After a recent violin recital, my husband approached my son’s teacher.
“These are such talented kids,” he said.
The teacher looked at him and frowned.
“Talent has nothing to do with it,” she said. “It’s about hard work and good technique.”
A mentee of the famed Shinichi Suzuki, my son’s teacher has adopted the core of Suzuki’s philosophy — that every child is capable of becoming an excellent musician.
Suzuki is famous for launching thousands of pint-sized kids into the throes of music performance. But for him, it wasn’t about the violin. He believed that anyone, through repetition, correct technique and continual listening, could become a proficient musician.
“Talent is no accident of birth," Suzuki once said. "In today’s society a good many people seem to have the idea that if one is born without talent, there is nothing he can do about it; they simply resign themselves to what they consider to be their fate.”
Like Suzuki, I dislike the word “talent.” By definition, talent means “a special natural aptitude or skill.” It implies that people spring from the ground knowing how to draw, sing, create computer code, repair an engine or kick a soccer ball.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, is famous for coining what she calls the “growth mindset.” Those with a growth mindset are willing to learn, make mistakes and stretch themselves over and over again.
On the opposite end are those with a “fixed mindset.” These are the ones who say, “I’m not good at math.” They pigeon-hole themselves into a series of cans and cannots. By so doing, they limit, or “fix” their own capabilities.
When my oldest son was about 3 years old, I called my mom on the phone, completely discouraged.
“He doesn’t have it,” I said in despair. “He’s completely tone-deaf.”
“It” was the strong musical thread that runs through our family. We all sing and play instruments. Before having children, I envisioned myself as something of a Maria Von Trapp, with my little entourage of musicians. Given my love of music, I felt sure my own kids would emerge from the womb singing three-part harmony.
Instead, I found that my son was unable to carry a tune, or match me note-for-note.
“Just wait,” my wise mother said. “Your brothers weren’t great singers when they were little.”
I took my mom’s advice. I waited.
And we waded, through seven years of piano lessons. And we sang in church. And every time my kids fought in the car (which is all the time) we made them sing Primary songs. And lo and behold, not only is my son not tone-deaf, he has a decent musical ear. He can hammer out “The Entertainer” on the piano and harmonize in a choir. And he loves, loves music.
I can say for a fact that this particular son wasn’t born with innate talent. He is no piano virtuoso. (Just ask his long-suffering piano teacher.) But he is a capable musician simply through repetition and exposure.
When a kid begins Suzuki violin, he starts by learning how to stand with his feet apart, hold a bow and rest a violin on his shoulder. He does this for months before he ever plays a single note.
When he does play that first quivering melody, it is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” over and over, in several different rhythms. In the meantime, he listens to the music over and over again. When he progresses to other songs, he starts each one by learning special “spots,” which are really just progression techniques.
Progress happens in stair-step fashion. Children not only learn the violin, they learn the growth mindset, that repetition will bring proficiency.
The same technique can be applied to almost anything. In fact, as Dweck points out, humans are born with limitless capability. Just look at a baby learning to walk. They start by crawling, learning that cross-motor development, then progress to standing. When they fall, they get back up and try again.
We expect children to learn to walk. We expect them to learn how to read. We certainly don’t teach our children that some are talented walkers, or talented readers. These are such highly necessary skills that we encourage and clap (and sometimes bribe) until our kids are proficient.
Yet a strange thing happens around the second and third grade. Children begin to pigeon-hole themselves, sometimes with the aid of teachers or parents.
We often do so with the best intentions. We may say things like, “You’re so good at that!” or “You are really smart!” And as Dweck’s extensive research finds, telling a kid they are smart or talented can be most detrimental. Children begin to think that their ability is innate. They become afraid to fail, and therefore afraid to try at all.
The growth mindset can be used for almost anything: kicking a soccer ball, learning to have a good conversation or writing a story. Mindset is not limited by age, gender or race.
I was talking to a recent acquaintance who appeared on "The Biggest Loser" several seasons ago, in which she lost an astonishing 120 pounds.
“What I learned is not how to lose weight,” she told me. “I learned that anything is possible.”
I have another friend who plays the violin in the Minnesota Orchestra. She has three children who all take violin, and who play on her own childhood violins. She tells me her violins are pockmarked in tear stains, evidence of the sometimes-painful process of learning new things.
Suzuki said, “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill.”
Ten thousand times means a lot of falling down. It might mean tears, stutter-stops and a few steps backward. But if we can trust in the process, even the most tone-deaf among us can make the world sing.