Music and the Wrong Kind of Praise

I've been hurling myself headlong into some new pursuits, as I often do. After a lifetime of saying "I wish I could be a musician," I've finally started taking singing lessons and teaching myself to play the guitar.

I recently read this article in New York Magazine about the effects of praise on children, and the subject matter hit a bit close to home...and as the parent of a young child, I was hit especially hard. The article's focus is how the wrong kind of praise can impact a child's willingness to learn new things. It can be especially harmful to praise a child by saying they're smart, rather than praising hard work and specific achievements.

I am smart, the kids' reasoning goes; I don't need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized--it's public proof that you can't cut it on your natural gifts.

As a former "gifted child," I can attest to the accuracy of this. In elementary school, I always ended up at the head of the class without any effort, and was praised often on how "smart" I was. If something was hard work, it wasn't worth doing: anyone can get good at something with hard work; it takes genius to do it with nothing but natural awesomeness.

So despite spending my whole life wishing I could be a musician, I never actually chased that goal. Why?

Reason One: Starting in 5th grade, we were allowed to start playing instruments. I picked the flute, and continued playing it for 5 years. I rarely practiced outside class; in fact, my last year playing, I never even took my flute home. As would be expected (by anyone but me), I wasn't very good at it, and usually sat at the back of the section. Clearly I wasn't cut out to be a flute player.

Reason Two: Tenth grade. Once again, I tried out for a musical: The Sound of Music. During the singing audition, I was handed the sheet music for "Climb Every Mountain," a song I'd never heard before. I started singing, and the choir director immediately stopped me. "You're in the wrong key," he said, hammering on a piano key. "You start here." I tried again. Again he stopped me. "Why are you singing way down there?" Again the piano. "Here. Climb...cliiiimb." After a few more tries, he gave up and dismissed me. Clearly I would never be a singer.

Reason Three: Age 15. I decided to give my mom's electric guitar a try. I tried a few chords, and felt totally overwhelmed. The finger positions seemed completely nonsensical and unrelated to anything; my fingers were too fat and kept holding down strings they weren't supposed to; and even when they didn't, I didn't know what it was supposed to sound like, so I couldn't tell if I'd played it right. I put the guitar away and never tried again. Clearly I would never be a guitar player.

So I spent most of my life thinking I had no musical talent and would be hopeless forever. Then, thanks to playing a lot of Rock Band, I started to suspect otherwise. I started doing vocals on easy, then I moved up to medium, hard, and finally expert. If I could pass the songs on expert, then I must be at least close to the right pitch, right?

When I went to my first singing lesson, I went through a few tests with my instructor. He tested my range, my ability to match pitches, and the clarity of my voice, and said something shocking: "You've got a good voice. I didn't notice anything seriously wrong; you've just got to develop the muscles." Encouraged, I started practicing 30 minutes every day, and then in a fit of impulsiveness, went to a pawn shop and picked up a used acoustic guitar. Imagine my surprise when I tried to play a few chords and found that my fingers weren't too fat after all; it just took a little effort to get them in the right places. So now I'm practicing that every day, too. My fingertips are sore (and maybe a little blistered), but I'm going to stick with it until I develop those badges of the guitar player's craft: thick calluses.

Honestly, this all seems a little simple. Shouldn't it have been obvious that if I didn't work at things, I wouldn't get good at them? But it wasn't, probably thanks to those early years of everything coming easily. (Everything I bothered to try a second time, anyway.) Despite having learned to do some difficult things since, I had myself absolutely convinced that I was permanently tone-deaf and clumsy, with defective vocal cords--why else would I have been so bad at music as a teenager?

If my fingertips let me practice enough, I'll be going to next Friday's open mic night at my favorite coffee shop. Who knows? Maybe I'll finally grow up to be a rock star. And when I do, I'm going to remember to tell Danielle it was hard work and not natural gifts that got me there.

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