Playing a musical instrument is not innate, it is not a "gift"- it is the result of education and long hard work. Talent means nothing in the long run. Very early on, a musician running on talent alone, without the hard work to back it up, will hit a wall in his development. Barring any kind of crippling birth defect, mental retardation or physical deformity, anyone can play the piano on a professional level, provided they practice and study.
Today I was reading a very interesting article from 2005 on Psychology Today called "The Grandmaster Experiment". It is about how Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist, set out to turn his children into prodigies of whatever they showed interest in, eventually succeeding in forming three female chess grandmasters. My respect for his teaching abilities couldn't be any greater. Lots of people talk, but Polgar announced that his daughters would be prodigies before they were even born and actually did it, also raising them to be happy well-adjusted individuals in the process. He turned them into three of the finest chess players the world has ever known. Now, don't get the wrong idea, I am not in favor of more crazy parents out there wanting their little kids to be the next Van Cliburn by chaining them to the piano and forcing them to practice grueling hours against their will. Notice how the article specifically shows how the three kids in question were having the time of their lives, how it was always fun for them and was integrated into their normal education. The ultimate goal here was to make the children happy with what they have achieved, not having them achieve the goals and dreams their parents were too daft to achieve for themselves.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Amazing Laszlo and his wife. In an alternate universe, this guy probably has three daughters who are the greatest female pianists or violinists of all time. "][/caption]
There were two paragraphs in the article that really caught my attention, because they strongly reflect some basic principles in the way I teach:
Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, has found that people's beliefs about their abilities greatly influence their performance. When she praised children's intelligence after they succeeded at a nonverbal IQ test, they subsequently didn't want to take on a new challenge—they preferred to keep looking smart. When they were forced to complete a more difficult exercise, their performance plummeted. In contrast, some children were praised for "how" they did a task—for undergoing the process successfully. Most of the children in this group wanted to take on a tougher assignment afterward. Their performance improved for the most part, and when it didn't, they still enjoyed the experience.
Never ever tell a student that he is good. Things like "You are so talented!" or "You are the best in my class" do more damage than they do good. A quick boost in the student's self-esteem is not worth the fear of failure they acquire. Failure is an important part of the learning process, the very act of practicing involves trying out different ideas and discarding them through trial and error. Playing a musical instrument well involves a certain element of risk, telling a student that he is "the best", "really good", "amazing" and all that kind of stuff just takes away his focus from the music. He ends up more worried about what people think of him, of gaining praise from his teacher.
Instead of generalizing, it is better to as specific as possible with the compliments. It is also best to aim them at the work that the students did and the specific results, not praising the students' qualities but their acts. Whatever you do, the thing you must avoid at all costs is praising some kind of innate ability in the student. I wont go so far as to advocate completely doing away with complimenting students, but compliments from my teachers were always few and far far apart and I tend to be equally sparse with them.
"You played this piece very well, you are so talented" is complimenting a characteristic of the student that he supposedly already had- "You played this piece very well, you must have worked very hard" or "you must have found a really good way to practice this part" are much better because they are complimenting the strategy the student used in solving a problem and his effort to get around it; they compliment his growth.
Compare the two kinds of compliments:
By complimenting a student's talent or intelligence, you are creating a specific mindset; a mindset that if he fails, it is because he is stupid, or not talented enough. You are teaching him that if he shows that something is difficult for him, that it requires effort, it is indicative of that very same stupidity or lack of talent. You are encouraging him to be defensive about his mistakes in an effort to look smart, not admitting to himself or others when something goes wrong and responding to obstacles by actually working less, or avoiding them altogether in the long run. He will view performance as dependent on intelligence and talent, as something that is unchangable and depends on how good you are, he will tend to lie about his performance and be defensive about his defects, seeing as they reflect his own self-worth. Because of this, many students who have been constantly told, their whole lives, that they are the best of the very best are severely impaired after a bad performance, to the point of mental illness in the most extreme cases.
By complimenting a student's work or effort, you are creating a specific mindset as well; a mindset that if he fails, it is because he didn't work hard enough, or that he did not practice it in the right way. You are teaching him that effort and overcoming difficulties are what proves and uses intelligence effectively. He will be more open to feedback on his playing and will be more enthusiastic about overcoming challenges when he practices and he will be much better at getting up after a bad performance.
From the former we can conclude that compliments must never be aimed at people, but at what they do. Another thing that one really has to avoid with compliments is setting students up for competition. Things like "You are the best of my class" or "You play that piece so much better than [insert famous pianist in here]". The only healthy competition a student can have is with his own self.
With my piano students, I tend to reward hard work, over anything else. I have kicked out students with much more facility and capacity than their peers based completely on their lack of work and general laziness. On the other hand, I've kept students who practice constantly and make music part of their every day life even when they have severe problems that prevent them from playing effectively (most of the time the result of a very bad teacher). The reason for this is that practice makes musicians. Objectively speaking, whoever practices the most (considering a competent teacher in all cases) will generally play better. As taken from the article:
Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, argues that "extended deliberate practice" is the true, if banal, key to success. "Nothing shows that innate factors are a necessary prerequisite for expert-level mastery in most fields," he says. (The only exception he's found is the correlation between height and athletic achievement in sports, most clearly for basketball and volleyball.) His interviews with 78 German pianists and violinists revealed that by age 20, the best had spent an estimated 10,000 hours practicing, on average 5,000 hours more than a less accomplished group. Unless you're dealing with a cosmic anomaly like Mozart, he argues, an enormous amount of hard work is what makes a prodigy's performance look so effortless.
From my experience, and nothing has led me to believe anything different yet, good musicians spent a lot more time practicing than mediocre musicians. I know some people that don't practice much now and are amazing, but I know for a fact that they practiced a lot as children or teenagers. There are exceptions, but generally speaking it is no secret that the more you train, they better you get.
So, in short:
Stop telling your students they are good and make them practice as much as they can.