Facing the Challenges of Growing Up Gifted Unlike most folks people her age (or older), Chelsea Dock has performed on the piano at Madison Square Garden and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Chelsea is only twelve years old; she started performing at the age of six. She, her father, and an expert take us inside the lives of child prodigies.
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Facing the Challenges of Growing Up Gifted

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Facing the Challenges of Growing Up Gifted

Facing the Challenges of Growing Up Gifted

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This is News & Notes. I am Farai Chideya. Today, we continue our series on kids with the look at gifted children. Meet 12-year-old Chelsea Dock. She plays the piano with the skill of a professional many time her age and her story goes back to her early childhood. Chelsea began taking piano lessons when she was four and a half years old. And a year later, she was winning piano competitions. Here's Chelsea performing when she was only six years old.

(Soundbite of Chelsea Dock playing the piano)

CHIDEYA: It's beautiful music, but every gift brings challenges. So how does Chelsea and her family deal with them? In a few minutes will talk about how you can tell if your child is gifted, but right now we're joined by Chelsea Dock and her father, Warren Dock. It's great to have you both on, how are you doing?

Mr. WARREN DOCK (Chelsea's Father): Fine, thank you for having us.

CHIDEYA: Hey, Chelsea.

Ms. CHELSEA DOCK (Child Prodigy): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So, I absolutely love your playing. I myself took piano lessons but I was - let's put this way, it's not so successful on my end. I may take it up again but not so much successful right now. So what - when you think about the piano, what does it mean to you?

Ms. DOCK: Well, I think of like a bunch of like different instruments. How I could like mimic it.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, the piano can kind of be a basis for - I mean, a lot of song writers used the piano because you can create a whole - a scene. And then you can take it, and you can add other instruments to it. But how do you hear? Because from what I understand, when you were younger, you weren't really reading music as much as you were just getting up on the piano and playing? Is that right?

Ms. DOCK: Yeah, I kind of picked it all up by ear.

CHIDEYA: Why did - how - I mean, can you describe what it means to you to be able to hear something and just play it. I mean, most people can't do that.

Ms. DOCK: Well, I would say I was blessed with the gift because like I just said, not a lot of people could do it. So it's like for me to be able to hear stuff and pick it up. Like maybe, I can't play the whole piece but I could pick like the melody, then I could say I definitely have been blessed with a gift from God.

CHIDEYA: Warren, when did you first know that your daughter had a talent that was beyond just being a good student or anything that is typical for a kid taking music lessons?

Mr. DOCK: I would say when she's about three and a half because my older siblings were taking structured music lessons at the conservatory. And what she did, when she had began to just go over to the piano and mimic some of the pieces that they were playing without having any lessons. But I still waited about six months to a year because, you know, I really didn't understand at the time what I had on my hands. So probably about four years old, I took her to the same teacher that was teaching them, and she took her as a student. And six months later, she was playing in public.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about that playing in public thing because it's one thing to be gifted, it's another thing to have the presence and you know, the composure to be out among a group of people. And some kids are shy, they don't like, you know, performing for others. What made you confident that she could deal with being in a situation where other people were observing her?

Ms. DOCK: Well, she made me confident because it was something that she wanted to do. Because before she wasn't even ready to perform in public she would, you know, she saw - I guess she saw her brother and her sisters doing it, and she kept prompting that she wanted to go out there and play. And I was always like, oh, Chelsea, you know, you don't have any pieces to play right now, you know. So I knew she had the confidence to play in public. And after she did her first performance, you know, it solidified it right there that, you know, she had the ability to perform in front of an audience, regardless of the size.

CHIDEYA: Regardless of the size, Chelsea, you performed at Madison Square Garden, and so, you're kind of up there with the Rolling Stones and all these other rock stars and Bruce Springsteen, you know, as well as these, you know, some of the biggest names in sports. And you were performing, you know, now it's half a lifetime ago for you. Do you remember that evening and what was it like to you?

Ms. DOCK: Yeah, the first time when I was six or seven, that was the most exciting part because when I got there, it was completely empty and I was like, oh, this is OK. And then I realized and all is like, wow, look at all these people and the reaction of after I played, just like, I was just like, wow, like kind of overwhelming.

CHIDEYA: People love you. Do you play for accolades? Do you play - and there is certainly nothing wrong with that, but to you play for applause? Or do you play for other reasons?

Ms. DOCK: No. I like performing because like, I like, just like sharing my talent, and hopefully becoming a positive influence for others.

CHIDEYA: Do you consider yourself someone who can get along well with other people your age? Or do you feel like you don't have a lot in common with them given what you do?

Ms. DOCK: Well, I feel like I can get along perfectly like. So I can play the piano they can have different talent and we could still get along.

CHIDEYA: What do you like besides the piano?

Ms. DOCK: Like everyday things or like specifics...

CHIDEYA: Everyday things.

Ms. DOCK: Oh, I like the usual stuff like computer, phones, hanging out with my friends, TV, video games those things.

CHIDEYA: Text messaging, do you text message a lot?

Ms. DOCK: Well, my phone doesn't have texting.

CHIDEYA: Uh-oh, Dad was smart about that, huh?

Mr. DOCK: Oh, yeah.

Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: You don't want her running up your bill, huh?

Mr. DOCK: Oh, no, no. no, I might - one of my daughters did that, and I learned my lesson.

CHIDEYA: Right, right. So you - how many children do you have, Warren?

Mr. DOCK: I have five children.

CHIDEYA: Five children. And so, how does this - I mean, do you ever feel torn between trying to make sure Chelsea has time to have her gifts flourish and making time for all of the kids. Do you ever feel like you have a hard situation there?

Mr. DOCK: Not really because of the amount of support I get from my other children and being that they're older than her, three of them are older than her. They support what we are trying to do. You know, one would help her with her hair and, you know, they take her shopping, and they also get to enjoy the perks of Chelsea being able to perform in certain place because when she goes a lot of times it is set up so that the rest of the family, you know, gets to enjoy the situation also.

CHIDEYA: When you're taking her out on these, you know, these competitions, I presume that requires some logistics: travel, pulling together the money to travel, making sure that someone's there to travel with her. Is that difficult?

Mr. DOCK: Not really because it's all about preparation, you know. I cannot say it's difficult because of how we basically prepare for whatever were are going to do. And so when the opportunity comes for us to do it, the situation arises that we have to do the performance, she's usually always ready. And there is no, you know, no pressure.

CHIDEYA: Take me through the just complete boring rundown, like if there is a performance, let's say there is a performance out-of-town, what do you have to do? Like get up in the morning, pack the suitcase, hustle, just give me a sense of what you have to do?

Mr. DOCK: OK. It depends on the magnitude of the performance like when we did the CMA's in Nashville or we did the Ellen Show, in that type of preparation you have to be on point because everything, as far as who were are performing for is very scheduled. So when we did CMA's we made sure for example, we got up in time to get to the airport in time so we could check our bags and not miss the flight, you know. When we get to the - wherever been you were going to, we make sure we check in to the hotel. Make sure she's comfortable. Make sure our connections are tight with the people who were going to be performing for, and you know, we meet the necessary members of that personnel. And just to kind of like ride with their schedule because once we get to the venue, they pretty much take over Chelsea, and you know, because they have a certain set-up that they want her to fit in. So, we just make sure that Chelsea's rested and comfortable.

CHIDEYA: So if you are just joining us, we are talking with Chelsea and Warren Dock. Chelsea is a 12-year-old piano player and child prodigy. And I am going to bring Donna Ford into the conversation. So, she's a professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She's studies gifted African-American and minority children. Hey, Donna.

Professor DONNA FORD (Education Department, Vanderbilt University): Hello.

Mr. DOCK: Hey, Donna.

Prof. FORD: Hello.

Mr. DOCK: Hi, Donna.

Prof. FORD: Hi.

CHIDEYA: So, when you are listening to Chelsea and Warren talk, I asked Warren a little bit about whether or not it ever throws the family off to have someone who is constantly going to competitions and he's told us, no, that they all work together as a team. But does that ever happen, when you have one kid who has a specific talent? Does it ever kind of throw families off?

Ms. FORD: I think it really depends on the relationship that family members have with each other and family dynamics. So in some families, it can work well and in other families, it might not work well. I think also it depend on the age of the child. One of the things Warren mentioned was that - I think he said three of the children were older, and so there's less likely to be as much competition with the child who's younger, there's more likely to instead be support.

CHIDEYA: People use different words - gifted, prodigy, genius. What do those terms really mean on a practical level, and are they interchangeable or do they mean different things to you?

Prof. FORD: They mean different things to me. Gifted is at the heart of both being a child prodigy and a genius. So for example, if you're gifted, it means that you perform that gift or talent as well above someone else of the same age, experience, and background. When I think of genius, I think more of someone who is intellectually more advanced or academically more advanced. When I think of prodigy, I think of someone who's much more advanced in terms of visual and performing arts like playing of musical instrument, voice, dance, chess, and things of that nature. So again, there is a fine difference, but there is a difference.

CHIDEYA: You were yourself identified as gifted as a child. What were the pros and cons of that?

Prof. FORD: Socially, there were a lot of - cons, I'm sorry. In other words, there's a lot of peer pressure and teasing and jealousy and envy when I, you know, recall my childhood experiences. But there are also positives because you have higher teacher expectations, parents seem to have higher expectations for you. You seem to, you know, do better in the long run academically and professionally. So, being gifted and talented, and I think you said this earlier, you know, every gift and talent comes with some kind of challenge. And you know, parents and educators really have to work with students to make sure that those challenges don't hold a child back, but instead we're able to nurture the gifts and talents that every individual has.

CHIDEYA: Chelsea, when you go to school, and then also when you go out on the road for competitions and dates, do you often find yourself being the only kid of color in certain situations? I mean, how does this mean to you? Are you looking around now and sort of seeing how race plays out with this, and are you, you know, what do you think about diversity within the kind of work that you do as a pianist?

Ms. DOCK: Well, like when I go out, I usually don't see many minorities or like African-American or Hispanic whatever. I don't know why, because maybe they don't feel like they could do it because they see these other people of different nationality. But I'm starting to notice that if I really show I can influence other kids into trying to pursue this whether Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian, whatever.

CHIDEYA: Warren, how do you deal with the diversity issue within what your daughter does.

Mr. DOCK: Well, the most difficult part I have with this is that the discrimination that she has to deal with, being an African-American playing classical music. That's a serious problem. And also, I have a problem with getting the African-American community to recognize Chelsea, whereas the other communities in the media have embraced Chelsea by putting her on TV, and you know, when think about the national situation, that's the number one country that where any country artist would, you know, dream of performing with Chelsea, get the opportunity to perform there, the Ellen show, and she performs at Madison Square Garden, you know, probably seven or eight times. But when I'm, but trying to reach out to the African-American community to let them know that we have a child prodigy, you know, such as Philippe Schure (ph), that we should introduce to our children. I'm having a very difficult time.

Prof. FORD: I wanted to, first of all, commend Chelsea for trying to bring other people along and be a role model.

Ms. DOCK: Thank you.

Prof. FORD: And also - you're welcome. I also want to reinforce what both of them have said, and that is that there are very few minority students, especially African-American students identified as gifted. And so in Chelsea's situation, she is less likely to see an African-American who is not just able to play the piano well, but even in school, they are less likely to see African-Americans be identified as gifted or if they're at the high school level, to participate in advanced placement classes. We are...

CHIDEYA: Do you think that's because they are not gifted children or because they are not identified?

Prof. FORD: Every group has individuals at a comparable rate who are gifted, and I really want that to be cleared. The problem is, too often, African-American students are not identified as gifted. We are under-represented in gifted programs by almost 50 percent. In other words, African-American students represent about 17 percent of the school population, but only about nine percent of students who get identified as gifted. So that's close to 50 percent under-representation. The number one way to get identified as gifted is for teacher to refer you.

And at this point, African-Americans are the group least likely to be identified as gifted. And then the secondly, after you've been referred that you take a test, and depending on what test is chosen, you may not do well. So there are a number of variables, but I want to reiterate that every group - no group has a monopoly on being gifted and talented. African-Americans are equally gifted and talented as other groups. Just not identified.

CHIDEYA: Chelsea, you have accomplished so much at such a young age, and you don't seem like the kind of person who's really setting yourself up to just coast. So what do you want to do in the next 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years?

Ms. DOCK: Well, being that I'm only 12, I'm not quite sure yet.

CHIDEYA: That's fair.

Ms. DOCK: Yeah. But all I know is that it's going to involve music.

CHIDEYA: You love it. And Warren, what do you think about that?

Mr. DOCK: Well, I support her. You know, I've always told her, you know, because I support her academically as well as because she is an A student. And she has always been an A student and what Donna was saying was right. They give you these exams to take and depending on what type of exam it is, depends upon what type of academic situations you can get yourself involved in. But I've always told Chelsea whatever she wants to do, I'm there to support her. You know, if any time she feels that the music is getting too stressful, you know, we can just do something else. But I know this is something that she's just - I just feel something she's born to do, and she feels the same way. So I'm just here to support her in any way that I can.

Ms. DOCK: All right.

Prof. FORD: I'd like to applaud. You know, I'd like to applaud you Warren for what you just said. In other words, I think sometimes, not always, but sometimes parents can play too much emphasis on the child's gift and talent, and they become obsessed with it.

Mr. DOCK: Absolutely.

Prof. FORD: And that's about the only thing they appreciate. But when you are able to back off and relax and give Chelsea some options, meaning she's a prodigy at this, but if she loses interest in it, then perhaps it's OK. And then for her to be academically gifted, or at least performing well academically, she has a lot to fall back on. So that's just one of several strengths.

CHIDEYA: All right, we have to wrap it up. But this has been a great conversation. I wanna thank Donna Ford, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, and she joined us from studios at Vanderbilt. Also, talking to Chelsea Dock and her father, Warren Dock, at our New York studios. And coming up, we've got a little bit on a new strategy to prevent AIDS and entertainment news from Allison Samuels. You're listening to News & Notes from NPR News.

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