Dealing with Failure and Frustration

The New York Times magazine’s educational supplement recently published this article called “What if the Secret to Success is Failure.”  It’s about character education and how learning to deal with frustration and failure can help create success later in a child’s life.

The article didn’t mention music once, but it should have.

Throughout the nine-page article, the author interviewed principals of schools ranging from a tony private school in Riverdale, N.Y. to a stellar public school in the Bronx, along with educational consultants and experts. They talked about character components that were important for success in later life — grit, perseverance, curiosity, self-control, optimism — and about ways they had developed to measure and nurture these traits.

But I’ve got an easier way to see what kind of character a kid has: Just watch how he or she approaches music lessons. Does she slump down in fatigue every time a teacher asks her to play something again? Does he look for praise even after a lackluster performance he knows is full of flaws? Does she avoid practicing the hard stuff at home because it’s too “confusing”?

The more I teach, the more I see that success in learning music — and I believe, by extension, in learning anything — has to do with character. Not character as in following the golden rule and standing up to bullies, but character as in an attitude of approaching and dealing with the world and its challenges. Character as in taking responsibility for your learning. Character as is showing up for your life — prepared, eager, willing, interested, alert, energetic, engaged.

Interestingly, this is most evident with smart students — the ones for whom everything in school comes easily. According to the article, these students can be among the most resistant to tackling projects that actually require real work. In so many cases, bright students are underchallenged in school and never really have to deal with the mammoth difficulties that, say, a math-challenged student faces every day when looking at an algebra problem. Even in gifted program where bright kid are challenged, the steps for figuring out the problem come easily enough; the problem is usually solved without the head-banging frustration of just not “getting it.”

Music is a more even-handed task-master: It challenges the brilliant student just as easily as it challenges everyone else. Becoming a musician is an infinite process, and none of us ever stop learning, ever stop making mistakes. So the bright student’s typical modus operendi — figure it out, do a bit of work, succeed, be done with it — doesn’t apply. There is no “being done with it.” There is always someone better; there is always a harder piece; there is always something you can’t do. There is no such thing as 100 percent; an A+ is not the goal. There is no top to this mountain; there is only the climb.

The “problem” is never entirely solved, because as soon as we learn to play one Beethoven Sonata, we discover another, harder one, we want to play. As soon as we figure out what scales Art Tatum was using in his improvisations, we are faced with the problem of playing them as fast and as lightly as he did, with all the melody notes woven in just so. And even when (or if) we can do that, there are other pieces to learn, other styles to master.

We take forever to “master” a piece, then we perform it and make a mistake. The band director doesn’t pick us as first chair. We fail an orchestra audition and the job goes to a younger player. The audience likes a flashy showpiece by a  technically sloppy performer better than our note-perfect but less appealing offering. We perform our tour de force technical masterpiece at a community talent show, but the talk of the town is the six-year-old who improvised on the harmonica.

Do we fold up and go home? Or do we practice our piece some more, try again for first chair, re-audition for the orchestra, and kick our improvisations up a notch? (As for the six year old — well, best to learn to never share the stage with a talented little kid. Some battles you just can’t win!)

The choices we make are not talent questions; they are character questions.

We are used to hearing about the benefits of music education: Serious music students score better on standardized tests, do better in college, have fewer problems with drugs and alcohol. MRIs have shown that musician’s brains function differently in terms of neural pathways than non-musician’s brains.

But we don’t have to look inside a music student’s brain to find the answer: It may be as simple as the issue of  character — of getting up when you’re down, being honest about your mistakes, dealing with frustration, trying one more time, breaking a problem down and patiently putting the pieces together one at a time.

As we teach our students rhythms and notes and pedaling and dynamics, it’s worth remembering that the “character education” we are giving our students is equally, or even more, important. It is at the heart of what we, as music teachers, give to our students. And these are lessons that go far beyond the “Entertainer” and “Fur Elise” — to college, and life beyond.

7 thoughts on “Dealing with Failure and Frustration”

  1. I saw that piece, it was very interesting! As one of those students who ‘failed’ in music lessons as a kid, partially because it WAS hard and I wasn’t used to being challenged, I have to commend all your comments on character and perseverance. One of the best lessons I have learned in the time that has passed since my first go at piano is that hard work and continual betterment is of the greatest value when pursuing something.

    If a musician cannot find joy in the process and internal drive to succeed, their course with their art will likely be short!

  2. What a fantastic article!!!!

    That even applies to knitting, crochet and sewing too!! There is always more to learn!! A more challenging piece to make. With knit, crochet and sewing the results are more tangible and sometimes the satisfaction is quick. With music the audience listening and watching and supporting helps to encourage the musician to continue on as much as compliments on a finished piece of hand work encourages the maker to make more and more challenging pieces.

    Parents, Grandparents, friends, family… GO and listen, GO and see, wear the article/ use the piece made for you! it is in your showing up physically and emotionally that you pay the greatest amount of encouragement!

  3. Karen,

    I just came across your blog this week. I love, love, love every article I’ve read so far. I will definitely be sending my piano students (or their parents as the case may be) to your website.


  4. I find your point of view interesting but i do not agree with your statements: solving a math problem isn’t that big a challenge for someone who is good at maths! For that same person, other tasks may be a lot more demanding and challenging than math problems. And it is the same for many people in diffdrent areas! Music is a good way to challenge the brain and develop personality, but not for everyone! there are many children or even adults who do not succeed at learning music but that is not a proof of less ambitious character! Some people have had a musical education that allows them to have less difficulties in the learning process. Other people do not have a “musical ear”,they will have much more difficulties learning or playing music. There are many different reasons for failure and frustration and you cannot just explain it with character differences. Of course caracter will play it’s role but there are many other factors.

  5. I enjoyed reading this. It made me think that we often walk in life thinking about the bigger things, success, money, power, privilege, etc,, and we seldom remember the more simpler yet very important things that are within us, such as being positive, self-motivated to succeed, appreciate what we already have, care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and forgive those who have hurt us as these are all vital components of a solid foundation that may ultimately guide us to be whatever we want to be and go wherever we want to go.

  6. That’s great article! I think its also worth mentioning that young musicians need more practice and exposure. This really makes a difference about their attitude. Just as an example how to reach it – link to a project, which support young musicians, helping them survive doing music: Poptop INternational talent agency

Comments are closed.