True Grit

By Marilyn Floyd

Do you ever wonder why some students seem to have rhythm while others struggle? As teachers, it's easy to see who has a natural aptitude and who doesn't. Humans are born with certain talents, and these remain fairly stable throughout our lives.  They have little to do with knowledge, experience, culture, or education.

But, what is the intersection between sheer giftedness and practice? Without giftedness, can one reach a point of mastery? Is a student's practice more important than their natural aptitude?

These questions started a conversation in my mind about grit. And so, I googled grit.  BTW, when did the noun ‘Google,’ become a verb?

I found study after study on the topic of grittiness. Psychologists seem to agree that while aptitude is significant, few people ever reach the limits of their natural abilities. Many of us lack the commitment to reach the limits of our abilities. “Enthusiasm is common,” Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance writes, “Endurance is rare.” Wow, does this resonate in the music studio! 

“Effort counts twice,” Duckworth explains, “because it translates your aptitude into skill. It takes effort to get good at something, and then it takes effort to apply that skill, to create.”   

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Regardless of natural aptitude?

In The Sports Gene, David Epstein stresses that we must understand Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour rule as an average. The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson studied violin students at the elite Music Academy of West Berlin; his study showed that the best violinists, on average and over time, practiced much more than the good ones. It turns out that, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was their practice habits and the quality of their teacher.

Cultivating Grit

Two teen students began piano together in group lessons several years ago, let’s call them Jane and Mary. While both had great enthusiasm, Jane found the piano to be a bit more natural (Perhaps Jane had more aptitude for the instrument?) Today, both are still taking lessons, but Mary applies more regular, focused practice than Jane. The student with perhaps less aptitude has become more accomplished than her peer. Mary put in significant effort and practice, while Jane did not.  I’d call that grit.

Grit is something you cultivate; it’s like learning a new language. Take music, for instance, once you learn the basics, you can create. Maybe you apply that skill to composing, improvising, or arranging music. Perhaps, you play others’ arrangements with grace and beauty.    

But, ask any farmer, cultivating a harvest takes time. Yup, I grew up on a farm. 

Did you know that when Jim Carey first appeared in a Toronto comedy club he was booed off stage? Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor thought he had no creativity and no good ideas. Passion and perseverance were prevalent in their careers. Grit

Have you ever taught a student that really wrestled with learning to play their instrument or reading music? I have witnessed students struggle many times, but, for me, a struggle like this became quite personal when my oldest son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was a pre-teen. His IQ is high, but he naturally lacks social intelligence. Throughout middle school and high school, he worked tirelessly with speech and language therapists. As a young adult today, he is exceptionally conversational. With a determined focus ... grit ... you might never know that he had to learn social aptitude.

Excellence vs. Perfection

Is grit about the pursuit of Excellence or Perfection? Gritty people don’t seek perfection; they strive for excellence. The word excellence comes from the Greek word Arête.  It means the fulfillment of purpose. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting perfection from our students. Expectation is the root of disappointment. William Shakespeare said it this way,  "Expectations are the root of all heartache."  Instead, let us encourage excellence.  Excellence, the quality of being very good, is attainable even if you lack natural aptitude. 

True Talent vs. Grittiness

If we believe that only a lucky few are born with true talent, we can feel defeated. The reality is this: only 20 to 40 percent are born naturally gifted. The other 60-80% of successful persons have cultivated gritWow. Now that’s a relief!  

As teachers, we get to influence our students’ grittiness.

What if we looked toward excellence, instead of perfection?  What if we were to give students experiences that will help them to be exceptional at their craft? What if we give our students tools to become better humans along the way? When we cultivate grittiness, we can help make the world a better place.

Marilyn is a freelance blogger/writer who has raised two neuro-diverse children. Her oldest son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 11, and her daughter with an Auditory Processing Disorder at age 6. 

In addition, Marilyn has taught piano to hundreds of students for over 23 years.  She has owned her own successful music studio and currently teaches piano at School for the Arts, Brighton, Michigan. She is skilled at pinpointing her students’ interests and at helping them achieve their next steps in music. She studied music at Julliard and the Richards Institute (Education Through Music - ETM). ETM  promotes physical, mental, and social growth through language, song, movement, and interactive play. In recent years, she holds a B.S. in Journalism with a minor in voice at the University of Kansas.