The 5 Spiritual Lessons From Choir

Being a member of a choir can be a deeply spiritual experience.

Every choir is an intentional community of individuals with a common purpose. We come together to inspire and be inspired, to create music, and to be moved. The choir seems the perfect metaphor or symbol of community and shared vision.

We come to rehearsal as a single voice, then merge it with others to create something powerful. A single voice is amplified in when we sing together, but the choir doesn’t exist without each and every voice. Breathing together, speaking together, moving together, becoming louder… together.

The five lessons we can learn from being in a choir:

1. Show Up

It’s impossible to have a choir with just one or two or even three people. Choir requires personal commitment and trust. We have to trust that our friends are also going to show up for rehearsal. Members must be reliable and committed. It’s a good place to develop and practice grit, which has resonance in other areas of life.

2. Be Prepared

The singers sitting next to you will appreciate the time and effort you have put into preparing your part. Perhaps more importantly, you will have confidence and will enjoy the rehearsal better. When the director doesn’t have to teach the notes, she can use rehearsal time to craft a musical performance. Together, we can study the phrases for the proper dynamics and breaths. We can discuss the words and the text painting the composer used. Music is so much more than the right notes and the right rhythms. Your home practice will make rehearsal easier and the performance more meaningful.

3. We Need Every Individual Voicechoir

A choir needs the high voices and the low ones. We need the ones that project and the voices that blend. Directors love the folks who sight read flawlessly and those that practice the music at home. Sometimes a young, clear voice is right for the solo; other times we want the voice that is a bit rough around the edges but experienced. Each week, the choir sound may be slightly different depending on who is singing (and who has a cold.) But that’s the beauty of the choir: it is a living, expressive entity that requires a crowd and always has room for one more.

4. Synergy

The choir is much more than the sum of its parts. We blend our voices and are carried by the music. We’ve all had the experience of a performance that was astonishingly better than the practice. “Performance magic” is one of the most spectacular things about being a member of a musical group. I don’t know where the magic comes from but without warning it tuns a song into a holy anthem.

5. Make the World a Bit More Beautiful

The choir is a microcosm of the world we want. It is a group of individuals coming together, people transforming dots on the paper into art that resonates in the soul. We sing when we are happy, we sing when we are sad, we sing when we are angry, and we sing for inspiration. We lift each other up in a spirit of caring and of shared purpose.

When we raise our voices together, we can change the world. And when the revolution comes, I’ll be singing with the choir.

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: (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/review-of-grit-the-power-of-passion-and-perseverance/)

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?

Take THE GRIT SCALE quiz

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.