Behavioral characteristics are major components that determine outcome. According to Joseph Renzulli’s three ring-model individuals must have above average intelligence (or talent), high levels of task commitment, and high levels of creativity. Further, these qualities must be directly applied to the area of interest in order for the individual to achieve a level of expertise that is recognized by other elite members of the field.

With the combination of above average intelligence, task commitment and creativity, talented and gifted children are able to learn more rapidly, deeply, and broadly than other children. They tend to have high aptitudes in reasoning, problem solving, memory retention, and curiosity. They are also strongly intrinsically motivated to pursue their area of talent. Despite this accelerated growth pattern, the developmental trajectory of gifted and talented children is often uneven. Although they are evaluated as developmentally advanced within their field of talent, they may resemble typically developing children in other domains. This disparity can be challenging. They usually need support from family and teachers to help them mange this uneven developmental pattern. They need help acquiring emotional and social skills essential for their future development. For example, many talented and gifted children experience peer isolation, learning frustration, and boredom. If pressure-to-achieve is too great, they risk burn out at an early age.

Training performing artists requires specific skills, needs, and demands. Beyond the obvious hours of practice, coaching, and instruction, performers must learn to differentiate between deliberate practice and rote repetition. Engaging in deliberate practice requires focus on specific details while executing a skill. Motivation and persistence are essential ingredients to sustain deliberate practice sessions. The adage that it takes ten years or 10,000 hours to reach expertise in the performing arts is correct, but it also includes the application of deliberate practice. Breaking tasks into smaller chunks, focusing on smaller details to refine performance, and increasing the speed of memory retrieval are all components of deliberate practice.

Performing artists must also train their creativity. A regular training routine that combines structured and unstructured (improvisation) tasks optimally promotes skill acquisition and expressivity. Physical stamina and endurance must be cultivated, along with a sense of self-determination. Young performers must learn that they have autonomy and are the “directors” of their own training. If they are disenfranchised from a sense of autonomy, then self-esteem and self-efficacy are compromised. Performers also need to acquire skills in emotional expressivity and emotional regulation. They must learn to tolerate high-arousal physiological states and appraise them as opportunities to experience flow. When these physiological demands are negatively interpreted they are experienced as performance anxiety and stage fright. Rather than physiological opportunities to optimize performance these misinterpreted high arousal states become sabotaging forces. Physical and psychological skills must all be deliberately practiced during the long years of training. And as part of this preparation, performers must be exposed to heightened performance situations. They need to manage the physical and psychological demands of lessons, rehearsals, and performances. All three situations must be trained and normalized if talent is to be realized.

Highly talented individuals venture into situations that require high performance demands. The ability to manage failure, recovery from disappointment, and balance the demands of success are all critical factors that must be addressed during the training years of performers. Helping them understand and create infrastructures that provide support, comfort, encouragement, and recovery is vital to success. Talented people cannot exist in isolation. Allied health professionals, teachers, coaches, family members, and colleagues all provide support. Training talented and gifted individuals must include an awareness and appreciation for all those who scaffold their talent and gifts.

In the words of Mikhail Baryshnikov, “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” We, as audience members, are thrilled to see performers defy what is common or expected. Artists, like Baryshnikov, offer us these moments of joy. They inspire us. And yet they are only able to manifest these exultant moments because they were once recognized for their talent, they were nurtured, and they continue to employ the essential physical, psychological, and social ingredients that support their talent.


The author of this article is Paula Thomson, Professor, Co-Director of the Performance Psychophysiology Laboratory at California State University Nortrhidge, Clinical Psychologist, and a freelance choreographer. Together with co-author and co-director S. Victoria Jaque, their book, Creativity and the Performing Artist: Behind the Mask, examines the performing artist as both the creative person and the creative product. The book focuses particularly on the nature of creativity and the psychological, physical, and social challenges that performers face.

creativity and the performing artist

We are pleased to offer you a look at the book by providing you with a chapter, “Chapter 13. Training the Performing Artist.” In this chapter, the challenges related to training performers are examined. Topics include; (1) General challenges related to training performing artists, (2) Training creativity, (3) Deliberate practice, and other factors, (4) Training musicians, (5) Training singers, (6) Training actors, (7) Training dancers, (8) Concluding remarks.

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If you would like to view additional chapters, you can do so online via ScienceDirect. If you would like to purchase a print or e-copy of the book, visit the Elsevier Store. Apply discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% off the list price and free shipping!

Read more from Paula on Performing Arts and Creativity:

Performing Artists as Protean Figures

Who is Really Creative – The Performer or the Writer, Composer, Choreographer?

Burnout, Fatigue, and Overuse in Performing Artists

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