Using a Growth Mindset - Music & Psychology

Using a Growth Mindset to Improve on your Instrument

Practicing an instrument can be challenging, frustrating, and tough; especially in the early stages when our muscle memory hasn’t matured, and our physical dexterity is developing. This shouldn’t be discouraging though, and it should definitely not make you want to practice less!

If anything, we can use the learning process and scientific insights to improve quicker on the instrument, and get more out of our practice. Here’s how understanding your mindset can make practicing more enjoyable…

Use a Growth Mindset instead of a Fixed Mindset

When I first started practicing my instrument, I would avoid challenging myself, mostly because I felt more comfortable playing whatever I could play at the time. This wasn’t by choice, but rather I was doing it unconsciously. I didn’t really know how to seriously practice, or improve on my instrument! I thought that because I was sitting down at my instrument and playing, I was practicing.

Nowadays, if I were to do this, I would consider this as noodling – or just jamming around my instrument doing whatever feels good. Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to noodling around and discovering new things and ideas…but as with most things, it is better done in moderation.

One can counteract the urge to noodle, by establishing goals and specific challenges that are part of the overall mission. More scientifically put, you can learn to use a growth mindset when practicing.

A growth mindset approaches a learning task knowing that perfection isn’t achieved overnight, or possibly ever for that matter, as we are human. So it establishes specific goals that are more reachable within a certain timeframe and limit, and asks us to push ourselves and do our best to achieve these. The growth mindset cultivates resilience, perseverance, and hard work – even if it’s just five minutes of hard work.

There's always room for improvement with pedal steel!
Billy Knowles’ hard work on restoring a ’96 Emmons LeGrande II – Strayhorn Era

For example, if you know you only have ten minutes to spend practicing a song you’ve been working on, it’d be more beneficial to understand: that you have ten minutes to challenge yourself and improve a little bit on the song (growth mindset), instead of thinking you’ll never be able to perfect this song in the next ten minutes because you don’t have the intelligence or talent (fixed mindset). With the growth mindset, you leave yourself room for hits, misses, and improvements, like a dart player during target practice – you learn quickly and efficiently from your mistakes. With the fixed mindset, you tell yourself that since you can’t hit the bull’s-eye now, you probably never will be able to. You get discouraged, and don’t leave yourself room for improvement, even if it is just for ten minutes. You are more likely to give up.

I learned of this idea, which was truly enlightening to me, through a book written by a Stanford University psychologist named Carol Dweck. She spent many years researching successful athletes, CEOs, teachers, and many others to better understand what made them perform better in the long run — they weren’t just born with it, they had to develop it.

Many professional athletes and champions understand this part of the learning process on a deep level. They work everyday on the tiny kinks in their armor, until one day they’ve spent so much time on the fine details and understanding/perceiving them that they have “perfected” it. At least it appears that they’ve perfected it, but the champion knows that they’re just getting started and there’s always room for improvement!

Rider A Dog - He Loves The Sun
Embrace the learning process!

So embrace this room for improvement, actually get a kick out of it! Challenge yourself and grow. Lace up, gear up, or whatever – be a warrior on your instrument and pick your battles wisely!

Don’t just play the same riffs, licks, or scales over and over again, study and foster them through challenging experiments and trials. Be a mad scientist with experiments that you know will often fail!

Grow something from the ground up with your practice tribulations, and be sure to water it every once in a while. It may just blossom into something no one’s ever seen before!

The book mentioned in this article is called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (affiliate link).  The idea of mindset, and how we can better enjoy the challenges of learning, has been really helpful to me as a musician. It has allowed me to get more enjoyment out of practicing my instrument. It has also helped me become more patient in the learning process, and understand that – like life – sometimes you just need to take things one step at a time!

Check out the practice section for more ideas on practicing and improving on your instrument.