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A Musician's Mindset


Too many musicians, music teachers, and parents worship at the alter of "talent." I once had a three year child come to his first piano lesson with me. At the end of his lesson (where he basically learned to find middle C), his father asked me, "do you think he's talented, or is he just wasting his time?" I was taken aback. How on earth could I, or anyone else for that matter, be able to tell from one lesson with a three year old how much talent he had?

What that father demonstrated is a "fixed" mindset instead of a growth mindset. Instead of recognizing that music is a skill that takes years of hard work and effort to develop (for people of all talents), he started with the idea that only special, talented people can or should play music. I've seen other destructive effects of this idea as well. I remember meeting a young violinist in college who refused to practice his orchestra music--he said he was too "talented" to need to practice. I can hardly imagine a more self-destructive idea. Practice helps us learn and grow as musicians; without it, we're denying ourselves opportunities for growth that help us become better. It's true that everyone has different natural abilities, but why limit yourself by refusing a chance to grow? Truly successful musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Mozart, practice and hone their skills constantly. With that in mind, I've come up with a list of ways for musicians to embrace the growth mindset we need to persevere and succeed in a challenging profession.

1. Focus on Practice and Effort

People who focus too much on talent tend to give up in the face of obstacles. To them, setbacks indicate that they're not talented enough, and there's no way to change that. But when we focus on practicing effectively and working hard, we realize that we have the tools we need to overcome those obstacles instead.

2. Seek New Challenges

In a fixed mindset, challenges are frightening. But for growth minded musicians, challenges are a way to expand our skills and stretch our abilities further. Many of the best musicians experiment with different genres or aspects of music. Performers could try their hands at improvisation, or composing and arranging. Composers might try writing music for different instruments or new ensembles, or study the scores of a new composer. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

3. Persevere!

Every musician has had bad performances, or failed auditions, or just plain difficult days. If we just give up, then we never learn to work past difficulties and challenges. Instead, ask for feedback from audition committees, juries, or audiences, and work hard to do better next time. Failure isn't a tragedy; it's an opportunity to grow.

4. Watch Your Self-Talk

Many musicians beat themselves up over mistakes--I know I've been guilty of this. Instead, let your self-talk be helpful. Change "stop missing that note, moron!" to "listen for the intonation here." I work with my students to change their self-talk from negative put-downs to useful feedback and instructions. A growth mindset means focusing on correcting mistakes, not beating yourself up.

5. Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others

I had a friend who was seriously disappointed with the chair she had in her college orchestra. She thought she must have played a terrible audition, and she envied her friends with "higher" chairs. After we talked about her feelings, I suggested that she talk to her conductor, to see if he could give her some advice to help her improve. When she spoke to him, it turned out that he hadn't placed her there because she'd somehow failed; he simply wanted to give everyone in the section a chance to learn to play in both the front and the back. My poor friend had felt terrible for days comparing her place in the orchestra to everyone else's, when it didn't have any relevance to her playing at all. So avoid comparing your progress and your place to everyone around you, and focus on learning and growing as best you can from where you are.

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