Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In retrospect...

Yesterday's post about The G Word created great conversation here on Blogger, over at my Facebook account, and on a mailing list that I read/post to when I find time.  I loved hearing the personal stories -- many of which started with "when I was in school..."  It got me thinking about when I was in school because I was also one of those bored kids where most everything came pretty easily.  I think, in some ways, I was lucky, though, as I was a product of the late 80s where teachers weren't tied to their standardized tests and had some leeway.

I can think of three teachers who had a significant impact on me.  First and foremost, Mr. Ellenberger who took over the music program my Freshman year.  He pushed me out of my shell and started me on the path to where I am today.  That path has had many twists and turns over the years, but if it had not been for Mr. E., I wouldn't be teaching music today.  I have so many happy memories of choir and the competitions that I couldn't even begin to write them down.  My only regret is the pain-in-the-ass that I was to him during those four years.  I'm grateful he put up with my shenanigans and mentored me anyways.

Second, Miss Donlin.  I had her for A/P English and Humanities.  She ran her classes at a college level.  Humanities was the best class for a gifted kid who wanted to learn about everything.  We studied literature, art, architecture, religion, and history.  I've probably forgotten most of what I learned in that class, but at the time, I could not get enough of it.  Miss Donlin kept me busy -- and not in the busy-work kind of way - my Senior year.

My third influence was Mr. Fisher, but not for the same reasons as Mr. E and Miss Donlin.  Mr Fisher taught Trig.  Because of some scheduling error sometime in Middle School, I didn't get on the right math track that would give me Calculus my Senior year.  It's just as well as Mr. Fisher also taught that class.  He was a nice enough man, but, at least for me, he might as well have been teaching the class in Russian because I had No Clue what was going on.  So I taught myself Trig.  I used my textbook and my mom had a friend who would help me out on occasion.  I passed the class with flying colors, but those grades did not come easily to me.   This class taught me to work for it but it also gave me the idea that I wasn't good at math -- an idea that both of my parents perpetuated.

I still struggled when I made it to college.  Suddenly everything was a challenge -- nothing came easily.  At the same time, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do because everything sounded interesting, but not interesting enough to hold my attention.  I also was fighting against the aforementioned issues with math.  So I worked as hard as I could force myself, got mediocre grades, and fell in with the theater crowd.  (By then, I should have figured out that perhaps switching to a music/theater school might be in order, but I stuck with WPI.)

I never really thought about my schooling, my struggles, why I react to certain things like I do, etc, until The Peanut came along.  Learning about her taught me so much about myself.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The G Word

I saw a link to this article go by in my Facebook Feed earlier this evening.  It is an argument about why the word "gifted" should be retired.  The argument is basically we should stop coddling the gifted kids -- if they show a talent in some area, let them explore it, but bear in mind, anyone can master anything if they show perseverance and a willingness to put those mythical 10,000 hours into learning regardless of whether or not they have natural talent or not.  (As a voice teacher, I can tell you that this is not possible.  I can most likely teach you to sing better than you did when you started with me, but to truly master the art, you've got to have something kind of special to start with).  It says a lot of other stuff, too, but one thing becomes painfully clear as you read this:  The author is an IT-professional and a former dentist.  Not a teacher.  And (I'm willing to bet) not a parent of gifted kid.

Why are gifted kids treated like entitled brats in society?  What makes them any different from a kid who's a really great athlete?  The athletic kid gets special training outside of gym class and she gets featured on her team.  What makes a gifted kid different from the kid where reading doesn't come easily?  That kid gets a special classes, a tutor or even an IEP to help get him up to speed.  And yet, when gifted kids need enrichment or acceleration, it's a fight for those services or classes.  School administrators believe that if the kid's smart, he or she can figure out their own path.  (Note that I am not picking on the teachers here as I believe the majority of the teachers in the system want to do right by all of their students.  Often times, they're hamstrung by their administration, the standardized testing, and/or lack of funding.  But this is a rant for a different blog post).

What makes this all very difficult to understand is that every gifted kid is unique.  I don't mean this in the sense that every kid is special in some way because they all are.  I have seen figures that say the top 5% intellectually are more diverse than the bottom 95% put together.  Gifted kids have emotional needs and sensitivities that go beyond what most average kids experience.  They often have learning disabilities that go undetected because they can compensate for them.  Some gifted kids aren't academic geniuses - they're musicians, artists, or...wait for it...athletes.  Even the academic geniuses have strengths and weaknesses -- there are mathy kids who don't like reading.  There are kids who are reading several grades above their level who couldn't be bothered with learning their basic addition facts.  And so on.

The Peanut is gifted. In both reading and math, she is well-above grade level.  She also has a few sensitivities that to the outsider probably look completely over-the-top.  She also swings from very intelligent conversation to having a temper tantrum that would make any 2-year-old jealous.  All of this is normal when you're gifted and as a parent, I've learned to roll with the punches as best I can.

"Gifted" is not a word that I use all that often anymore because I do not like the negative connotation that word has.  I also don't want The Peanut to feel bad about being different -- I want her to embrace who she is.  Three years ago, when I began wondering what the best course of action was for my precocious little girl, I used that term more often because it pointed me toward resources.  Prior to my research, I thought gifted equated to being smart -- not all the other stuff.  Had I not embraced the word, I may not have found all that I did.  If she were in school, I would want access to whatever resources would be available for her -- just like the athletes and the kids who have problem reading.   Odds are, if she were in school, I'd probably still use this word.

It's a sad commentary on our society in general that you have to fight for your kids' education.  I hear some friends talk about their fights over getting the IEPs they need.  I read many parents who struggle to keep their smart kids engaged in school.  It's two sides of the same coin where if your kid is not statistically average, there's a chance he or she will be left in the dust.  I sincerely hope that The Powers That Be who are responsible for education policy someday realize that not all kids are statistically average and even the gifted ones (and in some cases, especially the gifted ones) need special attention too.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Acting & Singing

Before the flu came by for a visit, I managed to catch a showing of Les Miserables.  I didn't hate the movie but didn't love it either.   The movie had some real high and low points -- and I'm not talking about the general tear-jerker of the story line.  What the movie did get me thinking about is the notion that there are actors who can sing and singers who can act.  Some shows - Like Les Mis -- need singers who can act.

A true singer has at least a little actor in them.  We are able to let go as we sing the song and let the character and emotion of the song wash through us.  Think about some of the great performances you've seen regardless of musical genre.  The really good ones that make your toes curl are the ones that the singer becomes one with the song.  The singer may not actually be the best technically, but they managed to reach deep down inside and draw upon everything the song has to offer and feed it to you, the listener so that it touches you.

An actor who can sing might be able to do this, but actors generally pull from several bags of tricks to create the character.  They may, in the end, give themselves over to the character completely, but they may not be able to give themselves over to the song.  In many instances, this is fine -- not all songs are endless pools of emotions.

One thing I tell my students (and I can't take credit for this -- a theater friend taught me this) as they learn a new piece of music is to think about what just happened 30 seconds ago to inspire them to break out into song.  Latch on to that teensy little period of time and let that spark ignite whatever emotion(s) the song brings up.  If they can keep that moment in their mind's eye, the audience will see it too and be right there with them.

So back to Les Mis because it proves my point using two of its big-name actors.  Russell Crowe is a fine actor.  I've seen him in a number of movies and generally enjoy his performance.  He is an actor who can sing and as such, fell flat as Javert.  He couldn't capture the spark that lead to Javert's amazing monologues.  I'd be willing to bet that if those monologues had been spoken instead of sung, Crowe would have nailed them.  Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, had us down there in the gutter with her feeling the last shred of dignity leaching out of all us collectively during "I Dreamed A Dream'.    Even though her background wouldn't suggest it, Hathaway is a singer who can act - and a damn fine one too.

As a voice teacher (and sometimes acting coach), I feel this is an important distinction to make, but it's an almost impossible thing to teach.  Some of my students will never become singers who can act -- they have fine voices, but cannot give themselves over completely to the song.  They take a technical approach to the song often times with lovely results, but lacking in emotion beyond whatever dynamics that are written into the piece.   I have a few students who are solid actors that cannot translate that into song -- give them a monologue and they'll deliver.  Give them a song and they may sound nice singing it, but they can't take it further.  It takes courage and instincts that not all singers possess or can find in themselves.    For the students where this comes fairly naturally -- and I have a couple -- I don't have much to teach them in this area, but instead, I throw ideas out at them for different approaches to take or places where they need to amp it up or tone it down and watch what unfolds.

When I was a voice student, I was fortunate enough to work with a coach who had performed and taught all over the world.  She has some big names on her list of former students and, in her youth, had some wonderful opportunities.  One day, she told me that one of her former students was a voice actor in a popular Disney movie.  She concluded that while he was a good voice student, she knew that he would end up with speaking roles.  At the time, I thought she was being kind about this person's singing abilities.  Now that I'm a teacher and have experienced it for myself, I finally understand what she meant.