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.

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.

Motivation: Parenting and Practicing


As parents, we want to support our kids. We know that playing a musical instrument is good for them, but the issue of practice can be thorny.

I’ve seen this struggle from the teacher’s perspective when parents ask me how much they should insist on practice. There are power struggles and concerns about the child being “turned off” music forever. Parents are worried that motivation is lacking.

I have had five years to wrestle with it myself as a parent of two young musicians. I don’t know all the answers and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I know that every family and every child is different, but I’d like to share with you some of the things that have worked for our family. I’d love to hear about the things that work for you.

Practicing is not a choice at our house. That may seem harsh, but chores aren’t a choice either. The children do, however, have a choice about when they would like to practice. Our children are motivated by SCREEN TIME so they are allowed to play on the computer or iPad/iPod when they have finished all chores and all practicing. We keep a fairly consistent routine at home and I think this helps us maintain a regular practice schedule. Music isn’t the only activity the kids are involved in, but it is the highest priority. If we have to choose between baseball practice and a piano lesson, piano is always going to win.

Our ten-year-old son would rather die than miss a day of “Minecraft” so he is eager to finish all jobs as soon as possible. Screen time is his ultimate motivation. We have to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t rush through his practice or forget something, but generally this works well. He is advancing quickly and practices 45-60 minutes every day.

However, our daughter (8 years old) has inherited my dear husband’s proclivity to procrastination. She is easily distracted during her practice. If the cat walks through the room or her brother is making noise, she is likely to get sidetracked. There have been days when we have had to hold a firm line with her about screen time and there have been excuses followed by tears. As long as we continue to gently remind her and redirect her attention when it begins to wander, she will practice 30-40 minutes every day.

In the book How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Faber and Mazlish encourage parents to be consistent. They argue that consequences should be fair and directly related to the situation. They also encourage parents to let kids make decisions, though the choices should be agreeable to all. Last night, Daughter was complaining heartily about having to finish her practicing. We were in the kitchen, having just finished dinner. I looked around at all of the dinner dishes and mess from cooking and I understood how she felt. I didn’t want to clean up the kitchen either. In fact, there are a lot of things I have to do everyday but I don’t feel like doing. So I gave Daughter an option: she could clean up the whole kitchen (clear the table, do the dishes, wipe the counters, etc.) while I practiced the flute -OR- she could finish her practicing without complaining while I cleaned up the kitchen. After sizing up the mess, Daughter walked upstairs and started practicing right away. It made me think about the research that showed that “grit” is an important indicator of success. (Check out Glenn Kurtz book Practicing: A Musician’s Return To Music for more on that topic.)

I know that motivating my kids is like the Whack-A-Mole game. The things that work right now are different than what has worked in the past, and we’ll have to stay creative in the future.

When the children were younger, we would award stickers in their lesson books for good practice. This worked for awhile, but it required a bit of management from me to have the stickers at hand. I wasn’t consistent enough to make it work long term. However, I was giving Daughter a lesson this afternoon and offered her stickers for perfect scales. It worked! She played three scales perfectly, earning three sparkly stars… and then she put them on her face! Tomorrow this trick isn’t going to work because the novelty will have worn off, but I was grateful for those silly stickers today. We were able to laugh together and she learned the scales. Victory!

stickers for motivation

stickers for motivation (today)

I know other parents who use money as a reward for practice time, similar to allowance, and that works well for them. I have been wary of over-using rewards as motivation ever since I read the book Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn. If the rewards are fair and not a burden to the parent, I think they can be used for motivation, but we have to be vigilant about making sure that musicians understand the intrinsic value of practice.

Performances can increase motivation.

CMC fall concert

piano trio concert

Studio recitals are great, but think about other places your kids can perform too. Could they play for their class at school? Church? A nursing home? Even a concert at home is fun. At Thanksgiving dinner for the past several years, the four of us put on a mini-recital after the big meal. My student Ada* played a concert as her Christmas gift to family, and even printed a concert program. Try asking your child to play their lesson assignment for you. It’s silly, perhaps, but I like to clap at the end of each piece to make it feel like a performance. We once invited my son’s friend over for a “playing play date.” The two musicians played for each other and sight-read duets. Ask your teacher (band or private) about competitions, solo and ensemble contests, talent shows, etc.

Most days my kids are motivated to practice because they want to have their “screen time.” Maybe as they achieve success in music, there will be a positive feedback loop to keep them intrinsically motivated. But until then, it’s my responsibility to make sure they are supported in the ups and downs. “I’m so glad my parents let me quit my instrument,” said NOBODY EVER!