Grit and Mindset and Disposition, Oh My!

August 24, 2017, 8:58 AM · I have been doing a lot of reading lately, engaging in discussions with other teachers and players about the key ingredients to success for a young musician. There is such a surplus of great talent these days and it leaves parents of gifted young players to wonder how they will do down the road. What factors influence a child’s success down the road? It isn’t as simple as talent, practice and a great teacher.

This summer, I have been reading about grit, mindset, and a child’s disposition in lessons. This blog will detail all of these elements and how they intertwine and lead to what I believe is a higher chance at success. A child with the right temperament or grit will face adversity in their training by applying themselves even more, believing this will pull them over the hurdle with time. Pair this with a child who believes in a growth mindset and knows to value the challenges of learning over playing perfectly. With the right support, these first two qualities generally lead to a happy student disposition in training with a teacher who is patient and kind but skilled. If you have these elements on hand in your violin training, you have what I consider to be a great recipe for success.

girl music stand

Before I get started, let’s set aside careers, awards, competitions, and the hard stuff for a moment…. After all, that always feels nice! For a student to experience success as a musician, they need to feel free and clear and play music communicating something without a struggle. In the beginning and intermediate levels this can be achieved fairly fluidly with talented, hard working students paired with skilled teachers and supportive families. Then we hit the upper levels. And for many, it’s a game changer.

Virtuosic violin is an expressive powerhouse. It is thrilling, vibrant, high octane, and poignant, using all of our technical tools to get a musical message or set of emotions across. When a young violinist receives their first assignment of virtuosic literature, I can almost see their hearts beat faster. For many, this is the moment they have been waiting for. But suddenly the factors involved to succeed have skyrocketed. And then with baited breath, full hearts, and often tons of talent, we wait. For me, as a teacher, this is sometimes where things get very interesting. In the end it isn’t talent that separates this group of students headed into the upper levels of performance seeking careers in music. It is temperament and mindset alongside someone (or a group of people) protecting a child’s joy, making a conscious choice to nurture their love of music above all else. I have taught virtuosic violin for over twenty years now and a few things have become very clear. Talent matters. Discipline matters. Genetics matter. A combo of those things is an interesting if not awesome thing. But beyond that, solid grit in temperament, growth mindset, and a happy child are the absolute most important things in the mix.

What is "grit"?

Grit is essentially the ability to keep long-term goals in place and push through setbacks with a whole heart and healthy attitude. Some kids will work through technical problems, mentioning them in lessons unfazed. They might ask for more practice tips or different avenues to master a certain passage. They brainstorm with the teacher with a healthy combination of determination and good attitude. They don’t carry their struggle in their hearts or feel it deeply enough to have it hurt their sense of who they are or what they are worth. Students like this can appear unflappable in rehearsal and they will work for weeks without questioning a method. And you know what I noticed? So do their parents. No questions… just discipline, trust, and an unspoken commitment to a process that truly has no end in sight.

Then there are other students, just as talented and sometimes even more so, who even in their first stab at something will immediately feel discouraged. That once-motivated glimmer in their eyes dims. Sometimes these are the brightest students. They have come by so many things so easily it has a deep effect on them to have to struggle without results. After a week of frustration, they will announce they don’t think they are ready for that piece or don’t like it anymore. The parents have sometimes already visited Youtube in frustration thinking there is something they are missing in the equation, trying earnestly to help get through the hurdle. But violin technique isn’t “Google-able” really…. although sometimes I wish it were! It’s also not microwavable. It takes consistency and effort for months, sometimes almost without any forward motion in the largest concerti. This ability to work with very little audible improvement takes grit, faith, and unusual perseverance for a young person. It isn’t for the faint of heart AT ALL. And that includes the parents. To play the highest level literature for concert careers, I feel this characteristic is a must almost for everyone in the house. It completely outweighs talent and discipline and genetics in the end assuming everyone has a fair share of those once we get to a certain juncture. It can do this because it is a way of life and it pairs well with growth mindset, flavors your wellbeing, and ultimately effects how you move from one day to the next.

When I met my husband he probably thought it was pretty exciting for me to be a concert violinist. Then at each date we had he asked with avid interest how my practice was going and heard, “It was pretty good. How was your day?” He must have been baffled, maybe even disappointed! After a few months of dating he asked that same question again, and I remember being very excited in my answer because THAT day, I had experienced a breakthrough. I finally was successful at getting my Barber Concerto last movement at tempo, calm and memorized. And I was set to perform it in a few weeks with orchestra. It took me months to achieve this. Longer than I thought it would. I had to whip out analytical techniques I didn’t know I had and there were setbacks along the way. I was not quiet about my joy at getting to that point, I was just quiet on the journey there.

What if your kid is super-talented but not super-gritty? I read a wonderful book about grit (entitled GRIT!) years ago and one of the things mentioned in it was how they are researching how to encourage grit in young children. There isn’t a lot of data back on this and so the jury is still somewhat out. However, the one conclusion they had so far was that teaching children “growth mindset” was a huge help. So read on to hear my thoughts on “Growth Mindset”!

Growth Mindset

"Growth mindset" is the knowledge that you learn by sometimes failing or making mistakes, and that by even trying you are teaching yourself how to get closer to the goal. People with growth mindset do not believe you were born with a set ability or intelligence and that hard work greatly changes outcomes. They don’t equate talent or brilliance with having to work less. They know that even the brightest of students need to work incredibly hard to reach their potential. This resonates with me as a teacher and a performer in so many ways. To play a large-scale virtuosic work, you will need to perform it literally dozens of times under pressure. With each time, your body gets more fluid and relaxed and with every mistake you make in concert, there is a work around which develops in your body to mend it. It is a fascinating process to me. Sometimes the very next day your body has already relaxed in a spot where there was tension or panic. When I tell students they will need umpteen performances to get a virtuoso piece or concerto where it needs to be I get wide eyes. his is frustrating to both students and parents.

“Why should it take that many performances if I work diligently and do as I am told?“
Cue panic.
“Umpteen performances?”
“How will we get those concert opportunities?”
“So we will play badly in public a lot in order to play well months later?”
“Won’t I gain a reputation for making mistakes?”

I understand it doesn’t sound ideal (really!) but when famous violinists are performing new concerti they don’t debut it with the London Phil. They first try them out with community orchestras and get their bearings…multiple times. This is what the body needs to play something extraordinarily difficult requiring so much balance and control. Most parents have no concept of this and they will get frustrated hearing mistakes even in the first performances. They seem to equate lots of discipline and practice to the right to play the piece with little struggle. I understand their confusion. The unfortunate truth is that virtuosic violin is a beast and it doesn’t work like an exam you can cram hours for.

These same parents sometimes are very aware of the concept of growth mindset and its benefits, paying careful attention to give praise to their children for efforts, and not awards or perfect scores. But there is an unfortunate disconnect when said efforts don’t result in clean performances or audible progress right away. Instead of understanding how the body assimilates to this complex grid of information in the upper level repertoire, they assume something in the training or practice is amiss.

This anxiety flows to the student and before long, we have frustration all around. Sometimes I think to understand and encourage growth mindset it is useful to also describe characteristics of someone with fixed mindset. I personally think a lot of kids and parents with innate fixed mindset are very attracted to the violin as an instrument so this next part to me is very important to read.

To be a solo violinist or a concert violinist of a high caliber, you have to be obsessed with precision, pitch, sound, refinement. It takes an enormous amount of attention to every detail. Hello Type A! The accuracy of the final product DOES matter and especially in competition or auditions. Being a bit of a perfectionist could help in the quest of being a violinist! This would appeal to someone who has what is referred to as “fixed mindset” …a person who values things sounding perfect. This type of student also believes talent and intelligence will lead them to success. (NOTE: the music industry never works this way!!) These students tend to focus on appearing perfect or sounding perfect and when they do, they feel the most satisfied and successful. They will avoid challenges in favor of being seen as better than other players, playing the same pieces for years in competitions rather than venturing into new literature and working through hurdles to yield progress. Let’s draw some comparisons to illustrate the mindsets. In studies with children about fixed mindset and growth mindset, fixed mindset students felt smarter when they did something right the first time or before others around them. Growth mindset kids felt the smartest when they had to work hard for something to get it done correctly like a large crossword or giant jigsaw puzzle. Fixed mindset students chose challenges they knew they could master to preserve the appearance of being very smart and growth mindset kids chose challenges they weren’t sure how to master before starting them just hoping for the best outcome. So the perfectionist student might feel challenged adopting a growth mindset. They will have to work hard only to embrace mistakes and learn from them. And sometimes a perfectionist type kid comes from perfectionist Type A parents, which can be tricky!

If a child is coming from a perfectionist household, there will need to be some major adapting to embrace a growth mindset in training. Everyone in the family will have to become comfortable with hearing mistakes in the first several performances of a large work. Too often in my studio, I have heard parents upset with kids right after performances on some of the most difficult literature. I would respond to them in front of the students to make sure they all understood that from my perspective these first performances are where we are in the trenches together. There are no shortcuts. Let me be perfectly clear – even a student completely following everything asked of them in class will encounter these hurdles in performance. It is not an indication necessarily of their discipline, efforts, or talents. It is simply par for the course. The parent that allows for this process, mentioning only where things are improving or lightly commiserating when surprises occur, is the parent of a student whose chances of succeeding long term just skyrocketed. Growth mindset and grit must be applied at home, in the studio, on stage, and in the aftermath. It’s a full-blown virtuosic violin lifestyle. A family commitment to growth mindset and how it pertains to virtuosic violin will ensure a happy joyful learner who isn’t afraid of mistakes, but grows and learns from them. That brings us nicely to “Disposition”!

Disposition

A child who is at work with a relaxed happy disposition learns faster and makes music that is relaxed and honest. This seems like a simple concept. Every single article about internationally acclaimed Juilliard pedagogue Dorothy DeLay details this. So where do we go wrong seeing so many students stressed, scared of passagework, cramming practice, and parents with furrowed brows? Well for one, we seem to have a large amount of parents using music lessons as a faux highway toward Ivy League. This is understandable to some but it is the bane of most established music teachers I know. They need those awards and the highest seat in orchestra or so they think, in order to pad their high school or college apps. Believe me when I tell you that when I was a kid, this never crossed my parents’ minds. And as an educator for decades now, this phenomenon is only getting worse. A kid who truly loves violin or music in general shouldn’t be asked to abuse their gifts to pad their young resumes and there is nothing joyful about it. (Spoiler Alert - expect a blog on this later!)

But allow me to return to happier sentiments….I have now sat in on 5 weeks of lessons for my daughter with a former DeLay student who now works at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Here is what I have noticed and these are all things that have contributed to a joyful disposition in learning. He allows her to contribute. I try really hard not to interrupt to speed things along. And yes, I know we are on the clock. Sometimes she is intent on making a connection that at first seems completely “un-violinistic” and irrelevant. But when we allow her to do this in her own way, she usually surprises us with something in fact related and that can help. She is part of her process and yes, it takes time away from instruction but it gets her to the goal faster too. She is connecting with him and building trust and rapport.

I never question this teacher on how he is going about things because I know from experience that this would bring tension to my kid in the middle of her lesson. And I actually know quite a bit about violin and pedagogy, right? Some parents don’t. Still, I am quiet and even when a question pops up in my head, I keep it and you know what? Every time this has happened, the question gets answered on its own without me uttering a word. As a reward for my patience, the flow of the lesson and my happy kid get to continue without a hiccup. If my daughter is not feeling good about something, I see her teacher steer away from that and search for a better feeling, a more relaxed state. Sometimes this takes time, and might need a story or two. Then she is back on track. He doesn’t teach her when she is tense or feeling frustrated. Once she is in a happy state, he leads her back happily into work. The result? My kid loves to practice for him and looks forward to every lesson. It isn’t a Disney movie over there (read: 20 minutes of colle exercises at the last lesson) but to her, he is the closest thing to Mickey Mouse on the violin. It is currently her happiest place on earth.

So what does it take to get to Carnegie Hall? Grit, mindset, and joyful disposition…. and apparently, a good dose of each. Some of the most amazing solo artists I have ever known are also incredibly down to earth and humble people. I see this as no coincidence. They want the pieces to be polished and precise but more for the composer who wrote them than for themselves. They LIVE in the trenches of major pieces of literature shepherding them as they grow one performance to the next, mending mistakes at every turn. Their emotional wellbeing doesn’t hinge on any singular performance. They care more about the music than they do their own egos and they want to move people more than they are there to just dazzle them with a note perfect performance.

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