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.

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!

 

 

Practicing Upside Down

Our brains crave novelty. Literally turning things upside down can give us the new perspective we need.

Feel stuck in your practice? Are your kids complaining the music is “too easy” or are the making silly mistakes?

Turn the music upside down like this:

upside down music

upside down

Then try to play it as usual with the right notes and rhythms. The brain now has to work to flip the staves and the eyes will be reading right to left, down to up.

Another variation is to turn the music on its side like this:

Mozart on its side

music on its side

This idea might sound crazy and though it requires a bit more attention, it’s not as difficult as it seems. I figured out this little trick on my own when I was in middle school band. I was bored by the easy music but found that turning the book upside down created more of a challenge.

In the book A Soprano on Her Head, Eliose Ristad talks about singing while hanging upside down. My yoga teacher says that the inverted poses give us a new way to look at the world.

We can’t keep doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result. (Einstein supposedly gave this as the definition of insanity.) It’s true in life and in practicing.

Try this crazy experiment: give your music a flip and let me know if it turned your practicing upside down.

Parenting and Practicing

It’s clear I’m not the only parent thinking about how to motivate my kids to practice.

Check out this article by Anthony Mazzocchi:

www.musicparentsguide.com/2015/01/31/give-ownership-practicing-instrument-child/

There are a lot of solid ideas in this article. Like the author, I like to use something to help count repetitions; my students like to use buckeyes instead of pennies because we like the way the sound when they are rolled on the music stand. In the fall, buckeyes are all over the front yard and students love helping me gather them.IMG_2092

I think most children are able to practice longer than the guidelines suggested in this article. Ten minutes is a good goal for the earliest beginners, but I think we can expect more. My own kids (age 8 and 10) do one practice session in the morning before school and one in the afternoon before dinner. Son, age 10, works between 45 minutes and one hour every day. Daughter, age 8, practices about 30-40 minutes. Practicing is part of our daily routine, not something we try to cram in before bedtime.

My husband, a pianist, and I have lively discussions about how long the children should practice. Being a flute player, I think it’s easier to practice the piano for longer. The flute is a very physical instrument. I challenge anyone to breathe deeply and forcefully while holding their arms parallel to the floor for 30 minutes and not feel tired.

In my experience I have found that kids HATE practicing slowly. It’s the # 1 thing we parents and teachers repeat to students, but it’s really, really hard for them. Goodness knows my children won’t do anything slowly. They run everywhere and shovel food in their mouths as fast as possible. I think it’s good practice for them to try to play slowly, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to do it consistently.

Gentle reminders, being present in the room while they practice, and making a game out of “being slow” are all helpful, but most of the time young students are going to play fast. Of course slow practice will yield good results, but their little brains crave entertainment. Playing tunes at snail speed is not much fun. My suggestion is to keep a balanced approach by offering encouragement but don’t turn this issue into a power struggle!

Adult students seem to gain even greater benefit from slow practice, but our brains and bodies seem to be a little slower too.

No matter what your age, music practice should always be a healthy balance of hard work, fun, and accomplishment.