How my daughter taught me to fail

It has taken many mistakes and a whole lot of frustration, but helping my daughter play violin has given me something I’ve always wanted.

Photo: iStock Photo

“Ready?” I asked my eight-year-old daughter as I adjusted the banjo on my lap.

She nodded and lifted the quarter-size violin to her chin, holding the bow between her thumb and forefinger, as she had been taught to do over the past month of lessons. Together, we eked out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” alternately out of tune and out of time, interrupted by my younger daughter until, with a flourish of ritardando, we stopped.

I whooped with delight. That was it: my lifelong dream fulfilled. You heard that right: My dream—the gift I wanted most—involved bad intonation and alternating tempos. My eldest daughter was doing two things that I’d desperately wanted to do growing up: play music and jam with a parent. More importantly, she was powering through the hard parts, more interested in learning music than mastering it. She was learning, successfully, to fail.

girl playing instrument. Is there a perfect age to start music lessons?

After my parents divorced when I was five, I only saw my musician father on some holidays, during the summer and one weekend a month. It seemed like every time I showed up, he knew a new instrument, whether it was the mandolin, tenor guitar, clarinet or piano. He would teach me the basics of whatever instrument I’d decided to play when I visited. And when I went back to my mom’s, I’d try to continue on my own. But when it got hard—when I had to attack the same few notes over and over until my fingers knew them better than my brain—I gave up. Each time, I felt like a failure, deficient in not only musicianship but also in daughterhood. My slightly off-key voice and slow fingers were proof that I was unworthy and, worse, unlovable.

Just after I graduated from college, my father gave me a Silvertone five-string banjo—one of the few instruments I hadn’t tried yet and given up on. It was made by Sears, back when the company sold everything from instruments to houses. I loved both its bell-like sound and its pedestrian provenance.

I worked on a tune called “Georgia Railroad,” which required the quick switching of fingers on the fifth fret for weeks, but I made no progress. My fingers never became fluent in the language of that song, and so, as I had so often before, I stopped trying. The banjo mostly lived in my closet. It was just one example in a lifetime of living without a growth mindset: the belief that one can become smarter, better and more successful by continuing to try. Fixed mindset—my default setting—is the opposite: You are either good at something or you’re not. You either fail or succeed.

There’s a lot of research about how important it is to encourage a growth mindset in kids, but I never knew how to model it. I was a chronic quitter and bailed when things got too hard. As much as I wanted my kids to play music, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to get them to actually learn it.

Then my daughters and I went to a family camp that offered free violin lessons. To my surprise, my older daughter wanted to take them. To my further surprise, she played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by the end of the first lesson and wanted to keep playing after camp. My father found her an inexpensive rental. She powered through the notes, sounding like a dying duck and inching her fingers up and down the fret to correct the intonation. Then my younger daughter asked to play, teaching herself to sail the bow across the strings in the “Mississippi Hot Dog” rhythm of the Suzuki method—not bad for never having had a lesson.

In the beginning, I was quietly hopeful. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on her to fulfill my dream of learning to play music. But at the end of every lesson and every 10-minute practice, I experienced a brief moment of ecstasy. Like many parents, I want my children to have what I didn’t: the joy of not only speaking the language of music but also learning to navigate hardship and failure.

Though I can only play the tiniest bit of violin (I gave that up, too), I have been able to help. Maybe it’s because I can only play the tiniest bit, so they see me struggle and search the strings without erupting in self-doubt and frustration. Maybe I’ve been able to model a musical growth mindset for my daughter now—but only because she has helped nurture it in me.

After a month of my daughter’s lessons, I took out the banjo. I showed the kids the notes to “Georgia Railroad” and attempted them over and over again. Sometimes I played it well, but mostly I didn’t. Either way, they loved watching me. They would say “Try the hard part again,” and every time I did it badly and tried again, I felt like I was doing something well.

Turns out, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is very easy to play on the banjo. Someone playing for two weeks could play it as well as someone playing it off and on for 20 years. And yet, when I plucked the notes on the banjo and my daughter coaxed them from the violin—when we weren’t in time or in tune but kept going—I felt something I rarely do as a parent: success by way of failure.

Read more:
How to handle your child’s perfectionism
I let my kid listen to rock and roll music

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