The “self-esteem movement” in this country is coming to an end. We have learned that giving a trophy to all kids just for participating hasn’t worked, and — even worse — has undermined the natural grit that our nation is built upon.
We are also at a crossroads in education, where people are starting to finally wake up to the fact that passion and perseverance matters more than intelligence when it comes to being successful. Hard work and stick-to-itiveness trumps “talent” and “good genes” every time, and usually gets most of us to where we want to be in our life and in our work. Grit is what we want our children to cultivate during their time in school, not just good test scores.
What is grit?
I write about grit quite a bit on this blog. Grit is the result of struggle, risk-taking, determination, embracing failure, working relentlessly toward a goal, and perseverance to accomplish tough tasks. Make no mistake about it: Like talent, grit can be learned and cultivated. In my opinion, developing grit should be one of the core goals of raising and educating our children, and sadly is missing from our test-rich school culture these days.
Failure in a safe environment is how our children learn. Considering that failing is the worst thing that can happen in school (think red pens, slash marks, and standardized test scores), we need music instruction now more than ever to help our children cultivate grit throughout their K-12 education.
Here are four ways students learn grit through music — perhaps more than any other subject in school:
It takes guts to perform. Once the honeymoon is over with choosing an instrument or singing in choir, students must engage in performing, both alone and in an ensemble. And it takes some guts to “put oneself out there” for all to hear — blemishes and all — even if things aren’t going to go that well. It’s up to parents and teachers to use performance as a future motivator in order to increase the opportunities for students to build up their grit. Think of how great you would feel knowing that your child is building confidence for the tough road ahead that we call life.
With the right help from adults, children learn resilience through music study. Playing a musical instrument does not yield a lot of immediate gratification — at first. This is a new concept to our ever-connected young generation, yet it’s more crucial now than ever before that we create a culture in our schools that allows our students to embrace failure and frustration in a safe environment. Parents’ whose first instinct is to protect their child from embarrassment or setback must develop grit of their own and remember the struggles they had that led them to their successes. Teachers must constantly reinforce the concept of resilience and give students the tools to succeed as the result of some sweat equity on their part.
Initiative and perseverance are traits we want all our children to learn. Learning a musical craft helps children learn to take initiative. As long as parents and teachers give ownership of learning to their students, children — over time — will become self-starters. We are all trying to educate future leaders, and taking initiative is one of the primary determinants of leadership.
Once children begin their musical journey, they must stay focused on it. It’s this perseverance that is at the core of cultivating grit. We see it all the time: someone has a setback and overcomes it only to be stronger moving forward — as long as they don’t quit. That said, arguments I hear from colleagues about how testing also develops grit mostly falls on my deaf ears. There is much choice involved when it comes to music as opposed to tested subjects; children choose which instrument they want to play and make music with others — this concept of student choice is a stark difference music has from other subjects.
Today’s digital age is eroding grit in all of us. At the end of the day, children still need focused attention for an extended period of time to realize their full potential in any subject in school, and also as human beings. We need to teach our children that working harder and smarter is something they can control — and music consistently gives them rewarding feedback through sound as to how they are doing.
We know more now about how the brain works than we ever have before. Psychological studies of children have finally shown us that “talent” and “intelligence” is not always what leads to success. It’s clear that it’s not only a small percentage of us who are destined to rise to the top. Grit is something that we can cultivate in all our children, regardless of race or socio-economic status. While education reform will hopefully catch up with this old yet often-neglected idea, music education has been providing children the opportunity to cultivate grit for ages — and every school in our nation must embrace music education in its curricula for music’s beauty and its benefits in this regard.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of students around our nation start studying music in school. What if administrators, teachers, and parents used this opportunity to not only commit to supporting their child’s potential lifelong love of music, but to also cultivate their children’s grit that will serve them well throughout their lives by simply not giving up when times inevitably get tough?