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2. Facets of musical potential: what does potential look like?

Facets of musical potential: what does potential look like?

It can be quite straightforward to spot ability, or potential ability, if you know what you're looking for, or if you know what you'd like to see. But harder if you don't!

Working with schools, music leaders, teachers and music organisations, Awards for Young Musicians identified a set of 'facets of musical potential'.

The facets

Facets of musical potential are:

1) Enjoyment

2) Active listening

3) Absorption in the music

4) Commitment to the process

5) Inclination to explore

6) Inclination to lead

7) Memory

8) Expression


9) Close relationship with instrument

10) An awareness of audience

11) Choice of music

12) Ambition

General observations

This list of twelve facets for helping identify musical potential is by no means exhaustive and is not hierarchically based, although we have put some thought into the order in which they are presented. An original list of nine facets emerged from our first training day with PGCE students as part of which they looked at identifying individual students who had auditioned for South West Music School (SWMS). This list was then clarified as part of an external evaluation of the programme by senior figures in music education. As a result of our subsequent research into identifying musical potential in a group setting we initially expanded the list to sixteen. After further consultation (within our current external evaluation) with a different group of experienced music leaders we have combined some of the facets to end up with this practical list. We have several video examples for each of the first eight facets.

Some of the facets on our original list were clearly primarily related to observing students who were already proficient on voice/instrument in a one-to-one situation (e.g. an audition) or over a longer period of time. While these are important aspects of musical potential they are not so obviously observable within a group context, and for these reasons we have chosen not to include facets 9-12 in the main core list. We did do some interviews with the young people who took part in our practical sessions and a range of responses relating to 9-12 did emerge (especially regarding ‘ambition’ which is a very important facet in terms of how a child might develop their musical potential), but we have chosen to focus on the first eight as we believe that these can be clearly observable in one or two group music-making sessions without having much background information about the young people.

Where did we look for these facets of potential?

The first pilot group we worked with was a Year 3 primary school class. We observed many examples of musical potential from working with a full class group and so decided to extend the project to a number of other groups using (essentially) the same starting materials.  We chose to work within one geographical area and to look at groups both within the formal educational establishment (schools) and those beyond. We led sessions with a Year 8 class at a local comprehensive high school. We also worked at a local ‘rock school,‘ operating three nights a week, a local music service (lead organisation of the Hub) offering different ensembles (string groups, wind bands, percussion groups etc.) meeting one evening per week, and South West Music School, the regional organisation for talented young musicians.

Primary school

A small primary school, based in a seaside town in the South West, for children aged between 3 and 11 years old.  There are just over 200 children on the roll (i.e. one class per year group) and the school also has a 50 place nursery.  In its most recent Ofsted inspection it was judged ‘a good school with outstanding features.’ In 2010 we spent two sessions with a then Year 3 class of 27 children.

Hugh’s commentary on the process:

‘In 2010 Bob and I spent two sessions of approximately one hour with the class and identified and documented several examples of musical potential that were very different.  In a subsequent conversation with the school’s music co-ordinator she said she’d never spotted one of the children that we’d identified as having potential before we’d worked with the class.  For the first session we stacked up tables at the side of the class room, bringing in instruments and setting up film cameras.  On day one we used a static camera on a tripod and one hand-held flip camera and on day two we used the static camera and three hand held flip cameras. The children arrived, were registered and then I led them from 9.00 until break at 10.15. We were also joined by the class teacher, the school music co-ordinator, the Torbay Council music co-ordinator and the directors of Awards for Young Musicians and Music Leader South West.  Everyone (apart from the class teacher) then joined Bob and I for analysis of the filmed material. 

Secondary school

The secondary school featured here is a comprehensive school based in a coastal town in the South West.  It’s the largest of the town’s secondary schools and is based on two sites, giving it the feel of two smaller schools. In its most recent Ofsted report it was judged an outstanding school.

There are 8 classes per year and the classes are streamed academically.  The Head of Music works from a large main classroom, with keyboards on desks around the sides of the room (many of the lessons are designed with students using the keyboards and listening on headphones). For Hugh’s sessions the chairs were facing into the room in a semi-circle: instruments were brought in and other furniture moved to create a larger working space.

Hugh worked on two successive Wednesday mornings with a class of Year 8 students (the second session was just prior to a school trip, hence the lack of uniform). The class was ʻrankedʼ fifth out of eight in terms of academic ability: it contained 22 students who attended both the sessions (7 girls and 15 boys).  Two students excluded themselves from the sessions because they didn’t want to be filmed, whilst one other had to be asked to leave.

Hugh’s commentary on the process:

During our two sessions in this setting and afterwards during the analysis, we were looking for individuals from this class of young people, who, in different ways, showed musical potential. There was one obvious person (J) from across the two sessions who showed a consistency in terms of rhythmical playing and enjoyment, musically and verbally responding to questions and coming up with creative ideas. There were others who were creative and who often came up with ideas and invented new ways of playing their instruments, but who were not so rooted within the session (J).  There were also a number of students who were generally very solid and reliable rhythmically and who made good musical choices as to what to play, but who were not noticeably creative or expressive (G and J).

As with all of the groups we worked with there were several young people who emerged in different ways as having musical potential. For this group we decided to choose two students who generally displayed a good number of the facets of potential we’ve identified.  We also chose a student who only really emerged through watching and analysing the film. He does not have evident musical or instrumental skills, but does demonstrate enough of the key facets of potential to be included in the analysis.

One final point worth making is that from our discussions with the class teacher we were also very aware of this group as being in a physically transitional state, with hormonal changes, massive height differences, and a clear divide in terms of overt body language between girls and boys. In this group (perhaps because the majority of the group were male) the girls were far more reticent than the boys.

Swing and percussion

The Swing Band and Percussion Ensembles are operated by Torbay and South Devon Music Service (now lead organisation in the Torbay Music Hub) from their music centre. They aim to provide an opportunity for young people who have learnt to play an instrument to enjoy making music together. Orchestras, bands and ensembles are led by experienced musicians and there are opportunities to play in concerts as well as weekly rehearsals. There are groups for players of all standards and ages. Any young person who lives in South Devon or Torbay and is learning a suitable instrument to a reasonable standard can join the music centre. The centre meets weekly after school on Fridays during the school term (a small termly fee is charged).

Rock school

Devon Music Collective - Rock School

This open-access music youth club operates on three weekday evenings (4.00 to 6.00 pm). Free of charge and running for 4 years, it’s open to young people aged between 11 and 22. Mainly led by volunteers the ethos is around encouraging group music-making through putting bands together who rehearse on the stage with good band equipment and a vocal PA. There are also practice rooms, a kitchen, other smaller social areas and offices in addition to the large performance space, a computer suite and pool table.  The group clearly wanted to be there and wanted to make music together: they were generally very supportive of each other and enjoyed each other’s company. Hugh and Bob visited the group twice, spending the first hour of their first session observing the young people’s music making. 

Hugh’s commentary on the process: 

‘I met Mark Wilkins (founder and director) a couple of weeks before the session. At that point even though Mark explained how the sessions worked, I didn’t have a clear understanding until arriving for the first one (our two sessions were five days apart). We’d arranged with Mark that we’d observe the group for the first hour and then lead a session for the second hour. Our observation of that first hour was quite revealing as neither Bob nor I had seen a music group operating in quite this way before.  There were about 25 young people in the building for this first session and yet in the first hour there were only 12 who seemed to be engaged in a musical activity. They were up on stage and rehearsing a series of different songs for an upcoming gig. Sometimes they rehearsed their song a bit and then did a performance, sometimes they just ran through it once. At about 5.00 pm the whole group assembled together (from various rooms and the pool table and off the stage) and our session began. 

‘To begin with I was quite nervous about leading this group and thought they might not want to respond to musical games and call and response African songs. In fact I was completely wrong. The majority really wanted to ʻplayʼ in the best sense of the word and really enjoyed the sessions. It became clear that everyone feels very comfortable being there and wants to be there even though each individual does not spend very much time making music (and in fact some of them don’t do any music making).  While it is a music club, it’s also a collective space where young people can come together to socialise with like-minded peers, and it’s run by relaxed and encouraging staff who gradually learn about the individuals and then suggest songs or instruments or lessons and help them to develop. It’s clear that Rock School is about helping talent to emerge, rather than teaching music in regular classes. 

‘There were a number of musically able and interesting young people who we probably could have chosen and we chose R and K as they demonstrated clear examples of musical potential.’

South West Music School

South West Music School (SWMS) is part of a network of Centres of Advanced Training across England and is partly funded by the Department for Education’s Music and Dance Scheme for exceptionally talented young musicians between 8 and 18. Since its inception in 2007 SWMS has grown considerably, and now offers five different programmes: composer, foundation, core, performance development and A level. In June 2011 there were four days set aside for the South West Music School auditions (held in four different cities), from which the footage we’ve used is taken.  Hugh ran two ninety minute workshops on each day for between twelve and sixteen students: he only met each group once.

The students were aged between 8 and 16 years old and all either sang or played a musical instrument. They arrived at the audition process having formally applied for a place (which included sending in a recording of themselves performing) so there was an expectation and understanding that they had some musical competence (other applicants had been rejected before this stage of the process). The group were therefore a self-selecting musically able group of disparate young people, most of whom did not know anybody else there. 

Students who were successful after these audition days were offered a place on the SWMS core programme, the feeder scheme or a new scheme devised for the younger members – depending on how they performed in a solo audition, the group sessions led by Hugh and their interview. There were some very interesting discussions in the decision making meetings at the end of each audition day, especially regarding students who seemed to perform very well in the group session and less well in the solo audition - and vice versa. 

Hugh’s commentary on the process: 

‘For the decision making meetings at the end of each day Bob and I didn’t have time to review the filmed footage from the sessions and therefore had to comment on individuals within the group without having had a chance to evaluate in depth. This made me realise that, as the workshop leader, I couldn’t make anything more than a very cursory statement about each individual and I therefore relied heavily on Bob, who made notes throughout the session, to provide further comments on each of the students. 

‘Bob set up the main camera so that it could encompass most/all of the participants. He also used an i-touch to occasionally capture certain things from other angles, or for when he could not get the whole group in shot. This meant that he was able to write notes on the group in addition to my rudimentary observations.  These notes were invaluable for the meetings at the end of each day and they made me realise how little a class teacher/group leader can actually gauge from leading the class alone - without someone else to make notes or a film to capture what is going on. Therefore for the following weekend’s auditions when Bob was not working with me I made sure that I set the group exercises and conversational tasks while I wrote down some notes on each person. I had learned my lesson!’