The Tricky Business of Musical Potential

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I’ve heard it said by educators many times over the years that we are in the business of helping our students develop to their full potential. This sounds like a noble goal, and indeed it is. But what is a student’s full potential? How do we know when a student has achieved as much as they are able? I like to think of potential as I think of my weight training. I’ve been working out with dumb bells and a bench for about two years. When I started, I used relatively light weights, but they provided all the resistance I needed. After a while, I increased my reps, and later still, I started using heavier dumb bells. This continues to the present day. I have increased my reps several times. and moved on to heavier dumb bells several times. Before long I will be ready to purchase heavier dumb bells again. So what is my potential for lifting dumb bells? I don’t know because I haven’t reached it yet. I keep lifting more weight, and I keep building muscle. When I can’t lift any more in spite of my best sustained effort, I will have learned what my potential was.  When I can now longer improve, I have no more potential. Potential is expected achievement. It is what a person can’t do yet, but will be able to do in the future.

To help a student “develop to their full potential,” teachers must challenge and prepare students to achieve more. They must design learning tasks that the student has a realistic chance of completing successfully, but which also presents a moderate degree of challenge.

I assume my students have not reached their potential until they prove otherwise. If they can sing in unison, I give them two-parts. If they can sing in two parts, I give them three. If they can play in triple and duple meters, I give them mixed meter. If they can play up to high F on the clarinet, I give them a piece with a high F-sharp. I keep introducing more challenge, and work on skills so skill sets keep up with the increasing levels of challenge.

The truth is, most students (and teachers for that matter) don’t ever reach their potential. They reach someone else’s i-get-itmodest expectations which masquerades as success. If your students are getting everything right you give them in a short period of time, you aren’t giving them enough challenge. If they are disinterested and unmotivated, you have either given them too much or too little challenge in relation to their skill set. The two must be kept in balance. Skills include hearing tonal patterns and rhythms in one’s mind, and being able to accurately and freely produce them with the voice and then on instruments. From these essential skills, others specific to a particular instrument or musical style can be taught. Without these skills, students’ ability to make music will be severely limited, often to only learning from rote. Once the student is proficient at these skills, they can fully engage with all aspects of music making, and take on higher levels of challenge with a high degree of motivation and confidence.

Let’s now see how managing skill and challenge in a lesson might work. Suppose I am teaching sight singing. I have taught the students fixed do solfege, and have a C major scale notated on a treble staff on the board at the front of the room. Under each note I have written the solfege. All singing is done with solfege. I begin by having the class sing the scale. I then use a pointer to select notes out of order, and have the class sing whichever note I point to. I then begin erasing the solfege syllables, one at a time, as I continue to point to pitches for the class to sing. Eventually, all of the solfege syllables are erased, and the class can sing any combination of pitches accurately with the correct solfege syllable. So far, I have built skill level in sight singing from the board. Now suppose I pass out printed sight singing exercises that use four of the notes just practiced. The notes on the printed page look different that the ones on the board—they are smaller, in a different font, and have varying rhythms. The students must first name the pitches by solfege syllable as they sing the pitch. Rhythm is not a concern at this point. The challenge is to transfer sight singing skill from the board to the printed page. Now I begin to call on individual students to sing one measure, because they won’t meet the challenge singing in groups. Because only a few pitches are used in the exercise, and because I have every student following the music while the one child is singing, soon through repetition of the same four pitches, all know the four pitches, can recognize them in the music, and can sing them in tune. Now that the skill level has risen to the necessary level, and the children have met the challenge, I can raise the challenge level. Now we will add rhythm. It might be necessary for me to review some rhythm patterns from notation. If so, I would do this here. Then, I will have the class sing the exercise in solfege with the correct rhythm. I will sing occasional rhythms or pitches with them, but leave the class to sing most of the exercise without my guidance. I would finish by having individual students sing measures as before, but this time with the correct rhythm.

All of this would take the first third of a half-hour class. From there I would have the class do performance activities, including singing song repertoire, accompanying on instruments or with sung accompaniment. Occasionally I will point out tonal or rhythm patterns we read in the exercise to reinforce them. By continually pushing the skills and the challenge, I continue on the journey to some place in the future that might exist, which many call reaching one’s potential. I hope I never reach mine, because I never want to stop learning, growing, and improving.

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