“The brain grows most by getting questions wrong, not right.” Failiure Part 2

Salman Khan of Khan Academy wrote the above statement, and also, “If society as a whole begins to embrace the struggle of learning, there is no end to what that could mean for global human potential,”


Picture Courtesy of Knight Foundation, licensed under Creative Commons


In this Huffington Post article, the author cites research on how we praise our children and the effect it has on our children. The researcher Carol Dweck, has been working on this research since the 1960s, and this information probably isn’t new to you, but here is what we know: when you praise children for being smart, they attribute their skills to innate ability, but when you praise them for their hard work, they attribute skills to perseverance and practice. Children who do the latter are more likely to keep trying a task until they get it right and can accomplish more throughout their lives because of their mindset.

Next time you are ready to praise your child or student: stop and think- what are you praising? Instead of saying “you’re so musical,” “I like how you practiced playing some parts softly and some loudly. The dynamics you added made your performance more musical.”

Challenge your music student- let them experience failure- and then praise them for their work and diligence, not their skill or accomplishment. This way you will grow a musician.

The Lessons of Failure: Sometimes you win, Sometimes you lose.

There’s of course truth and a lesson in this song by the Shins from Yo Gabba Gabba.

But it’s okay, you try again… Do your best so you hold your head up high.

Like all worthy pursuits, especially those where the word “practice” comes into play, failure is a part of the journey. Practicing music can be full of small and large failures; the failure to execute a particular phrase in the music, or getting flustered and forgetting your solo in the middle of a recital. Small and large, failure brings with it many lessons, and those lessons benefit us in all facets of life. For those who are amateur musicians, learning those lessons while having fun with music can soften the blow, while for professionals it can come with many more ramifications, like losing a chance for career advancement or the ability to support yourself.

Let us concern ourselves with the amateurs, ourselves and our students or children in this scenario. What are they learning about failure? What should they be learning?

Failure is another stepping stone to greatness- Oprah Winfrey

  • It’s ok to fail. I’m putting this first, because I think it is the most important. Everyone fails at something some time. If you don’t, it’s either because you are one of those one in a billion people who are geniuses who are good at everything, or, more likely, you never try anything you think you may fail. In my students, and even my own children, I see us becoming a culture that is failure-adverse and it is stifling creativity and possibility. No one who has ever created anything good or beautiful got it right the first time. Authors have editors, inventors have multiple iterations of the same device, and computer programmers issue patches for their programs. If your students can sight read everything you put in front of her, you are not challenging her. You are holding her back; holding her back from failure, but also holding her back from success.
  • Failure teaches humility. It’s good to be reminded that we are not perfect and that other people may be better at something than we are. It shows us what we should work on or what we could accomplish with more work. It sometimes shows us that we may have chosen the wrong path. Humility is not shame. Failure that comes despite hard work should make us proud, but ground us in reality. Maybe I choked in my piano recital and played horribly, despite the hours of practice I put in. I should be proud of my practice, but there is a lesson I have to learn- maybe I didn’t practice enough to feel confident in my playing, or maybe I need to practice being confident (the latter is much more difficult!). No matter what, especially if I am comparing my performance with someone else’s, I should come away humbled by their success, but not jealous of it.
  • Practicing failure teaches grace. Just using the word grace seems antiquated, but it is a quality that is rarely focused on, but when you meet someone who has it, it is inspiring. By grace, I mean the ability to act in a controlled, polite, and smooth way, without awkwardness. A good musician never gives away their mistakes; don’t make a wrong note worse by adding a grimace or a shake of the head. THAT takes control. Control of the body and control of the mind. When you don’t pass the audition, you don’t pout, or complain- you learn and move on. Sometimes we have to grieve our failures, but we have to learn to do so in way that is mature and appropriate. Children have trouble with this, and we understand that, and try to comfort and calm them, and teach them skills to control and focus their reactions. When this skill has not been learned in adulthood, we get inappropriate comments on Twitter that shame the author, or millionaire rap moguls embarrassing themselves on national award shows.
  • Failure teaches determination. How many people are admired for their stick-to-it-iveness? You can’t have that trait if you don’t often fail. Failing often is a good teacher. It helps us grow, it helps us get things done. Your child is learning that at the piano right now while she is practicing that same measure over and over and continually missing the last note. Then- ah ha! She gets it! And misses a different note in the process. No matter, she is learning to stick with it until it is right. That’s a good quality to have in an employee, but an even better one in an employer. She is willing to put in the work to make herself better, which is what it takes to be successful. It’s a small lesson now, but it will pay off as the stakes are higher and she is willing to put in the work and try again and again for what she wants.
  • Failure teaches problem-solving. Every time a music student fails to play her piece correctly, she has to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Music teachers teach many different methods to practice to refine pieces in as little time as possible. Teachers teach and students learn how to prioritize musical goals, and that is a skill that translate into prioritizing other assignments at school or work.
  • Failure teaches what success means. The better we know failure, the more we are able to recognize success in its many forms. That means, small successes, not just ones that are accompanied by awards and people telling us “good job!” There’s a satisfying feeling to perfecting the piece you are working on, even if you never play it for the audience and hear their applause. The perfection is not the gratifying part, it’s the accomplishment of overcoming the struggles that challenged us.

As parents and teachers, it is important for us to put failure into perspective for children. No one likes losing or not being able to do something that they are striving for, but it’s a part of living and learning. Children should be given opportunities to fail and succeed; they should be sheltered from neither. They need developmentally appropriate challenges so that they can grow into adults who are not afraid to reach and fail in order to succeed.

How do you talk about failure with your children?

You don’t have to be a musician to teach your kids music…

I’m linking this post on parenting tips for making music everyday.


The most important thing to remember about encouraging musical growth is that kids need to be participating in music regularly. If Mom or Dad (or better yet, Mom AND Dad) sing and play music at home, music becomes something that “we do.”

Relax. You don’t have to be playing concertos or singing arias to make this happen. Make music part of your routine. Everyone knows lullabies, so start there. Do you have a clean-up song? Learn one or make one up. If your children are very young, the simpler, the better.

We have a bath time song that’s just “Bath time, here we go. Bath time, here we go.” Sometimes I improvise a little with “Bath time, up the stairs. Bath time, take off your clothes.”

Challenge yourself to come up with a new song for your routine this week. Try to sing it every time. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly the same each time! Music never is exactly the same during every performance!

Let me know if you’ve tried a new song at home!