Helping Students Grow from “Failure” Focus Towards Growth and Students Take Off

When I began teaching, I was caught off guard by how unreasonably frustrated (or even angry) some students would become when they couldn’t do something they were being asked to do. A couple of times a young student banged his forehead on the keyboard after being asked to do something for the first time – because he anticipated that he couldn’t do it. Other students would come back after a week of practice and not have something “perfect” and decide the assignment was too hard and give up.


The irony is that these students weren’t even qualified to know if they were doing things well on their instruments yet. They felt that there was a certain bar they needed to be reaching, they weren’t reaching it – so they shut themselves down… Sometimes forever.

One common mistake we can make in these situations is to falsely praise the student so that we can get them back with us for the remainder of the lesson. This creates a serious credibility issue because they know that they don’t really deserve the praise. If this goes on for a while, they start to practice for the praise and not the music. How many likes did I get on that last Instagram picture I posted?!?!?

Another thing that is easy to do is to dig our heals in and say to ourselves, “I’m not going on until they act “right” and do what I’m asking them to do.” We obviously need them to do what we’re asking them to do, but this steals valuable time away from the lesson.

After reading research on performance and learning psychology over the past few years, I’ve made some subtle changes to my teaching that have kept these situations from happening anymore.

Constantly focusing on and praising the process instead of the student and their abilities has really helped my students immensely – from the 4 year-old beginners to the ones getting full scholarships at colleges and going out on professional tours.

For example, if I have a very advanced student who comes to me for lessons they typically have a history of achievement. They have won several awards, they have traveled playing music, they have outgrown their teacher (or their teacher didn’t want to deal with them anymore), etc. They have spent their whole lesson career aiming for fixed achievements, abilities or “talents”. So when I ask them to play “Happy Birthday” for me in all 12 keys, they become that little kid who wants to bang their head on the keyboard again and quit.

For that new student, I will simply say “I’m not going to judge you on what you can do today – that is in the past. You will be assessed by your rate of improvement each week. So if you can only get through one key of “Happy Birthday” today, it’s just the start. Next week I will expect you to improve to where you can do it all 12 keys. Then we will start from there and play in all 12 keys in the style of the all the famous composers you have played since you started lessons. Then eventually you will have your own style. Every time you are able to do something, it becomes our new starting place.”

Once students get into this, I have been blown away at what they have been able to do. I love coming to lessons each week being totally amazed and inspired by how far beyond the “finish line” students can go. It may take years but it’s totally worth it for them (and us) to embrace.

Here are a few quick ways you can communicate growth over static finish lines:

  • “You’re reading isn’t so great!” versus “You’re not the best reader YET.”
  • “You are really talented.” versus “All that hard work you’ve done is really paying off.”
  • “You have really good ears.” versus “Now that you can hear (fill in the blank), let’s see if we can push into some new sounds so you can hear those too!”
  • “Just do your best!” versus “Just keep getting better and improving!”
  • “You sounded great at the recital!” versus “All that practicing you did made your recital performance pop! You get more amazing each recital!”
  • “That recital wasn’t very good.” versus “We know that recital could have been better. Let’s learn from this one so the next one will be awesome.”

Carol Dweck is a pioneer in this growth-based approach. This is a nice article to get your feet wet if you want to read more –