Laurinel Owen enlists the help of master graphoanalyst Nelta A. Owen to explain how to find musical talent in a student's handwriting


To be an effective teacher you must know your student. Is he or she an extrovert, sensitive to criticism, tortured by a need for perfection or self-confident? Within the constraints of a structured technical and musical regime, I try to tailor my teaching to the strengths, weaknesses and personalities of each individual. A quick look at their handwriting cannot predict behaviour but it can tell me a lot about what to expect or give clues in determining the potential ability of a student.

Recently, a new student auditioned for me. I was anxious to assess her technical level, determine her musical ability and see if she was willing to work hard. Often, it can take me a number of weeks to see the whole picture and the sooner I can figure out my student's needs, the faster we progress. I got a sample of this student's handwriting by asking her to write down the assignment, her goals regarding music and how much practice time she has. The writing showed indications of an excellent thinking processes, good memory, patience to learn hard material (i dots that are round and not slashed), intuitive insight (breaks between letters within the words) and emotional expressiveness (right slant). But she had a high self-opinion which meant she might be hard to work with (extremely large capitals in her name). She also showed defiance (big buckle on the k) which meant she thought that rules didn't apply to her. Still, she had the potential to be a great performer. I knew, however, that I would have to use psychology to convert her negative traits to a positive use.

No two people write exactly alike, and, although handwriting is a mirror of personality, it can fluctuate from day to day depending on a person's mood. There are many systems of teaching handwriting and each teacher may do it slightly differently. Children are taught from prescribed models, but as one grows, individual writing will change and develop as the personality matures - a student who writes like the copybook standard from which he or she learnt is not maturing very fast.

By the time a person reaches the age of 13 or 14, his writing will no longer be so huge in size, and the pen pressure and slant of strokes will be more uniform. In fact, the upper and lower loops will not only lengthen but also begin to take on other characteristics, such as a change of width or height, while some loops may disappear completely. Printed capitals may appear in cursive writing, letters within a word will begin to be disjointed (an indication of interpretive ability) and other individual strokes will also appear.

An informed teacher can detect such attributes in the writing and can spot the student's idiosyncrasies within minutes. Let's have a look at some of the basic traits which indicate talent. (Bear in mind that an individual's writing will take years to develop and that young children's writing will not show many of these traits due to their immaturity).

Pen pressure is probably the most important aspect of handwriting because it indicates the drive and energy that propels a person to become involved with music and the arts. The heavier the pressure, the greater the need. A light writer may be just as talented but will not have the emotional need to express him or herself and will therefore take music and the arts less seriously. Great artists almost invariably write with heavy pen pressure, as can be seen in the examples illustrated.

Slope of handwriting is determined from the upward strokes and is another key trait. It indicates emotional expressiveness and responsiveness, but no writing will exhibit a completely consistent slant because a person's response may vary depending on the situation. To see the slant, draw a line from the baseline to the peak of the stroke.

Vertical strokes show that a writer's emotions are kept to him or herself, that expressing feelings does not come naturally and that the writer is aloof. When the writing slants further to the right, he or she experiences more emotional extremes and finds it easy to express them. A left-leaning slant indicates fear of relating to others and responding emotionally. Such a writer will subconsciously submerge his or her feelings and emotions rather than express them. (Although many successful performers have had this problem, they have learnt to cope by becoming actors.) Clearly, for a performing musician, most of the strokes should lean to the right of the perpendicular as is the case, to some degree, in all the example signatures.

Consistent slanting and spacing between letters and words, the size of lower case letters in the middle zone - like a, d, e, g, i, o, p, q etc - and a straight baseline show a good sense of rhythm. However; if the writing is so even that it becomes rigid, the person may perform like a metronome, unable to implement creative variations of tempo. If there is too much variation the writer lacks discipline and will have to work hard to play in time. The ideal falls in the middle.

Printed capitals used in cursive - joined up - writing show that the writer likes to participate in artistic activities. If the letter does not have a beginning stroke or has no loops, the person is direct and efficient and can get the job done quickly; a real aid to learning new music. This can be seen in all the examples except for Wagner; whose signature varies from sample to sample.

Breaks between letters within words in cursive writing where separation is not usual shows intuitive expressiveness, as can be noted with Casals, Mendelssohn, Paganini and Stradivarius. (This does not include a bleak between a capital and the following letter:) These artists have a natural ability to interpret a spirituality or gift of perception which allows them to give depth and soul to a performance which otherwise might be mechanical. Such writers also have a keen insight into understanding others - something that is useful in teaching.

Different shapes of letters also provide a key to a person's creative and learning abilities. Rounded tops on m's, n's and h's indicate both a slow and methodical learner and creativity. Notice the pointed n's in Dvorák and Wagner. Sharp points on m's, n's and h's which make the letter look like w's and us, and so on, show an ability to understand new concepts very quickly.

A combination of rounded tops, pointed tops and sharp points on ms, ns and hs indicates high intelligence (see the Paganini and Stradivarius examples), while the taller the hump in the m, n and h, the more intelligent the writer. V-shaped formations on the baseline show that the writer is adept at solving problems.

Tiny letters in the middle zone which measure 1/16 inches or less show that the writer has the ability to concentrate one something for long periods without distraction. Those with large writing may well have the ability to concentrate but not for such long periods.

Round dots on the i and j placed close to the stem are seen in writers with a good memory and who pay attention to details; du Pré, Heifetz, Mendelssohn, Paganini and Stradivarius all show this trait. Of course, this is an invaluable aid to students and professionals who are required to play from memory. A jabbed dot means the writer is irritable.

Artistic flourishes (such as a showy signature) in cursive writing shows a sense of showmanship, a person who presents him or herself in a dramatic, artistic or colourful way, even off stage. This writer wishes to attract favourable attention - look at the flourishes in Heifetz, Mendelssohn and Paganini's signatures. Names joined together in the signature are found in fluid thinkers such as Mendelssohn.

Strong downward strokes of the lower extensions - y, i, p, q and z - belong to the determined writer who wants to succeed, such as Jascha Heifetz, du Pré and Wagner. If the stroke is curved like Paganini's, it loses some of its strength and if the endings are feathered there will be no follow through. If, however, the downward stroke is exceptionally strong in comparison to the general heaviness of the handwriting, the person is a bluffer and will be all talk with little drive to follow through.

Heavy t-bars sh