Working with Youth Music to develop ‘Identifying Talent’


In 2008, with support from Youth Music we initiated an action research programme looking at how you could spot musical potential in a group of young people. We were interested in how you could identify potential very early on in a child’s musical journey before they’d had significant nurturing of their abilities or exposure to music-making activity. We were interested in how you could identify potential, taking into account the breadth of different musical genres, styles and activities without prejudice or favour towards any particular one. And we were interested in how you could identify potential from within a group activity, as so often is what takes place in Primary and Secondary school music-making and in music workshops.

Children from wealthier families will often get the chance to have private instrumental lessons paid for by their parents, whilst those from less well off backgrounds are more likely to have their musical opportunities limited to what their school is able to offer. This makes it even more imperative that, when these opportunities are provided, their teachers have some useful tools to identify their musical potential and help support it.

The approach

We brought together partners Music Leader South West, Exeter and Bristol Universities and South West Music School, alongside Hugh Nankivell as lead facilitating musician and film maker Bob Lockwood.  The approach centred around asking music leaders, and others working in music education, to analyse film footage of young people’s musical activities for the observable facets of musical potential and ability. Then these facets were distilled and means of supporting that potential and ability were identified. The programme has so developed in two major strands: an in person training model, Identifying Talent and the development of a series of film resources.  These film resources are available for free, here on our website and also on the Youth Music Network. 

The approach centred around asking music leaders, and others working in music education, to analyse film footage of young people’s musical activities for the observable facets of musical potential and ability. Then these facets were distilled and means of supporting that potential and ability were identified.

Solo auditions

The first phase used film footage of South West Music School’s entrance auditions. Some auditions were successful, some not.  SWMS takes a holistic approach to selecting young people: a solo audition is never used on its own to assess a young person’s musical potential.  SWMS therefore combines solo auditions with group activities and an interview.

Workshop activities

Hugh Nankivell, facilitating musician for this project writes…

“For this research I prepared some material and starting points that could be successfully used with different groups ranging in age from age 8 to 20. This material included musical games, rhythmic exercises (for body percussion and instruments) and songs. The reasons for choosing, and designing, this particular material is that it can clearly show individuals within the group playing differently from others and expressing solo ideas and opinions. In this way personal contributions and thereby facets of musical potential can be clearly observed.

“I prepared for each session with a list of games and exercises in a particular order and would generally keep approximately to that list. However, I was also flexible and understood that if a certain game/exercise was proving particularly interesting I could take it a bit further and develop it with the group. Similarly, if a game/exercise was not working particularly well, then I would not pursue it, but move on. I was also aware of the use of technical language when working with the different groups (in terms of age and experience). For instance the word ‘ostinato’ can also be expressed as ‘repeated pattern’ ‘loop’ or ‘riff’ (and more) and it’s useful to know these alternatives and when to use them.

“The different sessions I led ranged from 35 to 90 minutes in length and so I needed to be mindful to achieve all I needed to in the shorter sessions, whilst also having a selection of alternative material handy for the longer sessions.”

Analysis: What are the facets of potential?

In the first phase of the programme, in 2009, around 30 classroom teachers, community musicians, and PGCE music students watched the audition footage as part of their training session – they then analysed the performances for the key observable facets of musical potential and ability.

In the second phase of the programme, in 2010, a group of around 30 PGCE students watched the audition footage of the workshop activities and the solo auditions as part of their training session – they then analysed the performances for the key observable facets of musical potential.

In 2011 Hugh Nankivell, Bob Lockwood and the other programme partners then developed the list of possible facets of potential as a result of the group activities Hugh led with young people. These were then refined to come up with the eight key facets demonstrated within this resource.

Distillation and refinement

These two processes took place at different times with different people observing different material but the ‘observable facets of musical potential’ that emerged from both were pretty much the same. We took this distilled set and consulted various senior experienced figures in music education on their opinions as to how accurate and useful these facets were. We also refined the facets through a third and fourth iteration of the same process of asking people to observe film footage.

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
These are explored furthering in this resource.

Click here for more information about where we looked fort these facets of potential. 

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