Identifying Musical Talent and Potential

Identifying Musical Talent and Potential (ITP) exists to make music education fairer. It tackles one of the biggest obstacles to young people’s musical progress - identifying those with talent and potential, especially in whole class or larger group settings.

Following a successful first phase, this training has developed and expanded to enable us to reach more teachers than ever and to exploring the skills they need to spot the next generation of musical talent.

The newly revised National Plan for Music Education has brought this obstacle even more sharply into focus and directly challenges Hubs to address it:

"The identification of individual talent, and the building and sustaining of equitable talent pipelines are key."

The Power of Music to Change Lives, A National Plan for Music Education, June 2022

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In detail

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Identifying Musical Talent and Potential (ITP) exists to make music education fairer.

We don’t think it’s right that young people with musical potential should be denied the chance to explore and fulfil that potential because they haven’t had the opportunity to. ITP is one of AYM’s four programmes, all of which are designed to address this fundamental inequity. If England is to have a truly diverse cultural sector, talent needs to be spotted early, and everywhere.

ITP tackles one of the biggest obstacles to talented young people’s musical progress: identifying those with talent and potential, especially in whole class or larger group settings. Primary school class teachers generally have very little musical training, so their limited confidence can be a stumbling block; this inevitably affects their ability to identify young people’s musical potential in their classes. Alongside this, instrumental teachers working as part of the wider Music Hub partnerships can focus too much on instrumental proficiency, which can get in the way of them spotting early potential in a child who has never had the opportunity to try an instrument.

ITP has developed into two strands: face-to-face or online training and a series of online film resources, used within the training and also available online.  The film resources illustrate key facets of musical potential in a wide range educational context and show how some commonly used group musical activities can challenge what teachers are able to learn through observation.

This next phase of ITP expands the programme further, offering the training not only via Music Hubs, but through Multi Academy Trusts, individual schools and other organisations. Through AYM’s NPO funding this programme is offered free throughout England and is delivered by a team of facilitators led by Lead Facilitator Hugh Nankivell and Naomi Wellings, ITP Programme Manager.

Spotting facets of musical potential

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 it's harder if you don't! Working with schools, music leaders, teachers and music organisations, we identified a set of 'facets of musical potential'. Click on any of the facets below for examples of how these may manifest, with video examples.

The 8 facets of musical potential



Is the young person smiling as they are engaging with the process? Remember that if they’re not smiling this doesn’t mean that they’re not enjoying themselves, and likewise if they are smiling and laughing this might also be with nervousness or a disruptive playfulness. As a music leader your instinct is to respond positively to an individual who is smiling when you lead them because they’re showing an empathy and a positive engagement with the process – just try not to discount other, less obvious, signs of enjoyment within a group.

Active listening

Active listening

There are many ways to observe listening that can be applied in many different contexts.

Listening takes time. However the key question is: do participants listen when you give them instructions? This is crucial to everything that follows. One musical exercise that can help spot if young people are really listening is to ask them to listen to a repeated rhythm played solo and then find a rhythm that fits with this and join in. Try observing how many participants wait – and listen – before joining in.

Absorption in the music

Absorption in the music

Is the young person moving his/her body with the music? Is s/he tapping her foot, is s/he nodding his/her head? Is the person playing by physically moving his/her body? Is the person watching what the leader (or others) are playing and focusing clearly on them, even when all around them seems chaotic?

Commitment to the process

Commitment to the process

Individuals can commit to a process in a number of subtle and more obvious ways. Body language and eye-contact are two of the more obvious ones, but some of the more subtle ones can also usefully be observed, e.g. noting individuals who:

  • make a ‘mistake’ and then readily work to rectify and change it
  • try things out which might be quite complicated, but then persevere until they are sorted out, and
  • offer ideas towards a piece or process

Inclination to explore

Inclination to explore

Asking the group to suggest ideas and then observing who responds is one way to notice those who are self-confident and happy to offer creative responses in front of the group.

However not all of these responses will be confident or immediately evident, so an inclination to explore might be better observed by noting.

• how individuals play and ‘play with’ their instruments,
• how they might find a different way to contribute (the first to use the voice, for instance, in a group improvisation) and
• how they might – when you first offer them an instrument – take an unusual one or try out many different techniques and approaches as soon as they’re given it.

Inclination to lead

Inclination to lead

Observing those leading can be done in a number of ways. Noting those who volunteer to start a piece/process is, perhaps obvious, but it’s important, as it denotes a confidence and, usually, an understanding. However, it’s also important to observe those who lead more subtly, from within the group. This can be seen in those who keep their own part going while assisting others (sub-leading if you like) and those who lead changes within a piece once it has begun.



Memory in music is a crucial ingredient but, in a one-off session, how can you observe it?

One way is through using call-and-response songs and games where there is one part where the call and the response. Try to immediately note who grasps these cues after they are taught and then return to them at the end to see who can remember them. If working over two sessions, then repeat the games/songs the following day/week and see who has musical recall.



This is a difficult facet to unequivocally define from a group context. However, there are examples of individuals being expressive which can be observed through:

• the way they explore a new instrument when given it for the first time (e.g. the hand chimes)
• how they use their body when asked to create a body rhythm
• how they respond verbally when asked a question about an exercise and
• how readily they’re able to create a short solo (e.g. 1 bar) within a structure.

Meet the facilitators

Ten creative and curious musicians with a wealth of experience as performers, educators and community practitioners.

A Teacher's Perspective

Find out what teachers have to say about the training.

Developing ITP

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.

AYM’s Identifying Talent was a perfect start to Lewisham Music’s journey on the Furthering Talent Programme. Hugh delivered a thought-provoking, engaging and inspirational session that was extremely well received by our tutors. It explored exactly what ‘talent’ is, and what music professionals can do to ensure we are spotting talented young people who could benefit from additional support. The analysis of the videos which were shared were particular fascinating.

For a service that does lots of whole class and group teaching, the focus on being able to differentiate between different types of learners will prove useful to our tutors across their work. I would highly recommend the Identifying Talent training session. One of the best training mornings we have had for years.  

Charly Richardson, CEO, Lewisham Music


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