Nurturing child's talent is a talent in itself

November 03, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

YOU MIGHT THINK parents' open house at an art school would be crammed with fussbudgety stage mothers, each of whom is convinced her little darling is God's gift to the world.

Actually, the parents I saw last Wednesday at the Baltimore School for the Arts seemed to run the gamut. They ranged from people who appeared genuinely surprised to learn their kid might have some special talent to those who already were reserving mantel space for the expected Oscars, Pulitzers and Nobels.

The latter, of course, are not unique to art schools. There are plenty of parents, for example, who start lobbying Harvard, Princeton and Yale when their children are barely out of diapers.

These are probably the same folks who, polls say, don't want their kids to grow up to be president if they can become high-powered Washington lawyers or Wall Street investment bankers -- and be as naughty as they want.

Some kids, of course, evince such talent from their earliest years that it's obvious to everyone they possess special gifts.

I remember one proud daddy of a School of the Arts graduate who recalled that his daughter could sing by ear all the intricate melismas, turns and slides of a popular Natalie Cole tune when she was only 3 years old.

Child prodigies are easy to recognize, especially when they excel in an area the people around them already are familiar with, like pop music.

But I'm always intrigued by parents who belatedly realize that little Billy or Jane, whom they've regarded all along as just a pretty good kid, has something that could set the world on fire.

A retired federal employee, for example, whose daughter was embarking on a big career as a classical soprano once told me jTC he didn't really get it until he saw her walk out on stage one evening and proceed to bring the house down.

Until then, he said, he would have been perfectly content if she had taken his advice and become a medical technician.

Another example: At last week's open house I ran into an old college classmate whose daughter had just transferred to the arts school from a prestigious private school.

The girl was a singer and dancer. But her mother was startled when her daughter announced she wanted to be an opera singer -- and even more surprised to learn that she might be eagerly sought by the arts school's vocal music department.

I empathized with her, partly because much of what goes into recognizing and training young talents is, frankly, still a mystery to me.

For instance, I spent most of last Wednesday watching the school's dance instructors put their young charges through their paces.

The movements in the ballet classes all had French names. Right off the bat that made it difficult for me to follow them.

In the morning, however, the ninth-graders executed long series of movements on demand after only a single demonstration by the teacher -- a feat that seemed to me little short of miraculous.

Granted, not all the dancers I saw were equally graceful or pleasant to watch.

But I soon learned that my judgments in such matters had little to do with those of the class' teacher. Her trained eye noted all sorts of artistic virtues and vices that were completely invisible to me.

A few years ago, I had a similar experience while visiting voice classes given by one of the school's teachers.

Some of the students sounded great to me but all wrong to the instructor. Others, who struck me as unmusical at best, turned out to have fabulous instruments that were just waiting to be developed.

All of which has driven me to the conclusion that teaching any art is an art in itself. It is, moreover, an art that seems quite independent of the teacher's own ability to perform. Undistinguished performers can actually be great teachers, and great performers often turn out to be mediocre teachers.

Perhaps that is why a perceptive teacher sometimes can understand a child's talent and potential better than the child's own parents. Mere familiarity, after all, is no guarantee of superior insight in such matters.

I left the open house with a new appreciation of the humbling experience that parenting a budding artist can be. Our children may indeed be better or worse than we imagine. But the fact is they are always different, no matter how well we think we know them.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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