Nurturing Musical Gifts

June 11, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman reportedly is preparing to open a new public elementary school for musically gifted children in New York City modeled on the Soviet teaching system. If the plan comes to fruition it would be the first school of its type in the United States.

The former Soviet Union was famous not only for the caliber of its performing artists but also for the rigorous programs and excellent facilities it provided for the training of budding talents. The country's enviable record in this area was largely due to a system that stressed early identification and nurturing of musically gifted children -- particularly important for violin and piano players, for whom the development of fine motor skills in early childhood is essential to success in later life.

Mr. Feltsman plans to begin his school with about 45 students, grades K-2, and expand the program over the next five years. The school, which will part of the city public school system, is to be housed in a private, non-profit Jewish cultural center near Lincoln Center, and Mr. Feltsman has received a $500,000 grant from the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg to help cover start-up and other costs.

But why should New York be the only city in the country to have such a school? Baltimore has a vibrant musical life, an abundance of talented, experienced music educators and a school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, who has made it clear he wants to expand on the successes the system has achieved in its experimental programs and use them as models for reforming the rest of the city schools. What better way to expand on the acknowledged successes of the Baltimore School for the Arts, the city's performing-arts public high school, than by creating a public elementary school aimed at encouraging children with promise to develop their talents early?

This is the kind of project that Baltimore's business community and foundations ought to be eager to support. The cost would not be exorbitant, even for a city and school system as financially strapped as ours. As a practical matter, Baltimore ought to be able to put together a package with city, state and private funding similar to that Mr. Feltsman has assembled in New York in order to get the project off the ground.

Baltimore already has a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on. For example, a performing-arts elementary school could start off as an annex of the present School for the Arts, perhaps housed in another building nearby (the current BSA building is not large enough to accommodate a separate elementary school). That would allow the elementary school to take advantage of the expertise and experience the BSA staff has garnered over the last dozen years in developing high-quality arts instruction in an academic setting.

The school would also be able to draw on existing early-childhood music programs now run by the Peabody Prep school and the city's TWIGS (''To Work In Gaining Skills'') programs, which provide instruction in instrumental music and dance. Both programs have assembled cadres of gifted teachers who specialize in early-childhood music education. And of course the school should be able to call on members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the faculty at Peabody Conservatory for inspiration and encouragement.

Inevitably, the idea of a special school for musically gifted children will strike some as elitist, especially given the fact that budget cuts over the last decade have decimated arts and music programs in many of the city's public schools. Others may ask why we should create a school for the musically talented but not one for those gifted in math and science.

The answer to the first criticism is that we need to make a new commitment to arts instruction for all children, and a public elementary school for the musically talented ought to aimed at fitting into that larger goal. Moreover, the fact is that kids develop at different rates. Those with special gifts need to be identified as early as possible so that their talents can be nurtured; otherwise, they're liable to be wasted.

The same goes for kids with a gift for math and science, with one important difference. The purely physical skills required for playing an instrument -- hand-eye coordination, muscle development, etc. -- as a rule are learned either very young or not at all. Unfortunately, music is cruel in a way that math and science are not in that once the opportunity to master certain skills has passed, it is lost forever.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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