3 Things I Learned From My Most Gifted Students
By Dave Isaacs | August 24, 2021
Every teacher knows how much we learn from our students. The act of teaching itself makes you view the music differently as you learn to communicate it more directly. Different students’ experiences teach us problem-solving on both a technical and interpersonal level.
Teaching very gifted students is a different kind of problem-solving. There are lessons you can teach almost by rote, and others that keep you on your toes!
I think we can learn a lot from how to reach anyone from our most gifted students, but not because of their gifts. The things that come easily to the natural, intuitive musician are still things we can quantify and learn intentionally. But there’s another element, let’s call it a set of predispositions, that lead to the kind of ease, effortless skill, and passion we call talent.
1. Playing feels good
Some people are immediately comfortable holding a guitar, while for others it never stops feeling like a foreign object. Of course, the size of the instrument itself matters – an eight-year-old is better matched to a ¾-size guitar than to a full-sized dreadnought acoustic. But that won’t stop some kids from playing that big guitar. And there’s more to that than the sound.
I find the action of striking a guitar string or a piano key very satisfying on a tactile, visceral level. I believe that one reason I stayed with guitar is that my body likes the kinesthetic experience of playing it. It seems reasonable to suggest that most young people who stick with an instrument like guitar are more physically comfortable with the action of playing it.
(I make the distinction because the guitar doesn’t have the degree of “orthodox” technique that orchestral instruments do, but of course one might play a fiddle differently than a violin).
Conversely, the student who struggled probably isn’t comfortable. For this student, then, this is the problem to solve first. So ask the question, what's awkward, exactly? Why? Is it how the student holds the instrument, or where it falls on their body, or the proportion of their hands? There are a lot of variables at play, but that also means there are multiple ways to make adjustments. Too many teachers expect the student will muscle through over time, and some do. But asking specifically why something is awkward helps identify the solution. Finding those solutions can free a student’s technique and completely change their experience of playing.
2. Listen first, play second
The intuitive student learns by ear, of course. “Learning by ear” ultimately means pattern recognition: making a connection between a sonic relationship and a measurable, tactile one.
With most students, we do need to focus more on mechanics before they can begin to really hear the notes, in the sense that the movements will need to be consciously memorized before the ear is free enough to concentrate on the sound. The most gifted, though, make connections, hearing the sound first and then looking for the way to imitate it. So the student that hasn’t learned to hear the sounds first can be encouraged to listen.
Consider how an untrained ear responds to music. Let’s say for our purposes that “trained” means having a vocabulary to classify and articulate differences between sounds. Essentially, this IS what you learn in a basic theory class: the materials of music and the terms we use to classify the various elements. Having all this information doesn’t mean you can “hear” the relationships, though. So there’s often a gap between ability and knowledge in both directions.
Perhaps the intuitive musician, lacking the vocabulary or even the inclination to delineate and classify, responds more to texture and dynamics in music than notes and chords. Perhaps changes in rhythmic density and dynamic variation, having an element of changing air pressure, might be perceived more physically by the body than differences in pitch.
Perhaps, then, as we lead students through the fundamentals, we should begin with a more broad and experiential approach to ear training than identifying intervals and chord qualities. Can the student identify an overall pulse or primary driving rhythm? What about differentiating between treble and bass, fast and slow, melody and accompaniment, spacious and dense textures, or soft and loud dynamics? These are all essential in the long term, and of course different students will have an easier time with some than others. But these broad concepts also prime the ear for learning to listen with even more discernment and understanding.
3. Be willing to explore
The naturally gifted student often doesn’t wait to be told what to do, they explore. What happens if I do this? How about if I do that? Too many people feel inhibited or restricted by what they don't know, and of course the musicality of those explorations depend on the student’s natural ear. But that willingness to make a move without knowing the outcome is hugely freeing to any student, and I believe is a big part of what allows intuitive players to learn faster. Combined with the listening aspect in item 2 above, it’s a powerful tool.
Of course, you might be teaching from a method book or following a prescribed syllabus the student is obliged to follow. I’m not suggesting that any student is exempt from learning the fundamentals, or the need for a disciplined work. But I find that many of my more musically gifted students will use an exercise as a jumping off point, a starting point to explore from, and that’s something I strongly encourage as long as we’re still getting the necessary work done.
I will say that generally speaking, the most “talented” students can also be highly frustrating, because when things come easily in the beginning there is willingness to knuckle down and do the hard work. If you’re trying to stick to a program, you may find some students play constantly but refuse to practice their assignments. In this case, one might appeal to the desire to excel, and show them virtuosic etudes to get them excited.
Whether you’re trying to stick to a program or not, you may find that some of these students will really challenge you to keep them engaged. Keeping your own ears and mind open will give you clues on how to reach the ones that are already learning to find their own way.
Ultimately, there's no magic to talent, just predisposition plus a spark. Our role is to identify the predispositions, match our approach to the student’s learning style, and be the spark that cultivates the kind of love that keeps them playing for a lifetime.
A career musician and teacher, Dave Isaacs has taught music for thirty years in private lessons, workshops, and college classrooms. Since moving to Nashville in 2005, he has become known in the music community as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row” for his work coaching performers and songwriters. He maintains a busy private studio teaching guitar, piano, theory, and musicianship in private and group settings.View Author Page
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