Try or Try Not. There Is No Do.
Changing your child’s vocabulary towards hard things
Yoda said “Do or do not. There is no try.” He was wrong. Sorry, Yoda. There is ONLY try.
So so often, the language our little learners use towards the things they are trying to do, gives them the wrong expectations for themselves. If we tell ourselves that we must do something, and then that something doesn’t happen right away, if feels like failure. And feeling like a failure is not fun.
Music should be fun! But practicing can be hard. And definitely frustrating. We need to change the vocabulary around students’ learning in a way that promotes continued learning in the way that actual learning works.
Success = Progress
We all know that hard things take time. But it’s easy to lose sight of that along the way. The first vocab shift that I encourage in my students is “progress” instead of “success.”
That old saying that “practice makes perfect” leaves a whole lot out. It leaves out all those days when you aren’t quite perfect yet, even though you practiced your butt off. It leaves out the forgetting that happens each night and the re-learning that happens each subsequent day that leads to stronger memories and deeper learning. It leaves out all the tiny, tiny steps that you take towards your goal.
I want my students to learn how to break big goals down into manageable parts. (Music lessons teaching Life Skills, FTW!) Focusing on the progress made, rather than how “successful” a student was, is important and leads to healthier practicing habits. It teaches a student to enjoy the growing, to focus on the learning, and to set reasonable and achievable goals.
Mistakes = Opportunities
Hand-in-hand with focusing on progress, is viewing mistakes as opportunities. When a student tries something and finds it challenging, I celebrate with them the opportunity to learn a new thing. After all, I remind them, I would be out of a job if all my students did everything right on the first try!
Mistakes are also clues to what is happening in your brain. Your fingers can’t talk to you and tell you what they know. They can only show you. So we need to play a little detective when we practice to figure out what things our fingers still need to learn. Encourage your learner to make those mistakes! I’ll even tell my students that I don’t want them to play their song perfectly. Play really fast! Let your fingers really show you what they know- and what they don’t- so you know where those opportunities for growth are.
Failure = Giving Up
I think that even more important than the previous two vocabulary changes is substituting “failure” with “giving up.” When I have a student who would throws up their hands after a mistake and declares that they failed, I ask them “Are you giving up?” And when they decide that no, they aren’t, we celebrate. If you’re not giving up, you’re not failing. You’re growing.
Hard = Not Learned Yet
What does it mean when something is hard? Often, for a young student “hard” translates to “I can’t do it.” When a student says something is hard, it implies a permanence that can’t be overcome. When something feels hard, all it really means is “I can’t do it YET.” Hard things are just things we haven’t learned yet. So I encourage all my students to change “hard” to “unlearned,” so they internalize that the hardness is temporary.
Easy = Learned!
Likewise, when a student says something is “easy,” they are again attributing a permanence to that and ignoring all the work that went into learning. Just like it’s important to see the potential learning that needs to be done with “hard” things, our students need to see all the great work that they’ve done to get a skill to the point where it feels easy. It shows them what they’re capable of. It allows them to see themselves as accomplishers of challenging things. And it empowers them to tackle future as-yet-unlearned skills.
Frustration = Not having a plan
Ah frustration. When I was little and learning to play piano, I would get so frustrated that I would scream and kick the piano. My mother wasn’t very amused by this. And I don’t recommend it as a practice strategy. Frustration is the killer of so many well-laid practicing plans. And, left to fester, it can lead to a child wanting to quit their music studies entirely.
But what is frustration? It means that the student really desperately wants to do well. It means that they are angry with themselves for making a mistake. It means that they are overwhelmed and just don’t have a plan for overcoming the challenges.
All of those things- with the exception of the lack of a plan- are good! Desperately wanting to do well is awesome! Wanting yourself to do better is absolutely fine! Neither of those things should stand in a student’s way of progress. Especially because developing a plan for growth is actually the teacher’s (or guardian’s) job!
Young learners (ages 5 to 11) are often not quite developmentally ready to do this for themselves. They need someone to guide them through the steps- to show them what those steps should be. And older learners need to be taught the tools for developing their own plan. But first we need to change all students’ vocabularies so they understand that frustration isn’t a problem, it’s just the lack of a plan. And that we will help them get there.
Do = Try
We all like to do well and see ourselves as successful. When we, as teachers/adults/caregivers, ask our little learners to “do” something, so often they hear that as “do it right on the first try.” Doing implies completion. And that little word can be a big burden. And anyway, music isn’t learned by doing, it’s learned by trying. And trying. And trying some more. And never giving up even when it doesn’t seem certain that it’ll ever be learned. This takes confidence and it takes positive, productive self-talk. Try or try not. There is no “do” without “try” first.