Category Archives: Talent and Genius

Piano Concerto Competition

Grousing

My biggest gripe with piano teaching is not what you’d expect – students who don’t practice.

It is the parents.  For the most part, I have wonderful parents: they are involved, interested, supportive, good communicators.  But there are a few bad apples and they really sap my energy.  I have been saying for a long time that I can handle pretty much any student, supposedly difficult or untalented or otherwise not ideal, as long as I get along with the parents, as long as we’re on the same page and they support what I do.

I have a few students who move slowly because they don’t practice as much as they could and should, but they do progress, and the parents and I are on the same page, content with how things work.

In our lessons, my goal is always to give honest and supportive feedback to the student and make sure none of my students leave the lesson until they have understood what it is they are to practice, and how.  I even make the younger ones read my hand-written assignment out loud to make sure they can read my handwriting and understand all abbreviations – much of the assignment often reads like some secret code, “LH 3 mf” for instance.   (And there are students of whom I ask not only “what does LH stand for?” but also to show me their left hand …)

I praise them pretty much every chance I get, but I also let them know when they are not doing well.  I don’t think I have any students who do not want to do well.  So, when they don’t do well it’s usually because they don’t understand a concept or because they are tired or distracted.  To the surprise of many parents, I don’t chide them for being tired or distracted, but I draw their attention to it, put it in words, and then say that we have a choice:  either say, yes I am tired and I need to take a break, or, yes I am tired but I’ll try again anyway.

And I make sure they understand that one is not better than the other.  I wish more people developed some sense and understanding of their state of mind, and their limits.  Somehow, perhaps because of the liberty of being able (allowed?) to say “I am tired/distracted” most students choose to try again and often play better than before.  To students who would benefit from it, I offer strategies for coping with the challenge of playing / listening / thinking while being tired.

While I try to be honest and supportive and praise my students for doing a good job thinking or listening or having patience (when they do), I do NOT comment on their being “talented” or “future pianists” or any such thing.  And parents who gush at their children (in front of me), telling them how talented they are because they understood a difficult concept  immediately lose points with me.   I similarly cringe when I hear parents say things like, “Ms. Kuder wouldn’t be teaching you if you weren’t so talented!”   So very much NOT true.  “Talent” is a promise, nothing more.  I have had “talented” students who were not interested in learning – how’s that good for anything?

Then there are parents who answer the questions I directed at the child, for the child.  When I ask a question, I get so much more out of the answer than just the answer.  Many of my questions are leading questions and I am interested in the student’s chain of thoughts to get to the answer, convoluted as some of those chains of thoughts can be at times.   Some parents interrupt the child if they think that the answer will be incorrect, but even an incorrect answer tells me what I need to know, namely that there is something that hasn’t been understood 100% = something I need to teach.  Or sometimes, students realize as they speak that they are headed in the wrong direction and correct themselves.  So much more valuable than having mom or dad present the right answer!  To me, piano lessons are about learning, and learning doesn’t do straight lines.

Most of my students learn quickly that there is no wrong answer to my question, “What do you think needs more work in this piece/section?” except “I don’t know.”  (Most of them have also learned that “dynamics” is a pretty sure-fire answer as it is such an elusive concept and one that always seems to benefit from more attention.)

Once I observe the student-parent interaction, I find that most students who prefer the “I don’t know” answer do so because their parents don’t encourage them to think, or, worse, jump in every chance they get and correct their child.  No wonder “I don’t know” seems like the safest thing to say …

Addendum:  There are two different ways students tell me “I don’t know” – the one I referred to, above, is not the one where a student honestly doesn’t know and sometimes even has trouble admitting so.  This kind of “I don’t know” actually is more of an “I don’t know and I don’t like that I don’t know!”  The one I was referring to, above, is the one that sounds like “I don’t know and I don’t care and will you get off my back already!”

(Originally posted May 17, 2010)

Edited to add: one way to keep parents from interfering with the lesson would of course be to simply not allow parents at the lesson. But that would only mask the problem because at home the parent *is* there, and interfering. Having a parent at the lesson and seeing the interaction between parent and child helps me understand how things go at home and gives me an opportunity to educate the parent how to help in a more productive way. – Although, I have on occasion realized that there was no educating the parent, that there was too big a discrepancy between how they viewed their role and what I would have needed from them.

Why Praising Your Kids Can Hurt Them

Not exactly new, but definitely worth repeating:

Psychology of Parenting: Why Praising Your Kids Can Hurt Them

Po Bronson Debunks Conventional Parenting Wisdom that All Praise Is Good for Kids
By CYNTHIA MCFADDEN and DEBORAH APTON
ABC News (online) Sept. 3, 2009—

For writer and father Po Bronson, yelling praise from the sidelines of a soccer game to his child has always been part of his parental territory. And what parent hasn’t done the same, showering gushing platitudes like “You played great” or “You’re so smart” at their children at every twist and turn?

But praising your kids, Bronson says now, is what can ruin them. In his latest book, “NurtureShock,” written with Ashley Merryman, the science journalist explores some misconceptions about raising children and how certain modern parenting strategies, such as excessively praising children, can do more harm than good.

[…]  “Kids become fixated on maintaining the image of being smart, of never getting anything wrong in front of people, of always looking like they’ve gotten everything right, of making it look effortless,” said Bronson. “Because if you show effort, it’s a sign you can’t cut it on your natural gifts. And so they make safe choices. They choose classes that won’t challenge them. They choose teachers and projects where they know they can get an A.”

Bronson said he’s trying to reform and all parents should too — for their the sake of their children.

[…]  “The difference is a child who is truly motivated and interested in learning, versus a child who wants to memorize so they can get a good grade so they can keep hearing how smart they are,” Bronson explained.

A decade of groundbreaking research suggests that constant praise can lead kids to lose self-confidence, not gain it, and make them actually perform worse, not better.

Bronson relies heavily on the research of Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University.  […] Over the past decade, Dweck has conducted a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders from different socio-economic groups across the country. The research provided the basis for one chapter of Bronson’s new book and points to a stunning result: Not all praise is created equal. Telling children they’re smart can actually hurt them, and you get a far better result if you praise children for challenging themselves, and for effort.

“Nightline” asked Dweck and one of her graduate students to show us how it works.

Mary, 9, and Jameson, 10, were given a series of IQ puzzles and asked to work on them silently. At the end, the researcher gave each child a score. The research assistant praised Mary for being smart, while Jameson was praised for working hard.

After reviewing Mary’s answers, the research assistant lauded her: “Wow, you did really well at these problems. You got 8 — that’s a great score. You must be really smart at these problems.”  If Dweck’s theory holds, Mary will want to continue to look smart, and when given the choice, will opt for a test that shows it — not something more challenging where they she could learn more.

In the next phase, when Mary was asked by the research assistant what kind of problems she would like to work on next, “problems that are pretty easy so you’ll do well, problems that you’re pretty good at so you can show that you’re smart, or problems that you’ll learn a lot from even if you don’t look so smart,” Mary chose problems to show that she’s smart.

“Problems that I’m pretty good at — so I can show I’m smart,” Mary told the researcher. “I am smart.”

Consider the difference with Jameson, who was praised for how hard he’d worked — not for being smart.  “Well, you did really well on these problems. You got 8 — that’s a really high score! You must have worked really hard on these problems,” the researcher said. Jameson agreed.

Dweck’s research suggests that Jameson — armed with praise for his hard work — will want to challenge himself — even though he got some problems wrong.  Following course, Jameson opted for “problems I’ll learn a lot from even if I don’t look so smart.”

Bingo. But Dweck took the experiment one step further. Both kids were immediately given another test — one that was much more difficult than the first and way beyond their grade.

While Mary actually performed extremely well, the researcher was discouraging, and asked her why she seemed to have more trouble with the second set of problems. A deflated Mary said that she wasn’t smart enough.  “There are other people in my class that are smarter than me. … I’m not really that smart because of that, because I’m not used to them [the problems],” she said. “I worked hard as I can, so I think I’m not smart enough. But I do think I’m really, really smart but not ready for the other problems. But I want to do them when I get home.”

Jameson, who got only three answers right to Mary’s six on the very difficult second test, remained undaunted, moving onto a third test and nailing it — getting nine problems right.

But Mary seemed to crumble, getting only three right on the third test. And remember, she’d actually done twice as well as Jameson on the difficult second test. The point, Dweck said, is that praising children’s intelligence makes them less resilient when they hit a bump in the road and less willing to challenge themselves.

“After they’re praised for their effort, they enjoy being challenged,” Dweck explained. “What we value here is the practice, the effort, the trying of many strategies, and then they can feel satisfied as long as they’ve been engaged in that way. But if you say we value how smart you are, how enjoyable can it be if you’re not shining?”

Bronson said the sense of failure, induced by Dwek’s experiment, made Mary perform worse than she could have. In turn, Jameson, who was praised for effort, learned strategies for concentrating and facing challenges.  “At the end of the day, on the medium test, he ends up doing a better job than Mary, who had actually performed at a higher level up until then,” Dweck said.

[…] While Dweck’s research suggests parents need to stop praising their kids in a generalized way, with catch phrases like “You’re so smart” “You’re great,” praise given correctly — for effort or for specific accomplishments — “I really liked how you passed the ball to Johnny” or “You worked really hard on the field today” can be helpful, as opposed to “You’re the best soccer player ever!”

[…]Psychologist Florrie Ng was interested in studying cross-cultural parenting. She conducted research while she was at the University of Illinois, with children and their mothers in Illinois and Hong Kong. She tested kids with a similar pattern-matching test used by Dweck.

During a five-minute break, American mothers were given their child’s score. They were then told that their child did not perform well, regardless of their child’s actual score, and were then instructed to talk to their child about the test. During the sit-down with their kids, the American mothers did not mention their child’s “poor” score, but instead offered their child praise and presents, regardless.

“We saw them ignoring — completely ignoring — their child’s failure. And not willing to help them, and if anything, praising them for their intelligence, or saying, ‘Don’t worry, ‘You’re going to do great,'” Bronson said.

By contrast, when mothers in Hong Kong were told their child hadn’t performed well on the same test, they addressed the issue with their children, Bronson explained, working through the problems with their children and encouraged them to stay focused.

When the American and Chinese children were tested again, following the one-on-one sit-down with their mothers, the Chinese performed 33 percent better than in earlier tests. Ng plants to continue her research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“You might think that these Chinese mothers were cold and inconsiderate and cruel and harsh to their children. But when you watch the videotapes, these mothers are touching their child. They’re loving, they have their arm around their child, they are stroking them, they are just as affectionate as the American mothers were,” Bronson said.

“As American parents, we can be loving and affectionate and supportive at the same time as we are directing our child’s attention to better strategies to improve and to learn,” Bronson said.  “The child wants to do well on the test; help the child do well on the test. Don’t do things that are just going to make the child underperform on the next test.”

[…] “I became a social praiser,” Bronson said. “And I started to feel like — that it wasn’t my child. My child was doing great at the new praise regimen. It was I who was suffering. The praise junkie wasn’t my child; it was me.”

But Bronson confirmed that there’s no limit on one kind of support. Unconditional love is something parents can repeat and repeat.  “Telling your child you love them is something else,” Bronson said. “You can tell your child you love them all you want.”

Please read the complete article at http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/nurtureshock-parenting-tips-praising-kids-hurt/Story?id=8475074&page=1

Genius

The parents of my young piano students know that I have a serious problem with the name of one of the piano methods for young beginners, “Music for Little Mozarts”.  Not only do I find it presumptuous and misleading, I find it unfair to the children:  they are being taught that if they only try hard enough, they can be “little Mozarts” which leads some of them to think that they are expected to become little Mozarts.  

There’s a misconception here in the United States, arising from the statement, “All men are born equal.”   People equate “equal” with “the same”.   The fact is, we are not all the same.  We are born male, female, (or, in moderately rare cases, intersexual – persons incompatible with the biological gender binary); we are born tall, short, in-between, easy-going or not; we are born first, second, the last of ten.  We are not all the same.  Nor should we be.  In a truly great society, everyone finds his/her place, with room and encouragement to develop his/her individual talents. 

Dylan Evans, in an article that was published in The Guardian, speaks of talent:

We can’t bear the idea that some people might be better than us, so much better that we could never be like them, no matter how hard we tried. That upsets our democratic ethos, our belief that all people are born equal.

But raw talent is not distributed equally. By definition, most of us are not exceptional. We are neither particularly stupid, nor especially intelligent. Only a very few are extremely gifted. […] The Mona Lisa, the Goldberg Variations and King Lear were not the work of ordinary people like you and me. They were the work of geniuses, people so much more talented than us that we could never paint or write anything comparable to their achievements, no matter how hard we tried or how long we lived.

And here’s a thought that’s particularly dear to my heart because of its relevance to piano competitions:

The just allocation of admiration is a virtue that requires judgment and integrity: judgment to distinguish genuine talent from mere showiness, and integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it. Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.

This kind of thinking usually doesn’t go over too well with American students and parents who by now are used to receiving some kind of prize or recognition for just about everything.   While I wholeheartedly believe in and teach supporting young people’s efforts and accomplishments, I think this society has gone overboard in its attempt to reward expected behavior.  Making people, especially young people, think that they are exceptional just because they follow the rules or because their work is acceptable is dangerous.

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So, what’s wrong with naming a piano method “Music for Little Mozarts”?  It is the arrogant assumption that all children are geniuses in the league of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  It is degrading to the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to put him on the same level as the majority of people who just happen not to be geniuses.  It reminds me of the story of the 4-year old whose parents manage to grab him just as he’s about to step onto a busy four-lane highway.  The parents, distraught, demand to know, “What on earth and in heaven’s name did you think you were doing?!”  The 4-year-old answers, “I am going to cross the highway because I can do anything if I just believe in myself.”

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Piano Concerto Competition

The Manhattan Area Music Teachers Association (MAMTA) hosted the 11th Annual Piano Concerto Competition today. 

The Competition is open to students in grades 4 – 12.  Contestants are grouped by grade level, Elementary (grades 4 -5), Lower  Intermediate (6 -7), Upper Intermediate (8 – 9), and Advanced (10 – 12), and perform one concerto movement from memory.  

There were some changes this year, perhaps most noticeably the fact that instead of the 23-25 students we’ve had at each competition over the past couple of years, this year we had only 11 contestants.  There were questions and concerns as to how this low number might influence the issue of awards:  the thought was that it might be a foregone conclusion that if there were only two contestants in a division, there would be a first and a second place, and therefore not as much of a competition as when you have six or seven contestants in a division. 

Fortunately, these fears turned out to be unfounded.

For once, we had an adjudicator who was not afraid to not award a prize unless it was well-deserved.  In the past, while it was nice to have so many first and second places (which come attached with a gift certificate to the local music store as well as the honor of performing again at the winners’ concert), I have often felt that prizes were awarded too liberally.  Instead of judging the quality of the performance, most adjudicators seemed to rank the performances:  whoever played best in any given age category got first place, regardless of the quality of the performance.  Second-best got second place, etc.   Of course, many times the two overlapped, and the “best” performance was indeed worthy of a first place, simply because it could not have been done any better.  But many times, “best” wasn’t really good enough.

This year, for the first time ever, there was no First Place in the Elementary Division (grades 4 – 5).  There was no Second Place either.  While at first it was disappointing to receive “only” Honorable Mention (we practiced so hard …), it was actually exactly right and justified.  Anything higher than Honorable Mention would have sent the wrong signal to the student as well as the teacher, and the audience.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to this year’s adjudicator, Dr. Virginia Houser, for having the

integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it.

Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.

(Dylan Evans, in an article that was published in The Guardian.)

Another observation of this year’s event can be found here.