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.

Bite Sized Pieces (Woodshedding technique)

BITE SIZE PIECES – technique exercise

This blog post is part of a series on woodshedding. For more ideas on how to invigorate your practicing with new and creative ideas, check out the bog posts on the Articulation Game, Rhythm Spinner Game, Scale Card Game, and Karate Chops. Today’s blog post will offer some ideas for how to turn a long run of music notes into a smooth, effortless thing of beauty.

Long, fast runs can turn into a sloppy mess if we let the fingers run freely. Easy fingering combinations move more quickly than difficult ones, giving the passage an uneven texture. We must even out the technique to make the run sound good. Clean runs sound much faster than sloppy ones at the same tempo. Consider this example:


long muddy run


Let’s group the notes like this:

bite sized pieces

marked groups


You can pause after each group. Alternatively, you can articulate the first note of each group or pulse with the breath. Choose groups that make the most sense, ie. chromatic movement, scales. Try to break the groups when there is an unusual skip. In the example above, the notes are grouped together because they are chromatic. The notes that start groups are exceptions to the rule; in this case, the minor thirds are different than the half steps. We bring attention to these exceptions by making them the start of a new group.

When performing, we want to think of the groups but keep the original articulation. In practice and in the finished performance it’s simply too difficult for the brain to control all 22 notes. But small groups are manageable.
Creating groups will help the technique be cleaner and the run will sound faster. When playing fast runs, you must listen very carefully to hear every note. If you can’t hear each individual note, neither can your audience.

Rhythm Spinner Game

The Rhythm Spinner Game is an excellent tool for woodshedding difficult passages.

Like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner adds an element of chance to spice up your practicing.

For this game, you will need a hole punch, metal brad, and the chart below with arrow.

rhythm spinner game

rhythm spinner game

arrow for spinner game

arrow for rhythm spinner game

Punch a hole near the end of the arrow. Use a metal brad to connect the arrow to the center of the spinner.

Flick the arrow and play the difficult passage with the rhythm indicated. For instance, if the arrow lands on “Jazzy,” play the passage in a loose, uneven rhythm. (The opposite rhythm is on the other side of the circle.)

Whichever rhythm pattern is selected, play the music at a tempo fast enough to give you a challenge but slow enough that you can play all the notes correctly. When you have tried the first rhythm, spin again.

When the arrow lands on “as fast as possible” play the passage as quickly as possible, letting the fingers run without trying to control them. It may be sloppy or it may be miraculously clean. Simply notice if your finger memory is taking over or if you fingers seem to get “stuck” in one place. Don’t judge yourself and don’t try to make your fingers perfectly fast. Play the passage once or twice this way and then spin again.

When the arrow lands on the opposite side of the spinner – “robot fingers, slow and controlled” – be very deliberate about playing in a relatively slow tempo. You will want to feel each finger going up and down, like typing or hammering.

The other sections of the rhythm wheel show combinations of slow (S) and fast (F) rhythms. It will be naturally easier to begin the pattern with a slow note, but make sure you also practice with the longest note at the end of the four.

When you have tried all the rhythm patterns, go back and play the passage as written. Did it feel easier? Did you make fewer mistakes? Maybe you were able to go a bit faster this time.

Playing the Rhythm Spinner Game takes only a few minutes but it can save hours of time wasted in unproductive practicing.

Teachers, like the Articulation Game, the Rhythm Spinner Game helps randomize practice patterns. You will probably want to introduce the rhythms and model them in a lesson. This game can be modified for other time signatures and rhythms. In addition to helping woodshed a difficult passage, this game is useful in cementing common rhythm patterns. You can also make up your own rhythm patterns.

Practice: The journey is the destination.

Practice leads to harmony.

picture in music studio

“Never forget the pleasure of the journey.”

This picture hangs beside the door to my music studio. No one can leave without seeing it, including me. The text reads

“Never Forget the Pleasure of the Journey. This Chinese word means Traveling and Playing, whether it refers to studying a discipline, climbing a mountain, going through life…”

A friend recently posted on Facebook an article titled “We are graduating too many, too narrowly trained musicians.” The author, and the book he reviews, are concerned that there are more musicians than there are jobs. Music schools are graduating a record number of highly-skilled musicians, yet there are fewer and fewer jobs available in orchestras. While this is true, I don’t see it as a crisis. Anyone who makes it through music school will possess abilities that are highly in demand in the workforce: the ability to collaborate with others, the ability to set goals and complete them, the understanding that criticism can lead to transformation, persistence and patience, among others. The resourceful music graduate will either create a job in music (perhaps where none has existed before as an entrepreneur) or will market their unique skill set to their advantage. These are not people who give up easily. They know how to spend hours alone doing hard work. Musicians know how to practice.

After completing my bachelor’s degree in flute performance at The Ohio State University, I continued my studies at the University of Colorado and completed a Master of Music degree in Flute Performance. Throughout my college years, I was aware that I didn’t want to be in the flute section of a major symphony orchestra. So why on earth would I spend thousands of dollars to get a degree that I would not use to the letter? Because I wanted to be the best I could be. I knew that if I wanted to teach, I had to immerse myself in the material. I had to learn everything I could before passing that knowledge on to others. Learning how to practice, studying, seeking out teachers, facing my performance anxiety… these were the goals.

Giving a child music lessons does not mean that the child will grow up to be a classical solo artist. Speaking as a parent, my children take lessons and practice everyday because the skills they learn will help them for the rest of their lives. I’ve been collecting articles about research on the brains of musicians. You can read about some of these studies elsewhere on the blog (Brain ImagingBetter Brains) so it seems there is compelling evidence from science that musicians have different skills than non-musicians.

I teach many adult students in my music studio. Most of them will never play professionally. They play because they love music, they love learning.

Musician's Yoga book


Recently, I read the book Musician’s Yoga: A Guide To Practice, Performance, and Inspiration by Mia Olson. This excellent book draws beautiful connections between the breath and body work of yoga and music practice. Even in yoga, the word practice is used to describe the time we spend on the mat. When I first started going to yoga classes, I was goal focused. I had the idea that I was going to be able to touch my toes within a month. I’ve never, ever been able to touch my toes and after four years of regular practice, I still can’t. I know that I won’t ever become a yoga teacher or a master yogi, and I’m OK with that. Some poses are easier for me than others. I show up for class with my mat and I breathe. Most days I flow with the instructor and I leave the gym feeling refreshed. Other days, I struggle against my body and I want to give up halfway through class. But I’m learning to turn off the judgement and just be glad that I showed up, that I practiced. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to touch my toes, but I can now reach my shins– progress!

Six wisdoms from practicing yoga:

  1. Humility- there is always going to be someone better/more flexible/stronger than me.
  2. Whatever is on my mind, it can wait until I am done with my practice. I turn off my cell phone, try to quiet the monkey-brain. Everything will still be there in an hour.
  3. Breathe deeply and consciously.
  4. Be playful and have a sense of humor. It’s not unusual for me to fall over during balance poses. A little laughter goes a long way toward healing a bruised ego.
  5. Today my practice will be different than yesterday; tomorrow will be different from today.
  6. Pay attention to my body. It’s good to find the edges of my ability but I always have to be careful not to injure myself.

I wonder what would happen if we re-framed music practice in a similar way. How would we feel if the goal was the practice and not the performance? What if the action of showing up in front of the music stand every day is the highest achievement? Don’t forget to breathe. Namaste.

drawing by MMH


Hearing vs. Listening

There is a big difference between hearing something and actually listening to it.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman observes

“Sounds thicken the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.”

Even when we seek to be completely silent, there are still noises.We are all born with the sense of hearing, but musicians must be especially sensitive to developing their powers of listening.


ensemble members listen to everything

Hearing is a passive activity. Our ears are constantly taking in information, much of it background noise. Those little bones in our ears are vibrating whether we want them to or not. Our brains have been processing auditory input since the first day we were born. Most of us are pretty good about filtering out the unimportant noise like traffic and the sounds of the house/office/school. It doesn’t take judgment or discernment to hear a sound because it’s a purely a physical, unconscious process. If you’ve ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a loud sound, you know that you are hearing even when you are asleep.

Listening, on the other hand, is an active, conscious process. True listening only takes place when were fully aware of the auditory inputs. Listening involves making judgments, and it invites changes. Listening is dynamic. However, listening is a learned process and that’s why it is a skill that must be cultivated by musicians.

Why is deep listening important to musicians?

1. The sound we hear while playing the instrument is different than the way the audience hears it, especially the tone color and dynamics.
2. Because our art is guided by the ear, we learn by emulating teachers, recordings, concerts, masterclasses.
3. Musicians who play wind and string instruments have to make fast and accurate adjustments in pitch.
4. Identifying mistakes is the first step in fixing them.
5. The beginning, middle, and end of notes must be carefully shaped.
6. In an ensemble, the players have to be responsive to one another.

The next time you’re in a crowded place, try focusing on a single conversation. Can you block out the other sounds? This exercise will strengthen your powers of listening.

Parents can help their young musicians by being another set of ears in the practice room. Because listening involves concentration, having another person in the practice room can promote mindful practice. I talk about other ways you can help your child in the practice room in the blog post Helping Kids Practice.

Musicians need to be reminded that expressive elements need to be exaggerated to be heard by the audience. Actors apply heavy makeup when they are onstage. The lights and distance mute the effects of the makeup so that it seems natural from the audience. In the same way, musicians have to exaggerate dynamics, vibrato, accents, etc. for the listeners to perceive them.

The first time I ever recorded myself playing the flute, I was astonished. It was like hearing my voice on an answering machine – shocking and humbling. The sound was remarkably different and suddenly I realized all the little mistakes in tempo and intonation. In graduate school, I recorded all of my lessons. Reviewing the tapes, it was amazing how much information I had missed. Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, it is easy to make digital recordings. I believe all musicians should record themselves from time to time.

It takes discipline to develop mindfulness in the practice room. Cultivating deep listening skills has been invaluable to me as a performer and teacher. Beyond the practice room, I think good listening skills have helped me be a better mother and wife.

Happy practicing!

Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective

Far more time is spent in the practice room than the performance hall.

I have been teaching private music lessons since 1995. One of my primary goals as a teacher is to motivate my students to practice.

In a previous blog post (Parenting and Practicing), I explored practice motivation from the perspective of a parent of young musicians. Another post explores motivation from my personal perspective as a student (Motivation: A Student’s Perspective.) In this post, I approach the same subject and share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned in 20 years as a teacher.

Flute Recital 2012 participants, motivation

flute studio 2012, motivation

Students of all ages like to hear praise.

Giving a student ample performance opportunities is a good way to create opportunities for praise (see my blog post Parenting and Practicing), but there are other ways too. In these days of cell phones, it’s easy to make a video of a home performance and leverage social media for feedback. Upload the video to FaceBook or YouTube. If you make the video private on youtube, sharing it with only friends and family, you can limit the negativity that can come from sharing with the entire world. The very act of making the video can be motivational because of the expected praise. Further, making a video creates a goal (see below) and heightens the practice by encouraging the musician to listen differently. I recently recorded my son performing with his friend at church and uploaded it as a private video on YouTube. The response from friends, family, and their teachers has been overwhelmingly positive.

Think about it: are you more likely to work hard for a boss that is consistently negative about your performance or one that gives you credit for your strengths while sometimes offering helpful suggestions?

I believe it was Kathy Jones at Ohio State University who taught me the value of PCP feedback. (Positive, Constructive, Positive!) In studio class, we were encouraged to give each other feedback by offering two positive observations tucked around a constructive suggestion. Parents, you can do this when you listen to your child practice at home. Overly critical students can benefit from remembering PCP when evaluating themselves.

Caitlin*, mother of five young musicians, shared with me that she asks the children to practice for her, one at a time. Although Caitlin isn’t a musician herself and perhaps can’t hear every error, the kids enjoy their special time with Mom. When my kids practice for me, I like to applaud when they finish a long piece. Hearing my enthusiastic clapping helps them know that I’m listening and that I appreciate their efforts.

Setting goals can be motivational.

Jim* is an adult student in my flute studio. He has recently been keeping a practice journal. In it he lists long term and short term goals. It only takes a minute at the beginning of each practice session to answer the question “What do I need to accomplish with my practicing today?” At the end of each practice session, it’s helpful to review your goals and set new ones for the next practice session. I like to add my goals to the “to do” list I keep on my phone. Checking them off gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Goals can be simple and have a short time frame, such as wanting to work on a new scale or practice for 30 minutes without distraction. Or goals can be long-term, like presenting a full recital. It’s helpful to have some goals that can be easily accomplished and some that will take a year or more to complete.

Anything new or fun can break the tedium of practicing.

Buy some new music. It doesn’t have to be classical etudes. Maybe playing the music from “Frozen” is the kick in the pants you or your child needs. For my daughter’s birthday I bought her a book of pop tunes and Star Wars, both with play-along CDs. It’s not Bach, but I guarantee she will practice more this week.

I’m a flute teacher so I like for new music to play everyday. In the comments, please share resources for other instruments.

Read through my blog for some creative ideas for practicing to get unstuck on a difficult passage. Ones you may enjoy include Upside DownMiss It? Mark It! and Rhythm Game

Private lessons can be motivating.

Knowing that a teacher is going to listen to the assignments every week will keep kids and adults on track, as long that teacher is a good match for the student. If you or your child do not look forward to lessons with the teacher most of the time, find a new teacher. Lessons serve as weekly goals and a good teacher will give the right amount of work at the right level so practicing continues to move the player forward. If lessons don’t fit your budget or schedule, seek out other ways to enrich the music practice, such as online forums and music websites. If you are unable to find a teacher within a reasonable distance, investigate lessons via Skype.

Keep it in perspective.

Remember that progress on a musical instrument can be slow and non-linear. Parents, private teachers, and family members (spouses of adult students) can help by providing prospective. Saying things like “Your tone is really improving” or “Last week, that part was hard for you but now it sounds easy.” are encouraging. Ask the musician to play something they practiced six months or a year ago. It can be a shot of confidence to an otherwise bruised ego.

Happy practicing!

Research on Effective Practice Skills

I love to read about the intersection of science, music, and psychology.

I encourage all musicians to read this article reviewing research on effective practice skills by Robert Duke at the University of Texas:

The researchers discovered that it doesn’t matter how long a musician practices something. It doesn’t even matter how many times something difficult is practiced. What does make a difference is how few times the musician makes a mistake. It’s not how many times a section is played right, its the high ratio of right to wrong.

I encourage you to read the article because it lays out the findings of the research much more eloquently than I can here.

My takeaway: The researchers found that the best musicians identified where the problems were and isolated them to figure out a solution. The pianists in this study practiced right notes more often than wrong ones and they slowed down for the hard parts. These practice skills are what teachers have been emphasizing all along. But sometimes we have to hear it in a new way before it really sinks in.

flute drawing

practice skills

The first post

A blog about practice, for musicians and the people who love them.

The first post.

A couple of days ago a Facebook friend posted an article titled “Why Students Really Quit Their Musical Instrument (and How Parents Can Prevent It).” . Among other things, the article suggests that kids quit playing a musical instrument because their parents don’t know how to support their practice.

That’s when I knew that I had something to contribute to the conversation.

You see, I have been a flute teacher for 20 years. Before that, I studied music since the age of 5, earning both Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in Flute Performance. Perhaps most importantly, I’m the parent of two children who take music lessons.

Practicing an instrument is something I think about… a lot. It’s something I talk about with other parents whose kids take lessons and it comes up daily in my private studio of flute and recorder students. Adults who take lessons have a lot of the same questions.

“How long should a practice session be?”

“Every day?”

“How exactly do you ‘woodshed’ hard parts?”

“What should I do if the practicing causes anxiety, anger, frustration,…”

“How do I motivate my kid (and/or myself)?”

“Is all this (effort, money, struggle, equipment) worth it?”

“What does the teacher mean when she says I should ‘mark the music'”?

These questions are good ones and the answers deserve thoughtful examination. Search the web and you’ll find lists of things to try, but this blog aims to start a conversation about ideas that are practicalinspiringcreative, grounded in research, and tested in the studio.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re self-taught, learning the instrument at school, the parent of a music student, or taking private lessons, this blog is here to support the very important work that is achieved in the practice room.

Let’s begin, remembering always that the journey is as important as the destination.

Marlene Metz Hartzler

Marlene Metz Hartzler