3 Signs of ADHD in Music Learners
Most educators will be familiar with the term ADHD, especially in children. ADHD affects every aspect of day-to-day life, however it is within the academic realm that it tends to have most noticeable and devastating consequences. Teaching students with ADHD is not an easy task, but it becomes an even harder task when neither the educator nor the the student is aware of the learner's condition.
ADHD Awareness is especially relevant to music teachers and arts educators in general, as the condition is associated with creativity and a natural inclination and gift for The Arts.
A natural gift however, does not mean effortless achievements, in fact, it is often the opposite due to the way the condition does not allow the student to reach his full potential.
It is also a condition that has caused controversy and up to this day nobody is exactly sure how to approach it and treat it correctly. As a consequence of this, educators are often unprepared for dealing with ADHD in their teaching environment, resulting in a lot of stress both for the teacher as well as for the student.
Whilst it is fairly easy to google the tell-tale signs of ADHD in the classroom, I am going to focus on tell-tale signs specific to the music classroom. This includes private lessons as well as classroom lessons and band rehearsals.
FOCUS AND EFFORT ISSUES.
Untreated ADHD results in what some call an interest-based nervous system, meaning that the amount of effort and focus a student with ADHD puts into say, learning or performing a particular piece is directly proportional to how much he is interested or enjoys the piece in question. ADHD causes a disfunction in the dopamine pathways of your reward system, so when there is interest in the task at hand dopamine becomes available and the student can focus and apply himself. When there is no interest in the task at hand, the availability of dopamine is strongly reduced and trying to focus and putting effort in becomes an actual physical torture. If you notice that a student is performing incredibly one day with a certain piece and very poorly , especially if he seems unwilling to put effort in, irritable or confrontational, and this pattern arises on a regular basis, it may be a sign of ADHD.
INATTENTION and DAYDREAMING
Whilst this feature is not necessarily present in all ADHD types it is still a notable feature. The science behind this is similar to the one outlined in the previous point but the context here is different. In my experience, this is something to look out for when directing band or orchestra rehearsals as opposed to one-to-one or small group lessons. In one-to-one or small group contexts, the student with ADHD is somewhat forced to follow and interact throughout the lesson, especially a one-to-one lesson, however in a band rehearsal situation, where there is a large group of students he will not feel the constant need to show he is paying attention as the teacher has to divide her attention amongst a very large group of people. In these situations, a student with ADHD can easily “slip into the background”. Daydreaming, often a consequence of the condition, is also used as a form of self-stimulation to endure the boredom and low arousal experienced. As a music educator, look out for any student that doesn't seem in tune with the rehearsal e.g a student that continuously misses cues or plays at the wrong time or even pretends to play without actually making any sound, especially if he is part of a subsection e.g the horn section where this could potentially go unnoticed.
This is by far the least known of the 3 signs but in my opinion the most interesting one. This is probably because there is no hard science to back it up quite yet, but I have witnessed this over and over and each and every single time there was a case of untreated ADHD at hand. The similarities between the cases are so so strong, it is hard to ignore. The typical situation would involve a student displaying natural musical talent, often in multiple skill areas, such as: composition, arranging or ear training as well as in their instrument of choice. What I would notice fairly early on is that the student's instrumental performance skills, for example, would improve steadily, however his sight-reading skills would improve very little if not at all. On the other hand, the same student would only need to hear how a certain piece is played correctly once and he would automatically remember each detail of the performance. In other words he would only look at the music score to identify the notes, but everything else ( pauses, articulations and so on he would simply remember off the top of his head). When seeing a music score for the first time however, he would feel lost. As I mentioned earlier, I cannot provide a hard-science backed explanation for this, but given the number of times I have witnessed these circumstances, it's definitely something worth knowing and keeping in mind.