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Baby Steps to Giant Steps: Talent or Persistence

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Over many years, Carol Dweck at Stanford has studied children and their mindset as it relates to their learning. The basic idea is that children who are praised for their intelligence after successfully completing a task develop a “fixed mindset.” In other words, they come to believe that their success is a result of their innate ability. These children then become hesitant to take on new, more difficult challenges. They are worried that if they are unsuccessful, it will prove that they are in fact not smart or innately talented.

Other children who are praised for their effort come to believe that the key to their success is their hard work, effort and persistence. These students become eager to take on greater and greater challenges. They have developed a “growth mindset.”

This research has implications for aspiring musicians. Many young musicians have success early on and come to believe that their accomplishments are primarily due to their inborn musical talent. Inevitably they come up to a place where the success does not come quite as easily—a very common scenario when students begin university. They begin to believe that perhaps they are not as naturally talented a musician as they once thought. They tend to shy away from they next challenge, worried they might fail and have their inner self-doubts confirmed.

We need to nurture a growth mindset in all musicians—including ourselves. Work hard, be persistent. Your success has very little to do with your natural talent and a whole lot to do with your focus, effort, concentration, time, and the fact that you don’t give up.

I have a video I like to show my students. A mouse is sneaking into a room, trying to steal a cracker by dragging it up some shelves and back into its hole. The cracker is too heavy and the mouse can’t quite get it there. We count the number of attempts the mouse makes. It is somewhere in the thirties before it gives up. The students are disappointed to see the mouse slink away defeated. Just then the mouse comes back, tries a different grip on the prize and spirits it away. The kids react like it is the triumphant scene from a Star Wars movie.

The lesson is of course about persistence: like the mouse who needs over thirty attempts at a very simple task, we all need numerous approaches to the problem before we finally succeed. Our mantra becomes, “You only get thirty-seven tries!”
Seriously, the next time you have a difficult musical challenge, consider thirty-seven as your default number. Thirty-seven attempts at playing that technical passage slowly, thirty-seven days trying to improve your range or tone, thirty-seven attempts at transcribing that measure, thirty-seven attempts at writing that countermelody…

When it comes to talent, we’ve got what we’ve got. The only thing that we have control over is our persistence, focus and determination. Then again, these qualities are all we need to take us from learning to walk to finally mastering “Giants Steps.” Success is within our reach.


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