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Music education pathways for underage gifted learners’ talent development

This blog post addresses the various specialist systems for talent development in music available worldwide to underage gifted/talented children and adolescents.

Your child is highly gifted for music: What next?

Imagine you are the parent of a child who has been attending music lessons for a little while, and it becomes clear that s/he displays an unusual learning speed with their instrument. You wonder what to do, but as a busy working parent, you go on as usual with your child’s music-learning routine for some time. Same school, same teachers, same peers, same schedule. At some point, it becomes essential to truly tackle this situation because your child starts to become frustrated with their music lessons and musical environment. The ways this shows are unsettling for you: misbehaviour, underperforming, loss of motivation… There is nothing wrong with your child’s current learning environment, but there is now a need for a different, more specialised one.

Well, you are facing one of the most complex dilemmas in human learning: how to support the talent development of a gifted child—whose “gifts” are literally “burning” inside—without sacrificing other aspects of their lives, such as the child’s socio-emotional development. You are confronted with something difficult to balance. On the one hand, your child simply needs more stimulation, more intensity, more challenges (and when that is provided, s/he thrives musically!); yet your child should have free time and experience the beauty (and creativity) of boredom, be allowed to make mistakes, struggle with other subjects that are not so easy for them, and socialise with peers who are representative of the entire spectrum of human abilities—nothing else and nothing more than what your child will face out there in the real world throughout life.

If you find yourself in this situation, rest assured you are not alone, and know that there are many options for your child to learn on their unique path. This blog will introduce you to the most widespread music education systems out there for underage gifted learners’ talent development. These systems are familiar enough for those parents of gifted/talented learners who belong to the music industry. Yet, most parents are not part of that context, which is why I wanted to share this information with you. 

As shown in Graphic 1 below, these systems respond to both formal systems in which, often, “access is controlled through a quota of limited available places” (Gagné, 2021, p. 97) and non-formal education. Generally, students (mostly underage children between 7-17 years old) in most of these settings are accepted after a highly competitive audition process. These programs have a variety of names across the world, such as “Talent Department/Lab”, “Junior Academy”, “Gifted/Talent Program”, “Pre-College”, and “High School”, but they are also commonly referred to as “acceleration”, “tracking”, “enrichment”, “streaming”, and even “hot” programs. Not all are conducive to certification, and not all are aimed at professionalism in music. 

Graphic 1. Formal and non-formal music education systems for underage gifted learners’ talent development.

[Note: The institutional examples used in this blog post to illustrate the different educational systems do not aim to be prescriptive or exhaustive but to give an idea of the systems themselves.]

Pre-college gifted/talented departments or programs in collaboration with music universities

Pre-college programs within the umbrella of higher music education institutions offer accelerated progression in music for gifted and talented children and adolescents. This is one of the most common systems for talent development in music. Students in these programs can generally use the same infrastructures, performance possibilities, and expert teachers as those enrolled in the official undergraduate and graduate programs within such universities or superior conservatoires (i.e., Bachelor’s, Master’s, Licentiate degree, Doctoral degree, Postgraduate Diploma). Most pre-college programs do not conduce to professional qualification, and some offer pre-professional certification for students. The function of these programs is often that of identifying students with the potential to become professionals (e.g., Haroutounian, 2002) and being a “breeding ground” for the official programs while sustaining the prestige of the institution (in line with Borland, 1989). In any case, underage students selected to study in these programs/departments coexist with adult students, display high performance proficiency levels, and are expected to understand that these programs are not a hobby. Within these specialist departments/programs, underage students can also be exposed to a compacted curriculum and multiple parallel teachers. There are dozens and dozens of such programs worldwide, particularly in Asia and the United States, but also in Europe, such as the Junior Academy at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki or the Talent Lab at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. 

Higher education institutions that accept gifted /talented minors to their (under)graduate programs

Higher education institutions without pre-college departments/programs that accept underage students to officially study in their undergraduate and graduate programs are also rather common. They display different names such as “superior conservatoire/conservatory”, “conservatorium”, or “music university”. This is a system commonly found in Europe, which follows the tradition of the first conservatoires in Naples in the 16th to 18th centuries, as well as its more structured form inspired by the Leipzig Conservatoire funded in 1843 by Felix Mendelssohn (a musical prodigy himself). Like the pre-college system mentioned above, in these settings, underage students coexist with adults within the same institutional walls, with the difference being that here, they are officially enrolled in (under)graduate programs and will, therefore, obtain a professional degree after completion of the studies. To enter such universities as an underage learner, one needs to 1) pass the audition in the same way as any student over 18 years old would (i.e., performing proficiency) and 2) pass a literacy exam where general school subjects’ knowledge will be assessed (i.e., general knowledge proficiency)—this exam is needed because many of these students have not finished their high school, and they should demonstrate sufficient general knowledge in order to comprehend higher order thinking subjects such as music history, music harmony, etc. Once underage students are offered a study place in these institutions, they have the option to pursue two or more academic years at the same time or skip a grade—depending on their learning speed and other matters.

Elite music universities exclusive for highly gifted/talented learners

Universities that are dedicated almost exclusively to catering for highly gifted and talented underage students are not very numerous, but they are rather sought after due to their reputation and the special opportunities offered to these learners—from world-leading teachers and an enriched curriculum that can sometimes be tailor-made, to performing opportunities at fantastic venues and with marvellous conductors and orchestras. These institutions offer official programs that aim at professionalism, extreme specialisation, and excellence in music (in line with Gross, 2016; Pfeiffer, 2013; in music, see López-Íñiguez & Westerlund, 2023). Education in these universities takes place often ‘at rates faster or at ages younger than conventional’ (Pressey, 1949, p.2), with an extremely low rate of acceptance, and where the youngest applicants are often favoured. One of the reasons for children and adolescents to enrol in these universities is to be exposed to peers of similar age and characteristics, as well as more challenging activities that nurture their abilities, interests, and knowledge (in line with Roger, 2002). Such universities include, for example, the Reina Sofía School of Music in Madrid or the Juilliard School in New York.

High (music) schools for gifted/talented learners not associated with universities

Independent high schools of music or high schools within the general education system provide underage gifted/talented learners with a more challenging and inspiring opportunity than they are provided within their general music classrooms. These schools do not belong to universities and do not collaborate “officially” with higher education (although there could be some sort of extemporeexchange). These schools serve as tracking systems to cater for gifted/talented underage students without pressure to undertake professional education. Thus, students in these settings do not get a professional qualification, nor are they expected to become professionals, despite their high proficiency levels in their musical discipline—in fact, many of these students are highly proficient in music but later specialise in something else. These students are children and adolescents who study with similar-age peers. Teachers in high (music) schools often hold permanent or temporary positions at this educational level, specialise in teaching these types of students, and do not necessarily teach at universities (although there might be some cases where they combine both roles). Some examples include the Yehudi Menuhin School in London or the National Centre for Music Talents in Stockholm.

Music learning communities that cater for gifted/talented learners when needed

Within the realm of non-formal education, people are familiar with “El Sistema” in Venezuela, which caters for a rather diverse group of learners in an impoverished situation, among which gifted/talented underage music students are also found. Another publicly financed, voluntary music education system that reaches several thousands of students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and provides high-quality tuition at all levels is that of the Municipal “Symphonic” Wind Bands of the Valencian Community in Spain. These community systems have many things in common: they attend to the diversity and inclusion of all students, but they also provide specialist tuition when encountering children and teenagers who display special potential. This can take the form of additional learning hours with multiple parallel teachers, more performance opportunities, better musical instruments, helping them find donors/sponsors, etc.

Private tuition with world-class and highly selective music teachers

Last but not least, there is a system most people who are involved in music education in one way or another are familiar with: receiving private tuition with well-known, extremely selective teachers. There are thousands of examples of such teachers all over the world, and the forms of teaching and learning can range from being representative of the extreme versions of the master-apprentice tradition to great examples of collaboration, exploration, and constructive forms of learning. In most countries where one or more of the systems described above are available, this type of tuition is an “extra” to enrich the learning of particularly gifted/talented students. In some developing countries, though, this is the only possibility for such students. Thus, it is up to the teacher to handle lessons ethically, as there is a lack of an “official” institution (and therefore control overseeing tuition) behind it. In most countries, private tuition is remunerated with cash, but in other cases, there is an exchange of “favours” between underprivileged students and teachers, which often involves building the prestige of the teacher by, for example, constantly acknowledging their mentorship.

Concluding thoughts: Are these specialist programs “good” for gifted children?

Hopefully, this blog post gave you enough information about the educational possibilities for your gifted child. Yet, the information above will not help you decide which of these systems aligns with your child’s best interests. Whether these programs are justifiable or not, and whether some countries have adequate official education policies for gifted/talented learners or not (and why), are matters for plenty of research and probably a few more blog posts. As Pfeiffer (2013) brilliantly posed, “[i]n this era of increased accountability in education, it is imperative that programs for the gifted are able to justify their existence and provide actual evidence that they make a real difference in the lives of the students that they serve.” (p. 107). For me, and for the research project I undertake, paraphrasing Pfeiffer, “making a real difference” in gifted/talented learners’ lives is not a question of exclusively developing their musical talents, but helping them to thrive in life and develop as rounded humans—not only musically. However, as this blog post is rather lengthy already, I shall tackle whether such acceleration and/or enrichment programs are beneficial for these students in future blog entries. Stay tuned!

About this blog post

This blog post has been written to mark UNICEF’s World Children’s Day, which is celebrated annually on November 20. #WorldChildrensDay is a global day of action to mark the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The post addresses the various specialist systems for talent development in music available worldwide to underage gifted/talented children and adolescents. This post is part of the blog post series related to the author’s 5-year research project:“The Politics of Care in the Professional Education of Children Gifted for Music” (2022-2027), funded by the Research Council of Finland.

Read more about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Read more about the “Caring for Musically Gifted Children” project

Cite as: “López-Íñiguez, G. (2023, November 20. Music education pathways for underage gifted learner’s talent development. Uniarts Helsinki’s Emerging Perspectives on Instrumental Pedagogy blog. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.10470968


Dr. Guadalupe López-Íñiguez, University Researcher, Academy Research Fellow, and Docent at Uniarts Helsinki.


  • Borland, J. H. (1989). Planning and implementing programs for the gifted. Teachers College Press.
  • Gagné, F. (2021). Differentiating giftedness from talent. The DMGT perspective on talent development. Routledge.
  • Haroutounian, J. (2002). Musical talent. Kindling the spark: recognizing and developing musical potential. Oxford University Press.
  • Gross, M. U. M. (2016). To group or not to group. Is that the question? In C. Smith (Ed.), Including the gifted and talented (pp. 119-137). Routledge. 
  • López-Íñiguez, G., & Westerlund, H. (2023).  The politics of care in the education of children gifted for music: A systems view. In K. S. Hendricks (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of care in music education (pp. 115–129). Oxford University Press.
  • Pfeiffer, S. I. (2013). Serving the gifted. Evidence-based clinical and psychoeducational practice. Routledge.
  • Pressey, S. L. (1949). Educational acceleration: appraisal of basic problems. Ohio State University.
  • Rogers, K. B. (2002). Effects of acceleration on gifted learners. In M. Neihart, S. M. Weiss, N. M. Robinson, & S. M. Moon (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children (pp. 3-12). Prufrock Press.

Emerging Perspectives on Instrumental Pedagogy

This blog offers new approaches and viewpoints to instrumental pedagogy at all educational levels, from music schools to higher education. The particular focus of this blog is on student-centered pedagogies that prioritize the physical and psychological health of music students, support their socio-emotional development, and challenge overused power hierarchies in the music studio. The blog is written by Dr. Guadalupe López-Íñiguez, University Researcher, Academy Research Fellow, and Docent at Uniarts Helsinki.

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