Thursday, 23 August 2007

Views on teaching gifted and talented students:

My last lesson of the week on a sunny summer Friday afternoon; half an hour more of teaching before the weekend starts! It’s the lesson I look forward to most, not only of because when it is, but also because of who it is. My Friday 7pm student is a joy to teach, because he appears immune to all the usual problems guitar students have and understands everything I say. I would without hesitation classify him as gifted and talented because of his ability to learn so fast. Our lesson seems to fly by, and, what’s more, it’s so much fun! Every teacher encounters this type of student; the one worry we might have in the back of our minds is how to keep up….what sort of things can we do to keep the ball rolling?

As an electric guitar tutor, the majority of people asking for lessons will be beginners, with little knowledge of chords, scales, improvisation, music notation/tab, different musical styles and music theory. However, we are occasionally faced with people who fit in the “gifted and talented” bracket. Perhaps we should consider what this means; the government’s Department For Education and Skills definition is that:

“The gifted are those with high ability in one or more academic subject, and the talented are those with high ability in sport, music, visual arts and/or performing arts. Children may also have abilities, such as advanced social skills and leadership qualities that fall outside the given definitions. These should also be recognised and provided for. Gifted and talented pupils need to be given opportunities to study some, or all, subjects to a greater depth and breadth and, sometimes, at a faster pace.”

A G&T pupil often has extensive musical input; perhaps they’re from a musical family, or have studied with another tutor and become dissatisfied with their progress. They can exhibit confidence, determination, learn very fast and practise regularly. A model student! I have one such protégé, age 16, already a grade 5 pianist who also plays trombone in a school ensemble. He is a rock music fan, but open minded and keen to learn about jazz, blues, classical and “world” music styles. Very often I do not even need to demonstrate scales or chords; he can pick them up by ear, or he has already worked them out for himself. My initial feeling on seeing this ability was excitement, but trepidation. The main question is how to keep up! What can a teacher do to ensure that fast learners stay challenged and entertained by their relationship with the instrument?

To teach this type of person, effective lesson planning is crucial. I need to make sure my lessons are well paced, varied, and at least sometimes relevant to the areas they want to study – If I display a willingness to discuss the pupil’s interests, they will reciprocate and listen to my views. Striking “deals” gives the student the feeling that their own aims are important to the teacher.
I often base electric lessons for fast learners around guitar parts by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, who has a very sophisticated approach to rock guitar. He includes elements of Jazzy chord melody and chord fragmentation, arpeggios, “drone” open string chords, use of other unusual voicings such as major 7ths, dominant 7ths, 9ths and 13ths #9ths, Diminished chords, II-V-I progressions, complex funk rhythms and diverse scales in solos; e.g. the Natural Minor, modes (most notably the Mixolydian, Dorian and Phrygian), Indian-style “Ragas” and the Chromatic scale, as well as the standard blues/minor pentatonic approach. This provides plenty of material to explore, but maybe not all at once! If they concur, we might also look at learning notation and studying for grade exams.

Comparing my approach with the government’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recommends for gifted and talented students was interesting: its suggestions include: “setting more challenging tasks and expecting a higher-quality response”, “accumulative quick-fire recall work, in which the pupils echo increasingly complex patterns given by the teacher” (basically call and response), “enabling pupils to improvise within given structures. Improvisation is an effective way to allow pupils to demonstrate and develop talent”, “asking pupils to analyse and evaluate music in relation to how it is constructed, produced and influenced”, “giving them opportunities to practise and develop higher-level individual technical skills” and “letting pupils set their own tasks and see them through.”

I decided to pester a few instrumental teacher colleagues of mine with a questionnaire about their experience of working with fast learners. The feedback proved fascinating; some tutors had decades of teaching experience and everyone had plenty of ideas as to what we might do to keep G&T students happy. Once the initial excitement of discovering a student with great potential subsided, tutors became cautious about how best to handle the situation. There could be problems in group lessons; as one explained: “The main difficulty is that in group teaching situations if one student pushes quickly ahead it's difficult to keep track of what they are doing. They also feel held back by their slower peers. Sometimes it's not possible to shuffle them into a better group.”

As well as the boffin who hangs on your every word and practises diligently, there are other types of fast learning student. The DFES definition depicts G&T students as one big happy family of Harry Potters, but one guitar teacher made the very valid point that not every student displays such confidence – some fast learners can be very shy and self-effacing; music for them can be an important means of communication and expression, and someone who reads poorly may be a sensational improviser, or vice-versa. Some might find it embarrassing to be singled out for their talents, and downplay them in order to avoid the limelight, to better ‘fit in’ with average achievers. There may well be a few rough diamonds skulking around at the back of the classroom!

It was noted that, at the opposite extreme, some students can become lazy or complacent. One teacher said the situation was like “the tortoise and the hare”, in that slower learners often practised more regularly and realised their potential. Another said that G&Ts could even become arrogant: “I had to convince them that they didn’t know it all yet, and that maybe I knew a thing or two as well.”

There was, however, a consensus that the more able type of student in particular tends to learn in fast bursts, and that therefore it was permissible to “let them off” if they did not always progress quickly.

Guitar tutor Joseph O’Connor concurs in his book “Not Pulling Strings” when he states: “The shape of the ‘performance curve’ is worth remembering when students do not seem to make any evident progress for some time. They will be on a plateau and will improve, if they wish to, given time, but it is impossible to predict when.”

There is a danger that the teacher might also become complacent, and hold the student in such high regard that they assume that everything they have said has sunk in straight away; this can pose real problems in exam situations, as the student might think they will breeze through, only to find that they didn’t understand or remember things as well as their teacher thought they had. A poor exam result when they had expected to do well could be a real knock to confidence, and put the student off further examinations. They may feel they have “let the teacher down” or, just as bad, that their teacher let them down, and take a negative view of the lessons that had previously been so much fun.

It was noted that persuading fast learners to follow a coherent structure could be difficult – such students want to pursue the things that they are most interested in; they feel reined in by less enjoyable tasks. One teacher observed: “It’s hard to get them to accept that they need to learn ‘boring’ things like scales, and not just go their own way making it up as they bumble along.”
Many commented that there is a temptation to inundate the student with material; tutors warned of the dangers of overloading a student with technical exercises or pushing them through grade exams too quickly. It might be better to use their ability to delve into a piece in depth; one teacher noted: “You feel an urge to move them along quickly; rather, I try to really explore how to play a piece, in terms of technique, expression and dynamics.” O’Connor again agrees: “One of the secrets of good teaching is the ability to organise and sequence chunks for each individual learner; this makes the progress smooth and easy. Overload in either number or complexity of the chunks results in difficulty and frustration. However naturally a student takes to the instrument at the beginning, it is worth resisting the temptation to add new topics.”

English teacher Anthony Haynes uses the following analogy to explain pupils’ attitudes to tasks that are pitched too low or high:

“In trying to set the level of expectation at the optimal level for your pupils, think of them as people who see a bus coming. If they’re already waiting at the bus stop, or very near, they won’t do much running – they know they’ll catch the bus anyway. They won’t bother running either if they’re a long way from the stop – they know they won’t catch it. They need to be fairly near to really stretch themselves.”

Another important point made is that students risk injury from over-practising – particularly if their posture or technique is poor. The principal at Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre cited a case where a classical guitarist who religiously followed the instructions from a practice DVD for many hours a day began to suffer from severe Repetitive Strain Injury. This is why better technique is so important. As chiropractor and Alexander Technique teacher Don Weed points out “if you practise something the wrong way for eight hours a day, all that will happen is that you will get extremely good at doing it the wrong way.”

Once the dangers had been considered, we discussed what activities a tutor could provide for a fast learner; forming a solid technique was considered important, as was developing reading skills. It was unsurprising, if sad, that improvisation was rarely mentioned. It seems like the last frontier of music tuition!

One teacher provided many ideas: “Technical exercises are good but don’t do too much! Grades are good, but I don’t force anyone. They enjoy duets and are an absolute asset for an ensemble. Get them to perform somewhere. They will learn a lot from a concert situation and it gives them a target to work towards.”

In terms of how to treat such people, one tutor said that in his experience praise was less important than with less able students, counterproductive even: “Be economical with your praise – they know when you’re exaggerating anyway.” Another noted that such students might feel pressured by high expectations, and that we shouldn’t forget that “they are just human after all! They will respond very positively - if you get to know them.”

I try to incorporate some of these ideas into my lessons and to focus on improvisation. Given that, as jazz guitarist Jim Hall says; “listening is still the key”, I try to include activities which encourage it, even if it is simply playing an interesting piece of music on the hi-fi for discussion it as the student unpacks their instrument. One interviewee echoed this idea, saying that we should “get them to listen to lots of music other than guitar, especially taking note of phrasing and form.” This applies to both classical playing and electric styles; transcribing solos or chord sequences is a common task given to jazz students at university level and worth incorporating into lesson plans. If we learn a few phrases this develops a vocabulary for improvising.

I think that reactive teaching can work well with advanced students; there are often specific types of guitar playing that they want to know about, and draw inspiration from learning their choice of music. The advantage of this is that once one student has asked how to play, for example, the solo from a song, it can be duplicated and integrated into a lesson plan and scheme of work. I can consider what scales and techniques it uses and whether I can tie it into something that relates to the grade we are working on. It is probably better not to leap into the activity straight away, but rather to file the idea for the near future. Very often a teacher can learn from students’ specialist interests. Someone who brings in a song featuring, for example, slide guitar, may inspire me to find out more about this particular style.

Looking at questionnaire responses and my own teaching past, I can see that tutors often needed to heavily customise their standard lesson plans, and be very aware of potential problems. G&T students need a tutor who can help them explore their limits without pushing them over the edge. Just like everyone else!

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