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Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I've started reading an interesting book on learning & success: Mindset--The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck (she's a Psychologist at Stanford).

The basic premise is that there are two basic "mindsets" about learning (this came out of her research on how people cope with failure) and these affect profoundly how you lead your life: the fixed mindset sees tests and challenges as measuring your ability (which is fixed), whereas what she calls the growth mindset sees tests and challenges as ways to cultivate growth and change (and are not judgmental of your intelligence or talent). As she notes, Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children, Ben Hogan (one of the great golfers) was completely uncoordinated as a child, etc. In other words, genius doesn't always show itself early (and we all know many prodigies burn out).

Dweck says, "Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just walk and talk. They never decide it's too hard or not worth the effort. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward."

Somewhere along the line, though, some children learn that they are being evaluated and become afraid of challenges (and paradoxically, continual praising children as being smart or supremely talented can lead to the fixed mindset).

She tells of a study where they offered four-year-olds the choice between redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle or trying a harder one. Even at this age, kids who had a fixed mindset--that is, they believed in fixed traits--chose the safe one. They told the researchers, kids who are born smart "don't do mistakes." The other children with a growth mindset--who believed you could get smarter--couldn't imagine doing a puzzle they'd done before. One girl said, "I'm dying to figure them out!"

Again from Dweck, "So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It's about becoming smarter."

What does this have to do with musicians and conductors?

In another story from the book (it's an easy read) she tells of Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg (one of the world's great violinists) who was a child prodigy, making her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 10.

Yet when she arrived at Juilliard to study with Dorothy DeLay, the great violin teacher [teacher of Itzhak Perlman, among others], she had a repertoire of awful habits. Her fingerings and bowings were awkward and she held the violin in the wrong position, but she refused to change. After several years, she saw the other students catching up and even surpassing her, and by her late teens she had a crisis of confidence: 'I was used to success, to the prodigy label in newspapers, and now I felt a failure.'

This prodigy was afraid of trying. 'Everything I was going through boiled down to fear. Fear of trying and failing . . . if you go to an audition and don't really try, if you're not really prepared, if you didn't work as hard as you could have and you don't win, you have an excuse . . . Nothing is harder than saying, 'I gave it my all and it wasn't good enough.'

This haunted and paralyzed her. She had even stopped bringing her violin to her lesson!

Then one day, after years of patience and understanding, DeLay told her, 'Listen, if you don't bring your violin next week, I'm throwing you out of my class.' Sonnenberg thought she was joking, but DeLay rose from the couch and calmly informed her, 'I'm not kidding. If you are going to waste your talent, I don't want to be a part of it. This has gone on long enough.'

The upshot was that Sonnenberg, who was terrified of losing DeLay, finally began working again. She says, "This is something I know for a fact: You have to work hardest for the things you love most. And when it's music you love, you're in for the fight of your life."

You might have an idea where I'm headed with this now.

Talking to the grad students at UNT, I said, all of you are talented and have had some success (if you didn't, you wouldn't be here). Some of you have had a lot of success. You've succeeded on the basis of the (gestural) conducting skill you came in with, the rehearsal skills you came in with, the ear and analytical skills you came in with, the vocal skills you came in with, etc.

However, to really succeed, especially long-term, you have to be ready to give up past "successful" habits (like Sonnenberg's way of holding the violin) and go through the struggle of taking away what is comfortable and do something new. This means you will be worse for awhile (a new gesture, new way of rehearsing) and feel awkward and uncomfortable. But unless you're willing to go through that "failure," you will cap how much you can grow and how much you can achieve.

I see this resistance to changing something you like, something you're comfortable with all the time. I understand it. But you have to know that you're hobbling yourself if you aren't willing to struggle with something that is difficult. In a sense, you have to be willing to throw away anything from your past that may be getting in the way of your getting better.

From a personal perspective, I know that when I was an undergraduate, there were many people more "talented" than I am, with much more background. However, I have ended up where I am not because I'm more talented, or even because I worked harder--but because I have kept working and challenging myself in different ways and have been willing to change at any time, no matter how uncomfortable. This is still happening and my coming to UNT (back to academe) has allowed me to see certain things I do in a different light (from conducting technique to rehearsal technique to creating a certain "culture" in a choir) and begin to change them.

And I also know that if I look back at the big career decisions and changes in my life . . . that if I was scared of failure--if failure was a real possibility--that was when I grew most. When I took the position at PLU, Maurice Skones had been there 19 years and was very much a "guru" (and a wonderful musician as well). At the 1982 ACDA national conference, the PLU choir sang and Maury changed the last piece on his program to one of his signature pieces. My friend Bruce Browne, who was sitting with me, turned to me and said, "Maury's leaving PLU--he just announced his swan song." The next night a group of Northwest conductors got together for dinner and everyone was talking about Skones leaving PLU, with the consensus being, "I wouldn't touch that job with a 10-foot pole--no one will succeed immediately following Maury."

Of course, I ended up getting the job at age 33, with exactly three years of college teaching experience (although seven years experience with my Seattle Pro Musica groups, having conducted 40 or so of Bach's cantatas, all of his major works, the Mozart Requiem and C Minor Mass, Beethoven Symphony #1, etc.). Failure was a frightening possibility (in fact, I asked the chair of the department point blank, "Are you looking for the next person to head the program or a sacrificial lamb?"), but the truth was, it resulted in enormous growth for me. I hadn't conducted a choir that toured as this one did. I hadn't done a huge amount of a cappella music (but more than most with orchestra). I hadn't run a large choral program. I wasn't from the Lutheran tradition. The choir had a large alumni base that was very curious (and skeptical!) of this unknown guy who had been chosen to follow Skones. All of this provided challenges where I could have failed. There were, of course, things that didn't go well (especially at first), but what absolutely happened was that I grew enormously as a musician, teacher, and conductor.

It doesn't mean we like failing (in fact, the dislike of it motivates us to work hard), but we're willing to take the chance and also willing to "upset the applecart" over the short run to get better results over the long run.

So, my advice to the UNT grad students, "Please don't take the safe road. Take on challenges of whatever kind you can. If you're asked to change a conducting gesture or long-held (and perhaps cherished!) habit, rather than fighting it, figure out how you can do that, no matter how uncomfortable in the short run. Annoying (and scary) as it is, take video of yourself at every opportunity so you can really see what you look like and whether it helps or hinders. Challenge yourself to dig deeper into the scores you study. Think carefully about your rehearsal technique (or whether you really have one!) and be willing to change the way you do things. Challenge what you know about choral sound. Listen, listen, listen (and listen some more!) to other choirs and recordings, discuss important issues with each other, with me, with Dr. McCoy. Take books out of the library that no one is requiring you to read which stretch your knowledge of choral techniques, performance practice, a particular composer, etc., etc., etc.--and read them!"

An interesting book, indeed!