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Mindset Practice Tips

Scaling Musical Mountains Of Mastery

Strategies To Teaching Children Music Without Overwhelm

Teaching music to children is highly rewarding yet extremely challenging if you have never done it.  There’s so much information to cover.  Where to start?  

As you progress in learning any new skill, fact or process, new vistas reveal themselves.  It’s like climbing the mountain of progress.  When you were at the bottom, you couldn’t even see that there were lakes, rivers, and other towns in the distance. Again, as you climb higher, you can now see over the next mountain range and then again new valleys and maybe even the ocean!  

The key to mastery in any subject is to know what you don’t know!

The path to mastery looks something like this crazy list below.  Try to follow along.

  • You don’t know – you are basically a newbie
  • You know – now you know, a little
  • You know you don’t know – you begin to realize what you don’t know
  • You don’t know what you don’t know – then you start to see there are things you probably don’t even know about
  • You know what you don’t know – ah, you figured out what you need to learn
  • You know you know – you have achieved some competence
  • You don’t know that you don’t know what you don’t know – but you still have blind spots.  You don’t even realize it!
  • You know that you don’t know what you don’t know – but now you know there’s a possibility of something else
  • You know what you don’t know that you didn’t know you even knew existed – and you now have something else to learn
  • You know you don’t know – and it never ends!

As a music teacher, I want to guide my student up the mountain.  But looking at that mountain can be very intimidating and scary!  To prevent being overwhelmed, I use blinders of a sort.  Something to get them not to look at the final goal, but to see just the next few steps in front of them.  

Strategies to Prevent Overwhelm In Reading Music

1) The Spotlight

One of the techniques I have used in the past, was a focused flashlight to shine a light on the small passage I wanted the student to focus on in the sheet music.  

A quick aside, I have often been the first person to notice a child’s need for eyeglasses.  Because I see the child every week and am seeing how they focus their eyes or if their nose is buried in the pages, I can usually alert the parents well before the school teachers or nurse.

2) Post-It notes and Pies

I should own stock in 3M already!  I go through reams of these every year!  The power of Post-Its is that they are removable and opaque.  I can cover up the entire page leaving just a “window of focus” for my student to see.  It has been hugely successful as the student then says something like, “Oh, is that all?  That’s easy!”  I can then either move the window or widen it as we progress.

For my younger students, I tell them that learning a song is like eating a pie.

What kind of pie do you like? What’s your favorite flavor of pie?

We go through all kinds of flavors. I’ve heard everything from apple pie to

pumpkin pie, to weird ones like salt caramel apple or oatmeal custard!  

Some strange pies out there.

Then I ask them, “Do you eat the whole pie in one bite?”

“No! Of course, not.”

“You take a slice, right?

“But do you eat the whole slice in one bite?”

“No.”

“We take a bite, so here’s a little forkful.”

I then cover up the whole page and leave just a little “forkful” of music.

This can lead to fun rewards like a slice of pie if you practice well this week.

3) Bigger Is Better

By copying just a passage of the music and enlarging it to a huge size, it looks ridiculously easy!  I have done this with beginning music readers.  I also use it for memorization games.  You can see this previous post about the Hat Game/Dice Game.

4) Simplified Arrangements

Most of the sheet music for popular music is just not suitable for early beginners.  By using a music engraving software you can re-arrange the piece for your student.  Most of my young ones can’t spread their hands an octave, so just delete.  You can also enlarge the staff, colorize note-heads, do system breaks, and page breaks in more logical places.   Another thing is you can strip out any confusing symbols or terminology until you are ready to cover it.  For example, you may not want to use the word ritardando just yet, maybe write in “Slowing Down” instead.   I will devote a future article about tips for simplified arrangements.

What are your favorite strategies to scale the mountain of mastery?  Please share them in the comments below.

Categories
Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset

Music Education And The Belief of “Control of Destiny”

As a parent, I have always wanted my son to have a music education.  It’s not that I want him to be a professional musician, it’s because

  • It’s so much fun and he loves it
  • the life skills accessible through music lessons

Brain Development and Music Education

There have been so many scientific studies and articles in the media over the last few years.  They have all proven the benefits of music education in brain development, personal growth, self esteem and success in later life.  

In my private teaching practice, “Life Skills Through Music” is clearly stated as my objective.

Part of this bundle of life skills is a “growth mindset.”  Growth mindset has become a buzzword in education and psychology these days.  It came from Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford who conducted a study of 5th graders in 1998.  

In the study, the students were given a challenging test.  At its completion, they were all told they did well.  

However, half the students were also told, “You must have worked really hard on this.”  The other half were also told, “You must be naturally smart.”

The difference in the next round of testing was startling.  

The kids who were praised for their effort and hard work, tried to live up to that praise and pushed themselves harder and longer.  The kids who were praised for their natural gifts, took less risks, and gave up quicker on challenging questions.   

All because of HOW they were praised.

In my training for music teachers, we discuss growth mindset with extensive resource videos.  So I was a little surprised to hear that the US Marine Corps are also using it.    

In Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive, he tells the story of a young man with no ambition, drive, or motivation.  It seems this man was never made to do anything for himself.  Everything was given to him and after the structure of school, he had no idea of what to do with his life.  Somehow he found his way to the U.S. Marines which completely transforms him.

Locus of Control

Duhigg interviews the officer who reinvented basic training based on studies like Dweck’s that show the importance of an internal locus (point, position, or location) of control.  

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan
U.S. Marines in Afghanistan

“We were seeing much weaker applicants.  A lot of these kids didn’t just need discipline, they needed a mental makeover.  They’d never belonged to a sports team.  They’d never had a real job. They’d never done anything.  They didn’t even have the vocabulary for ambition.  They’d followed instructions their whole life.  This was a problem.  Because the Corps increasingly needed troops who could make independent decisions…We need extreme self starters.”

The officer discovered “studies the Marine Corps had conducted years earlier that showed the most successful Marines with a strong internal locus of control, a belief that they could influence their destiny through the choices they made.”

Duhigg continues:

“Locus of control has been a major topic of study within psychology since the 1950’s.  Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence.  A student with a strong internal locus of control for instance, will attribute good grades to hard work rather than natural smarts…

People with an internal locus of control tend to earn more money, have more friends, stay married longer and report greater professional success and satisfaction.  

In contrast, having an external locus of control, believing that your life is primarily influenced by events outside your control, is correlated with higher levels of stress, often because an individual perceives a situation as beyond his or her coping abilities.”

So what does this have to do with music education?

The entire process of learning an instrument with a caring teacher is like the perfect process of developing a strong internal locus of control:

  • Learning how to focus on playing a piece well through repeated practice
  • Linking cause and effect based on student choices
  • Persevering through difficult pieces – building grit!
  • Breaking down big problems into smaller manageable pieces
  • Trying different approaches in speed, rhythm, quality, etc.
  • Development of personal responsibility for practice
  • Public performance and presentation
  • Memorization skills

To name just a few.

Duhigg interviews Professor Dweck who says,

Carol S Dweck  - Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

“Internal locus of control is a learned skill…Most of us learn it early in life. But some people’s sense of self-determination gets suppressed by how they grow up or experiences they’ve had.  They forget how much influence they can have on their own lives.  That’s when training is helpful.  Because if you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control – where that internal locus of control is re-awakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel they are in charge of their own lives.  And the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”

Did you notice Dweck says practice?  

It’s as if she’s directly talking about music lessons!

And there’s some good news

The U.S. Congress recently passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which has done away with the controversial No Child Left Behind.  So no more common core curriculum!  

Instead, the goal is for a well-rounded education.  And for the first time in 50 years, music is now a stand alone subject in that well-rounded mix.  

Hopefully, this means the demand for music teachers will increase.  Perhaps there will be a bit more respect, and most importantly, funding for programs like band, chorus, orchestra, and general music.  

Music is the practice of developing belief that we control our destiny through our actions.

So the next time your child brings home good grades on a test, don’t just say “Good job!” Take a moment to praise the effort.  And sign them up for music lessons! With some guidance, they just may turn out to be extreme self-starters.

Categories
Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset Printables

Seinfeld’s Simple Technique Is How To Practice Music

“My child loves the lessons but just doesn’t want to practice.”  

It’s probably the number one challenge of every music teacher, parent, and music student:  how to make practice part of a daily routine.

Child tired of learning the piano.

For young preschoolers, this is something that has to be taught and externally monitored by the parent.  It’s highly unusual for a preschooler to consciously sit down and practice everyday.  

A Mindset Shift

So in this article, I want to give you a mindset – an overall framework for how to teach practice skills.  By understanding the psychological aspects, and some high leverage points, with a few adjustments you can make dramatic shifts in your student’s practice routines and life.

How Do I Know?

I know this is true because, I have successfully taught hundreds of music students in my private teaching studio and because of my wide angle career path, have brought in some ideas from rather far-flung places.  Over the last decade, my students, including my own son, all learned how to practice.  It’s definitely a skill that needs to be taught.

Routines Lead To Habits

The first thing I tell every parent is to find a time of day, everyday, that can become practice time even if it’s only 10 minutes.  By setting this time for music practice, within a few weeks it no longer requires effort, but it becomes a habit the same way that brushing your teeth is a habit.  You can always practice longer or at another time in addition, but this is a sacred time that should be honored as much as possible.  Usually this works well for a while until the first school holiday comes along!  Then it’s back to effort and focus to make a routine which then leads again to habit.

Keep the Instrument In The Center Of Your Space

One thing surprised me when I began teaching young children.  I discovered that many parents would place the piano or guitar or whatever instrument in an isolated corner of the house like a playroom or bedroom.  Then, when it came time to practice, they would say,

“Go and practice!”  

The Practice Dungeon

This makes practice time feel more like a punishment than a shared activity.  It’s solitary confinement!  It also says to the child,

“This is not a priority for my parent and they are not interested in me.”

So keep your instrument in your living room or near to wherever you spend the most amount of time.  It signals its importance in the family.  Unsurprisingly, the students who had this “practice dungeon” arrangement never lasted more than a year.

But It Sounds Bad

Some parents will say,

“But it sounds bad!  And I am tired or my spouse is exhausted from work and doesn’t want to hear it.”  

Well, what kind of signal does that send to your child?  

“I am not worthy of your attention and love while I do this activity that you really don’t want to be a part of.  Hmm.  Maybe I should play soccer instead.”

Grit Leads To Success

Grit is a term popularized by Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth which is basically the courage and strength to keep trying, persevere and the resiliency to pick oneself up and try again.  In her studies on children, grit was the determining factor on how successful a child would be on test scores and in later life.   Link to Angela Duckworth Ted Talk.

Music Lessons As Grit Exercise

Music lessons and practice is an incredible grit-building exercise.  But to build a child’s grit, you need to praise the effort and not just the intrinsic being.  What I mean by that is don’t just say a vague, “Great!  You’re wonderful!”  Find something specific to praise based on their effort, focus, resolve, resiliency and even their so called failures.  

Celebrate The Small Wins

So during practice sessions, praise “how smooth that section was”, or “I like how you lifted your hands during the staccato parts,” or “that rhythm was so fun and bouncy!”  By celebrating the small wins, you are watering the seeds of psychological growth and letting them see the glass half full as opposed to half empty.

Navy Seals in Training

Psychological Strength & Navy Seals

One of the secrets to making it through an elite program such as the Navy Seals, where 94% drop out in the first few weeks, is to either have or adopt a mindset of grit.  The key seems to be “celebrating the small wins.”  By sharing a half-second smile or a short meal break with fellow soldiers, the ones that made it through lifted each other’s spirits, giving them just enough psychological strength to continue.  

During the last few weeks leading up to my biannual recitals, I can see the pattern of emotional highs and lows clearly.  The recital is such a motivating factor, if handled well, can be a positive growth experience.  

Looking At the Horizon

One of the hardest things for anyone is to set a challenging goal and then continually make forward progress towards it.  Many people see their goals out on the horizon and no matter how much progress they have made, they never seem to be getting closer.  

Carpe

The trick is to turn around and look where you came from.  When your student is banging their head against the wall and just about to give up saying, “I can’t do it.”  You can remind them to first add the word “yet” to that sentence and then show them how much progress was made.  

Turn them around and see where they came from.  You can do this by looking at previous lesson notes and pieces.  Notice the dates of when they last played something that is now considered “so easy.”  Also, if you have video recordings of previous recitals, you can show them where they were just a little while ago.

Seinfeld Knows How To Practice

Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld was asked how to get better as a comic.  His reply (link) was to write better jokes and do it everyday.  To do that, he uses a wall calendar and large red marker.  For each day you write, you put an X on the calendar.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.  Don’t break the chain!”

Jerry Seinfeld knows how to practice

You can see a video interview with Jerry by the NY Times where he details his writing process in his usually funny way.  

Jerry is doing what a lot of preschool teachers do in their classroom.  There are charts for attendance, the daily routine, and going to the bathroom, etc.

My son is one of these kids who loves puzzles, patterns, and organizing.  When he was 3 we would go to the Barnes and Noble bookstore; and he would take out all the books from the shelf and put them back in size order!  This was endlessly fascinating to him.  So we instituted a star chart for him to reward the behaviors we wanted.  

Beatrice shows off her practice chart full of stickers!
Beatrice shows off her practice chart full of stickers!

Mindset Is The Key

In learning anything in life, having the right mindset enables you to see the options ahead.  Without adopting the correct mindset, you cannot even see avenues right in front of you.

I’d love to know your mindset regarding practice.  Does this resonate with you?  Do you have any other high leverage ideas to make practice better?  Please share below in the comments.

Also, if you enjoyed the cross-pollination of ideas in this article, please share it with your friends.

Articles referenced in this post

 



 

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Blog Teaching Methods

Teaching Strategies For Growth Mindset

What is the most important factor in a student? Many people would say it’s talent, or effort, or persistence, or luck or some combination of these.

Behind all of this is something that is more important – the proper mindset. Recent research (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) has shown that there are two different mindsets among students:
1) intelligence as a fixed, static trait or you got what you got
2) intelligence is a changeable, flowing trait, in other words:  you can learn whatever you put focus and effort to

Most of my music students do have a growth mindset, but may need some extra encouragement.   To do this I need to use a specific way of communicating.

The Dangers of Praise and How To Do It Right

Researchers have discovered that if you just praise the intelligence of the child, there are negative consequences.  So just being positive and saying “Good job!” is actually detrimental and has a backlash because given a new challenge, the child would rather not participate (quit) in order to “save face” and live up to the expected standard.  Rather if the child was praised for their effort, the next harder challenge was met with more effort.

Communicating Learning Goals

Almost daily I have a student who complains
“That’s too hard! I want to just stay on the same song!”

Here’s some things I say and you can too in your classroom, studio or with your own children.  Though I’ve made these specific to music, you can apply a variation of these to any subject.

  • Learning music is like playing a video game. Once you achieved the last challenge, we’re on to the next level.
  • You’re not supposed to know this already, this is brand new.

High Expectations For Forward Motion

  • I KNOW that you can do this, that’s why I’m showing you this.
  • This will be challenging, but I’ve seen you do amazing work before.
  • Remember how hard _____ piece was? And now you can play it so well. This is like that one only better.

Struggling Even With Effort

  • You are not there…YET (emphasis on the yet)
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remind yourself that you can’t do it…YET.
  • Let’s take a break and come back to this tomorrow.
  • I admire your persistence.
  • I appreciate your effort and focus on this.
  • I love how you never gave up on that last piece. Let’s do it here too.

Struggling But May Need Help With Strategy

  • Let’s work on just the one spot giving you trouble
  • What part is giving you trouble? Let’s just look at that.
  • How about we make a plan to learn this piece? You can do section A today and then section B tomorrow and then back to A…

By setting the proper belief system in place at an early age, we can guide our children to future success in music, and in life.

For more information, read this excellent article from Prinicipal Leadership, a magazine aimed at school principals.

Categories
Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset

How To Teach Perseverance, Grit and Success

Soft Skills Vs Hard Skills

There’s been a lot of talk in the education world of late about the value of the soft skills, emotional and psychological.  These are the skills that are traditionally not tested.  Unlike math or reading or science, these skills are more nuanced.

Because I’m a music teacher and my wife is a long-time educator, I read lots of articles on this.

Grit & Self Control – 2 Determinants for Success

One of the researchers at the forefront of this movement is Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth.  Her passion is in discovering how self control and grit can predict future success.  Her research has shown that grit is a better determinant of future success than academic scores and achievement.   See below for her excellent TED Talk video.

And if you didn’t realize already, music lessons are a long term sustained pursuit towards goals.  They are the perfect example of a grit-enducing activity!  It’s less about talent and more about the “stick-to-it-ness” that determines success in music…and life!

How To Praise – Right and Wrong Ways

Since reading about these studies, I’ve been more careful about how I praise in my private music lessons.  Of course, praise is wonderful, but if you just say “good job” automatically you are sending a signal that any effort or any result is good.  What I’m trying to elicit is a long-term grittiness.  By praising the effort, focus and patience, I can now subtly influence how they are working towards their goal.  Some of my best students are a challenge because if I give them a piece and they play it very easily – they love it.  But if it’s just a bit too far out of their reach, sometimes they will shut down completely.

The never-ending process is finding the appropriate material that is just a single rung or two up the ladder of complexity.  This can be either conceptual like introducing a new concept such as chord inversions or a challenge technically with a certain stretch or position of the fingers.  By matching the material to a small enough distance, anything is possible.

With particularly challenging music, I have the student focus only on a single measure or sometimes even a few beats.  I like to use Post-It notes to cover up the rest of the page to truly give them nothing else to focus on.

So as you work through my lessons with your kids, think about how you are teaching life-long skills of persistence, patience, and focus while learning the beauty of music.

 

Watch These Short Videos

Congratulations Dr. Duckworth on yesterday’s MacArthur Genius Award!  Wonderful

Further Reading

“So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier. This was startling news. “Everybody said, Oh, it’s how kids achieve academically that will predict their adult employment, and health, and everything else,” recalls Mark Greenberg, a Penn State University psychologist. “And then it turned out that for both employment and health outcomes, academic achievement actually predicted less than these other factors.”