The Word “Talent” and the Fixed Mindset
I have an issue with the word “Talent.” This word completely ignores the fact that kids work hard to hone their innate musical abilities—which every kid has. The excuse is always “I have no musical talent” assuming that musical ability is something that cannot be learned. This happens in all fine and performing arts. Anyone can learn to draw, dance, sing, and play music unless there is a legitimate physical or mental disability hindering them from doing-so. With singing, the first place people go is “I’m tone-deaf.” I’m not denying the existence of tone-deafness but I am advocating for the fact that it is not near as common as it is claimed to exist. It only truly affects 4% of the population .
Fixed vs. Growth mindsets
There was a bogus article that I saw a few years ago that I searched high and low for but cannot seem to find. It could be because it was so crazy that whomever published it originally has taken it down. It claimed that a new study had figured out that there was a connection between tone-deafness and musical ability and therefore those with the self-proclaimed “tone-deafness” had a legitimate excuse for not ‘being able’ to do music. It did not, however, discuss any other musical ability other than the skill of matching pitch or “carrying a tune.” It did not take into account that musical ability also includes keeping a steady beat or having a good sense of rhythm—all of which can be taught.
The “talent mindset” as coined by Stephen M. Demorest can be likened to a “fixed mindset” . It assumes that only the select few can learn it—those with talent. “Growth mindsets” promote that anyone can learn anything. In my experience, kids are usually very resilient and possess a growth mindset. Adults—even teachers—are generally more likely to possess a “fixed mindset” akin to the term, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This being said, a lot of how kids think about themselves musically come from their parents and their teachers.
I found this infographic to help illustrate part of my rantings:
(found on ThePracticeOfPractice.com, which is adapted from a graphic by Nigel Holmes in collaboration with Carol Dweck in her book, Mindset )
Parents and the “Talent Mindset”
I would nevertell a student that they cannot sing, cannot learn to play an instrument, or are “tone-deaf.” I would never even think it. All of my students participate in singing at some point along their musical journey. They all sing, even if they are not ‘good’ at it yet. They have seven years with me to find their singing voices. Even if they don’t in that time, it doesn’t mean they won’t later. Also, if a student hasn’t found their singing voice, it does not mean they cannot play an instrument extremely well.
Unfortunately, even if a student never hears about their musical ability at school, in many cases they will at home. One of my biggest pet peeves is when parents show up to a student conference and says “I have no idea where they got their musical talents, because they didn’t get it from me” as if their child’s love of music and work ethic had nothing to do with it. Another equally negative comment that I hear often is “Well I was never good at music so I’m not surprised they aren’t doing well—no one in our family is a musician.” One of the biggest factors contributing to a child’s musical-self identity is how they perceive their musical ability through the words of their peers, and parents.
“Students who view their success as a result of hard work will persevere through challenges, while students who believe their success lies with some innate ability—like “talent”—are more likely to give up.”
Unfortunately, we cannot control what goes on at home. We could be the most positive and encouraging music teacher who ever existed but all it takes is that one negative and short-sighted comment from a family member to ruin a child’s musical self-perception and music making for life. The one contributing factor that has the most potential to help with a child’s musical self-perception is to let them sing and experiment with their voice. Unhindered singing on the parent’s end is extremely beneficial too. Even if it’s bad, the child will see that you don’t have to be perfect to sing and to enjoy singing.
“For example, if you are a parent, you could sing the music you loved growing up and not worry about how good you sound. Having an adult in the home committed to music and singing without shame may be the most powerful influence on a child. You could sing with your kids from the time they are little, sing with the radio, sing in the car or sing at the dinner table.”.
What Can We Do?
In the end, students do respect our musical opinion even if it doesn’t seem like it. This next quote is from the same article but this time for music teachers:
“As for my fellow music teachers, I ask that you encourage all of the children in your classrooms, schools and communities to sing whenever and wherever they get a chance. The sad truth is, when we, the musical experts, discourage a child from singing, it can deliver a fatal blow to the child’s musical self-image.”