Is My Kid Talented?

Is my kid talented? If your kid is taking music lessons, it’s a natural question to ask. Especially if you’re shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars on everything from lessons and sheet music to reeds and rosin. But psychology tells us it’s the wrong one to ask.

“Growth mindset” is one of our core values at Edify. Psychologist Carol Dweck coined the term to describe a belief that skills aren’t innate, but rather are built over time through effort. She contrasts a growth mindset with a fixed mindset. Basically, a fixed mindset says “you’re great” or “you’re bad.” A growth mindset says “you’re learning.”

The idea of encouraging growth mindset is gaining steam in education, parenting, and management. Parents, teachers, and managers alike are noticing that praising people for their work gets better results in the long run than praising them for their talents.

The way people view musical talent is a particularly persistent example of fixed mindset. This is partly a consequence of the fact that music is fleeting—when we hear an amazing performance or a beautiful composition, we experience it as a moment in time. We don’t see the hours in the practice room, or the decisions that go into each note, so we assume that the musician on stage sounds great because she is great. The flip side of this fixed mindset—“If my kid doesn’t sound good after a year of violin lessons, it must be because he’s not talented”—helps explain the extraordinary failure rate of instrument lessons.

Recorded music makes this even worse. A modern recorded song is even better than the best performance the artist did—it’s a piecemeal ideal built from the best of many performances of each phrase, each measure, or even each note. Every kid is going to sound bad compared to a professional’s perfected take. In a fixed mindset, this means they aren’t talented.

Imagine if we did the same thing with reading or writing. “He’s not a talented reader, so we’re going to take him out of English class.” “Her writing today isn’t as good as Hemingway on his best day, so she must not have it in her.” If we did this, we’d have a whole lot of “untalented” readers and writers who never got the chance to grow.

What if we treated music as a learned skill, just like we do with other subjects? What if a great musician was applauded for their skill and study, instead of their talent? At Edify, we think a lot more people would stick with their studies, and develop over time into talented musicians.

So is my kid talented? That depends: are they learning?

Get your kids learning music with MusiQuest, the new free iPad app from Edify.