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singing and talent

Singing is not a rare ability given to a talented few

In fact, it’s the word “talented” that can become a big problem for parents. Talent has become tainted. Following the powerful pull of Big Media, there’s a prevailing attitude of obsession with talent, audition and competition. This is really bad news when we start to consider the delicate nature of the child’s musical self-image. What’s really going down is the idea that some babies are born with musical talent and others are not. Those with inborn “talent” can grow into either ordinary “talented musicians” or perhaps even “highly talented musicians” — the ones we end up calling “stars”. And the rest? Well of course the implication is a) they’ll never be any good at music and b) they’ll only ever be music consumers. Roll out the headphones!

But now, after years of amazing 21st century research, we know that the potential to sing in tune is inborn. How is it then, that many children somehow form the opinion that they can’t sing because they are not talented? The answer is that someone they trust, often a teacher or a loved family member, misguidedly tells them that they can’t sing because they simply don’t have a talent for singing. It causes them to suffer pain and anguish. It’s a left-over, dinosaur attitude that keeps them from enjoying a satisfying lifelong relationship with music and it makes it them feel bad.

In her TED talk on the growth mindset, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck offers a solution to the problem of the debilitating “talent mindset”. Those judged as without talent are stopped in their tracks! The adult who made the judgement call has a fixed mindset and so the child, in turn, develops a fixed mindset. They turn away from a course of learning that will improve their lives. It’s a double-edged sword. Professor Dweck says we should also change our attitude to making judgement calls about children with so-called talents, by rewarding them for abilities that come to them easily — with no effort on their part:

“praise wisely, not praising intelligence or talent. That has failed! Don’t do that anymore.”

That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? When a Stanford professor says “don’t” perhaps we should sit up, listen and change our habit of mind (and mouth)!

According to her years of research, recognizing a child’s effort and signs of their increasing skills does wonders. Professor Dweck and her teams have taught many children that every time they make an effort to push through difficulty, their brain’s neurons fire to form stronger connections making them smarter over time. The research teams taught their subjects to operate in the growth mindset.

Carol Dweck gives an impassioned plea —

“Let’s not waste any more lives, because once we know that abilities are capable of such growth, it becomes a basic human right for children, all children, to live in places that create that growth  . . .”

Children’s singing voices can be developed, kids can get better and better at singing under our daily care and guidance. We don’t want any of our children to become the adult who says “I’m not musical. I can’t sing. I’m not talented.”

What’s the big takeaway from this researcher? Don’t reward talent. Do reward effort, strategies, focus, perseverance and improvement. Change the conversation around the insidious word “talent”.

Singing is for all and not for the so-called “talented” few who get all the misdirected praise for having a lovely singing voice. Praising a child for their sweet voice is the same as praising a child for their physical beauty. They didn’t do anything to achieve their natural good looks so why praise them? It’s a dangerous fixed mindset — it does nothing to help them grow. Carol Dweck tells us the best way to help a child is to praise their effort, their improvement, their techniques learned and practiced. That way we are building character and what she calls the growth mindset. It’s a real asset for the child.

All children are born with an intense interest in music. They are ready to sing, dance and play instruments from infancy. In early childhood, the selection of the “talented few” in music is rare but we know it starts to happen, sometimes as young as six or seven, when children are invited to join choirs. And that is when the dangerous, stinging, life-changing words are uttered softly into a child’s ear —”don’t sing, just mouth the words.”

This is the theme of an Oscar-winning Hungarian short film called “Sing”. The children are told, “everyone is welcome” but as it turns out, some, like Sophie, are not welcome to raise their voice!

If this ever happened to you, you’ll know full well the feeling of humiliation. Or perhaps a dear friend has told you this same sorry tale. If you know about this first-hand, please write your story in the comment below. Thanks for sharing!