The End of Average – book review

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

Are you average?end of average

Author Todd Rose argues that nobody is average. We all have unique, jagged strengths and weaknesses.

Scientists and statisticians use averages to draw conclusions about a group. However, applying the lessons of the average to an individual is not helpful, and can sometimes be harmful. This is called the “ergodic switch.”

Consider this example. A student takes a standardized test and the results show an average score. As you can see from the table below, this student is not uniformly average in all subjects. This student is above average in encoding and visual puzzles but below average in vocabulary. This student has some clear strengths and one area that needs attention. A one-size-fits-all education really fits none.


composite average score

Age of Average

The End of Average discusses how we have arrived at blindly accepting the lie that the average is a valid tool for creating policy. I thought the sections on genes, traits, Quetelet’s social physics, and Taylorism were particularly interesting. The rise of standardization in American culture was slow, but it has a strong foothold in our educational and business systems today.

The central question of the book is

“How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?”

The Benefits of Personalization

As a music teacher, I understand the value of a personalized education. Students come to me with unique problems, natural talents, and resources. Some have musical parents; others are the first in their families to study music. Some have natural vibrato; others require years of systematic instruction to learn the skill. Because I work with each student individually, I adapt my teaching. This makes taking private lessons so different than self-directed learning from a book or instruction in school band/orchestra.

My children are fortunate to be in a school system that allows teachers flexibility with the materials they use in the classroom. Through projects, the kids are allowed to choose the direction and intensity of study. For example, my daughter is working on a detailed diorama of Ireland, (shown here with our hedgehog dressed as a leprechaun.) My son who was in the same class last year, chose to write a report for that project. They have different interests and skills, but project-based learning allows them to maximize their jagged learning profiles.Ireland project

Online instruction has offered my son the opportunity to work ahead in math. An online math program allows him to take tests in various math concepts. If he passes the test, he can move onto the next subject area. When it’s new material, the program slows down and teaches him the concept, adding drills until the material is mastered. As parents, we are thrilled that he doesn’t have to complete worksheets on things he already knows. It’s this kind of dynamic, individualized learning that maximizes learning and minimizes frustration.

Wary of Averages

Rose’s book has opened my eyes to the times I have taken the average for granted. From now on, I’m will be much more suspicious when reading articles that try to apply generalizations to specific people. Consequently, I will take another look at the brain scans referenced in Brain Imaging on Musicians, but I hear the school bus… so that will have to wait for now.

Grit for Musicians: Practicing and Parenting

Is Grit the Secret to Success In Music?

I first heard about Angela Duckworth and her research on “grit” on a Freakonomics podcast. Duckworth talks about how persistence, not talent, is the secret ingredient for success. It got me thinking about how grit translates to music, especially its application in practice.

What is grit?

According to Angela Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” It seems clear that studying music is a gritty activity. Learning to play an instrument is a long-term commitment if any success is to be achieved.

From the book review of Grit in Scientific American: (

In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.

Grit may be more important than talent.

There are plenty of musicians out there with natural talent. Some even have the almost mystical ability of perfect pitch. Yet not all people with perfect pitch become professional musicians. It seems that talent can kick-start a musician because it creates a positive feedback loop. Talent says, “I’m good at this. It’s easy. People recognize my innate ability.” But talent can also be a hinderance. When music practice becomes difficult (and it does get hard at some point for everyone), only the gritty will push through and learn new skills. Of course when a student is endowed with both talent and grittiness, the chance of success is high. As a music teacher, however, if I had to choose between a student with lots of talent or lots of grit, I would choose the grit. Every time.

Want to find out how much grit you have?


Even if you score low on the “grit scale,” the good news is that grit can be cultivated, even increased.

What do gritty people have in common?

By studying people who are particularly gritty, Angela Duckworth has observed four things the grit paragons display and cultivate:

grit in musicians

Cincinnati Symphony – paragon of grit

  1. Interest
  2. Deliberate Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Duckworth observed that people who pursue one interest for long periods of time “learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” I love that. As a musician, I’m not constantly switching instruments. I’m delving more deeply into the repertoire of the flute and perfecting the craft of teaching. There is always more to learn about a subject.

Deliberate practice is something I have discussed many times on this blog. Brain research is helping us understand that some kinds of practicing are better than others. Good practice habits include being able to isolate a mistake and employ solutions to remedy it. Another “grit” researcher, Anders Ericsson puts it this way: “So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.”

How can parents help kids become more gritty?

As a parent (see my admission on this blog about being a Tiger Mother), I want my kids to grow up to be gritty. How do we foster resilience in kids? Perhaps studying music is one way to cultivate grit. When your child studies an instrument, there will be opportunities for improving grit (theirs… and yours!)

Don’t let your child quit music. Teach your child that playing an instrument is a long-term commitment. Everyone comes to a point when things get hard and quitting seems the only way out. Help your child understand that music, like many other pursuits, will seem really hard from time to time. Remind your child of other times they have been frustrated but persevered and overcame the challenge. If your child is just beginning to study an instrument and wants to quit, don’t give in! Set a reasonable time period (6 months – 1 year) after which you will discuss the possibility of changing instruments.

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article “How To Teach Students Grit.” The author wondered about the role of grit in academic settings. One of the most interesting findings was the role of intrinsic motivation in achievement. Behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to change behavior, is proving to be a colossal disaster in the classroom. A 2011 study of behaviorism in New York public schools (“Financial Incentives and Student Achievement“) showed that incentives such as money had no effect on changing student performance.

In Dallas, students were paid to read books. In New York, students were rewarded for performance on interim assessments. In Chicago, students were paid for classroom grades. I estimate that the impact of financial incentives on state test scores is statistically zero, in each city. -Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

Behaviorism relies on the ability of external forces to change behavior. When students are motivated by rewards, it is called extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to or because they know it’s the right thing to do. As parents, we must be careful of using too many rewards, thereby discouraging intrinsic motivation.

I’ve discussed motivation in music in other blog posts (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing, Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), but if you are going to use rewards like a sticker chart or money to reward your child for practicing, do it for a short period of time.  Recitals, positive feedback, and continued success in music will foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is critical for finding purpose (see #3 in the characteristics of gritty people list.)

Be sure to show your child the world of art and music. Your child needs to see that he or she has a place in the arts, that she is part of something larger. Give them hope that there is more in the world of music than high school marching band. (Not knocking marching band– it’s awesome, but there’s so much more to discover.) A hopeful outlook is one of the hallmarks of a gritty individual.

A final thought

If grit is the secret to success in music, and music is the key to success in life, then grit and success have a direct relationship. The more grit, the more success. Not just in music. In everything.

Tiger Mother book review

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

OK, I’ll admit it: I’m a (Hybrid) Tiger Mother.

I will never be a full, genuine Tiger Mother because I’m not Chinese, like Amy Chua who is the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. My dear husband knows how to balance me out when I bare my savage teeth. And I’ll never have the time or energy to sit with my kids while they practice for three hours each and every day. But I relate to Amy Chua’s struggles as the mother of two young musicians. A previous blog post touched on this briefly and provided fodder for the Tiger Mothers out there. This post will examine Chua’s book and my feelings about it more deeply.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua should be on everyone’s book club list. Since its publication in 2011, Battle Hymn has received so much press that the term “Tiger Mother” is part of our lexicon. Among my friends, there seems to be two polarized camps: people who resonate with Amy Chua’s story and those who think she is a terrible parent. I think many people are missing the parts of this book that are meant to be read as tongue-in-cheek and self-parody.

I find the book to be an honest, often self-deprecating, look at a style of parenting that seems to contradict a lot of the popular parenting books. Top parenting books with titles like Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and The 5 Love Languages of Children seem to suggest that the only way to be a good parent is to offer unconditional love and use soothing tones. But there is a rising volume of voices that suggest this kind of parenting leads to narcissistic kids who don’t become productive, happy members of society. Jean Twenge’s books The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and Generation Me are in the latter category.

On her website, the self-described Tiger Mother, Amy Chua writes

“My book has been controversial. Many people have misunderstood it. If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d choose happiness in a second. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that; it can be a tough world out there, and true self-esteem has to be earned.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is about Amy Chua’s struggles as a Chinese mother raising two “Chinese-Jewish-American” daughters. The older girl plays piano and the younger is a violinist. Amy Chua and I share some rules: practice is top priority, get good grades in school, be kind and respectful. When I read that Sophia and Lulu practice even when on vacation (Chua calls around to find a piano in the city they are visiting,) I was inspired. That’s a great idea!

Like the author, I don’t like sleepovers (or not-sleeping-overs) because the children turn into zombies for the next couple of days. However, I my husband and I don’t prohibit sleepovers. Amy Chua never let the gils have sleepovers while they were young, though she does allow them now. Our family is considered unusual in our small town because the kids each play one season of club sports. (No travel teams or year-round activities like most of their friends.) But the author’s girls are not allowed to play any sports at all.

Despite the strict rules, Amy Chua’s love for her children comes shining through. She wants the best for her children and she’s highly invested, in time and money, in their success, even hiring people to sit with her girls when they practice. I’d like to note that Amy Chua’s girls do not like to practice their instruments (nor do my kids, as I admit in the blog post “Parenting and Practicing.”) In Chua’s book, we read about her often resorting to screaming, threats, and bribes. I think it’s very brave of her to write about the times that she lost control or pushed too hard. It happens to everyone, but not everyone admits it… or writes about it with brutal honesty.

Amy Chua does not hold herself up as a shining example of the ideal parent. She simply says that this is one way of parenting. Western parents would be wise to examine their own decisions through a different cultural lens. Interestingly, Chua’s husband is also an author and has been thrown into that parenting spotlight with his wife.  I’m fascinated to follow Amy Chua’s story into the future. Everyone is wondering when Sophia and Lulu will write their memoirs.

daughter with flute

“I don’t want to practice” — watch out… here comes Tiger Mother!



A Flute in My Refrigerator, book review

A Flute in My Refrigerator: Celebrating a Life in Music by Helen Spielman; book reviewHelen Spielman

Frustrated with teachers who complain about “students who don’t inspire them,” Helen Spielman dares to suggest that “they’ve got that backwards– it’s a teacher’s job to inspire students.” Throughout her book, Helen’s book examines the student-teacher bond. The relationship goes in two directions and Helen has firsthand knowledge of both. She speaks from years of experience as a private flute instructor, but the essays I found most touching were the ones in which she examines her role as an adult flute student.

Helen’s vulnerabilities and struggles as an adult learner are endearing.

We read about Helen’s first recital in 1996. Overcoming personal obstacles such as technical facility and feelings of self-doubt, the physical obstacle of a snow and ice storm proved insurmountable. However, the concert was rescheduled and triumphantly executed. Even James Galway sends his regards in a series of emails about the concert. This is one of the many threads that are entertaining and touching.

One of the most enjoyable sections of the book is titled “Moments from a Teacher’s Flute Journal.” Delightful stories about students young and old are told with love, and Helen often makes punchlines out of her own mistakes. I laughed out loud when reading this passage:

Charlotte is 10. She’s a smart girl, but she doesn’t talk much. Only with much coaxing does she answer questions about her day at school or her weekend activities.

Today, however, she uncharacteristically volunteered some information all by herself.

“I have lice,” she announced.

Thank you very much for sharing that, Charlotte.

Oh, I can relate to these stories!

Last week I was teaching a middle school student, let’s call her Bethany. As I watched Bethany’s fingers, I thought her flute looked strange, like maybe it was curved in a gentle U-shape. I shook my head and made a silent note to have my eyes checked. Or maybe I was just going crazy– sometimes it feels like that after a long evening of lessons. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that Bethany’s flute was bent- the solder joint at the barrel had separated and stretched on one side. The flute had fallen on the floor during band practice that day and now the flute had a distinct curve upward. Bethany’s flute was quickly fixed by the repairman and my sanity was restored. Helen Spielman’s book has inspired me to keep a journal in the studio to write down these precious moments.

A Flute in My Refrigerator reminds me that we teach more than notes and rhythms. Middle and high school students need to know that an adult besides their parents cares about them. I know that my high school flute teacher was like a father to me. The weekly check-ins with my students can make me feel a little bit like a therapist. There are the general opening questions, like “So, how was your week” “You look tired. Are you feeling OK?” “Last week you mentioned feeling overwhelmed. How is everything this week?” And then there are the questions that come from knowing a person for awhile, like “What does your prom dress look like?” “Tell me something unexpected that happened at the competition.” I’ve cried when students have graduated or left the flute studio. I keep a photo album of their senior pictures, our recital group photos, and snapshots I have taken during lessons.

Helen Spielman devotes one essay to the importance of the FLUTE List, an online group that we have both been members of for many years. I first became aware of Helen’s gentle nature and insightful writings on the FLUTE List. You can find it here and join the ongoing discussion:  The following is one exchange I remember from 1997

Posted by List user: I need some teaching hints to inspire (students) to keep on with their music. What do all you experienced music and band teachers do to generate enthusiasm?

Helen: Be enthusiastic myself.

A Flute in My Refrigerator is a terrific memoir about the love of learning and teaching. You need not be a flute player or music teacher to enjoy this book. This collection of writings can be distilled into three wisdoms– Be open, be connected, be enthusiastic. It’s a lesson we can all take from Helen.


For more information about Helen Spielman and her work as a Performance Anxiety Coach, please visit her website at

The Music Parents’ Guide

Music Parents' Guide bookI can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Anthony Mazzocchi’s book The Music Parents’ Guide: A Survival Kit for the New Music Parent.

It’s available on Kindle on May 1, but I want to own a paper copy because this is a book I’ll want to highlight, dog-ear, and loan out to friends.

Consider this:

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of students start a musical instrument though their school music programs. One or two years later, up to 80% of them quit.

This occurs because parents are not armed with the minimal knowledge required to support their child’s musical growth at home.

Self-disciplined, compassionate, responsible, collaborative, confidant, and proud. These are all characteristics of children who play musical instruments.
What’s more, the benefits of music education reach far beyond the lesson and well into all aspects of adulthood.” -Mazzocchi

You can preorder now on Amazon.

I first became aware of Mazzocchi’s writings through his wonderful blog. The blog offers practical advice informed by his career as a professional musician and teacher. He is also the father of a reluctant young pianist. I can relate to that!

I was inspired to write about my own experiences as a teacher and parent when I read about the high numbers of kids who start musical instruments at school only to give up soon thereafter. Conversations with parents of flute players in my private studio confirmed that adults need support in helping their children practice. Some parents think that if a child isn’t enthusiastic about practicing or won’t initiate practicing on their own, that it means the child has no future as a musician.

Mazzocchi addresses this directly in a recent blog post. He writes

“It’s important to know that just because you need to remind your child to practice does not mean that they don’t want to practice or that they don’t want to play their instrument. Just as you don’t give your children the option of not doing homework, brushing their teeth, or eating, practice should not be optional. Even if that means you remind your child to do it every day.”

My husband and I are both professional musicians and we have to remind our two children to practice every day. I don’t count it as a failure. I have to remind my daughter to clean her room too, but I wouldn’t consider giving up and letting her become a slob.

I believe this book will be an invaluable resource for all parents of musical children. Band teachers, for understandable reasons, don’t give a lot of advice about what to do with the instrument at home. Private teachers offer a bit more support, but I’ll admit we’re not as specific as we should be about all the issues that need to be addressed in the practice room.

Parents of young musicians (and I include myself in this category) need help in two important ways:

  1. We need answers to questions such as “Is 10 minutes a day enough?” “Do I need to be in the practice room with my child?” “How do I know if she is playing something wrong and how can I help her fix the problem?”
  2. We need emotional support to keep up the hard work of motivating children to play music, especially when our children are resistant. We need to be assured that the effort and money is worth it. Maybe this issue is causing friction with your spouse. After reading this book, you’ll be more confident about the choices you’re making.

Put The Music Parents’ Guide on your summer reading list, and we’ll meet back here to discuss.