Keys to Success for Music Teachers and Students of All Needs

Mindset, Grit, and Determination:

Keys to Success for Music Teachers and Students of All Needs

By NAfME member Paul G. Young, Ph.D.


success | bluejayphoto


He has ability, but he doesn’t apply himself.

She’s just lazy and unmotivated.

Too often during class he just sits there staring into space.

Have you ever worked with students who have ability but lack motivation or perseverance to succeed? To many, today’s kids appear less inspired and willing to work as hard as those of older generations. Why put forth effort if everyone is going to get a reward?

How are music teachers expected to keep kids’ attention when they’re infatuated with cell phones, video games, texting, social media, and the like? Try disrupting their access during class, and you might experience the wrath of the helicopter, snowplow, or tank moms. Oh yes—unmotivated kids come from homes with plentiful resources as well as those without.

The world we once knew has changed dramatically! Society is recognizing that parenting and teaching strategies used with Millennials produced too many young adults who have become lazy, narcissistic, entitled selfie-lovers. Obviously, that’s a broad generalization, but the array of disparaging characteristics describing young adults in the workforce has generated concern about teaching and parenting strategies and a call for change of mindset.


What Is Mindset Theory?

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s fixed vs. growth mindset theory is a result of decades of research on achievement and success. People with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence or talent are unchanging traits. They spend their time getting by without expending much effort compared to those with growth mindsets who believe their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.

Teaching students how to develop growth mindset traits, coupled with grit, has been shown to increase motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, sports, and more. Musicians with a growth mindset believe that their skills are developed through devotion to routine training. Learning how to prepare, especially how to deliberately practice the most difficult parts of a musical work, is key to sustained growth.


Photo by Victoria Chamberlin |


What Is Grit?

Social psychologists describe grit as a positive, non-cognitive trait that reflects an individual’s courage, resolve, and strength of character. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, who coined the term, defined it as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The characteristics that make up grit and growth mindset equip people with the capacity to overcome adverse circumstances and persevere and thrive in our “less-than-perfect” world. Music teachers don’t complete a challenging collegiate preparatory program nor help kids and young adults learn to sing or play instruments without grit.


What Is an ACE?

Many children appear to be unmotivated for unseen reasons. Their lack of motivation often appears as a behavior problem that is dealt with in school without finding the root of the issue. Misbehavior is often an extension of an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) related to trauma in a dysfunctional family. Students growing up in an imperfect world are likely to appear disengaged and withdrawn, and in a classroom, display the effects of trauma through actions of flight, fight, or fright. They react to constant pressure and anxiety.

Music teachers who can relieve that tension through the development of a supportive relationship lay the framework from which a child can acquire motivation to change, gain skills, and obtain the determination to persevere through the disturbances at home. Many ACE students find a new identity and support as a result of benefits from participation in a musical ensemble. Because music teachers often work with same students for several years, they repeatedly become “that teacher” with the keys to unlock potential, provide nurturing support, teach grit and mindset skills, and mentor young people in positive ways.


Photo by Victoria Chamberlin |


How Can Music Teachers Create Success for Students of All Needs?

Once the real issues for lack of motivation and determination are uncovered, music teachers can become leaders in advocating the benefits of grit and mindset. Individualized “attitude-shaping” strategies, a fundamental part of extracurricular structures, can be employed to nurture, develop, and strengthen the mindset of students. Each student differs, yet the need for a relationship with a caring, inspiring adult is universal. Research shows that students become motivated and overcome adversity when working someone with whom they have a positive relationship. In my work with college students, they most often point to their music teacher or coaches as being influential in their lives.

In fact, research studies by Duckworth and others show that sustained involvement in an extracurricular activity during high school is one of the most beneficial factors in students’ successful transition to various forms of higher education and work. Participants display better attitude, self-esteem, time management, planning, responsibility, teamwork, grit, and mindset. They know how to pick themselves up after failure and learn from mistakes. They’ve learned from coaching experiences and responded to high expectations.


If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have all the children in the world engage in at least one extracurricular activity of their choice, and as for those in high school, I’d require that they stick with at least one activity for more than a year. – Angela Duckworth


Music teachers must teach grit and mindset vocabulary and help all their students attain autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They must engage students in tasks in which they can succeed but are not too easy. Students feel relatedness when they perceive their teachers like them, value them, and respect them. All of us are more excited to learn when we have some autonomy, when we are connected to a task with relationship and/or purpose, and when we receive accurate and timely feedback.

With a small dose of success, the determination to learn more begins. Enable all your students to enjoy their experience with music. Aspire to be your best and inspire them to be the same. Once you hook them, and you will, your focus must be to continuously develop growth mindsets which will become your keys to successfully addressing the needs and abilities of all students.


Recommended Reading:

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Hoerr, T. (2013). Fostering Grit: How Do I Prepare My Students for The Real World? Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Putnam, R., (2015). Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Tough, P. (2012). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Tough, P. (2016). Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Young, P., Green, T., & Dunning, D. (2016). Grit to Teach and the Mindset to Stay: Do You Have What It Takes? Austin, TX: Sentia Publishing.


Web Resources

TED Talk – Angela Duckworth

Find Your ACE Score – Center for Disease Control (CDC)

The 10-Question Grit Scale – Duckworth



About the author:

Paul Young

A NAfME member since 1973, Paul G. Young, Ph.D., served as a high school band director, 4th grade teacher, an elementary principal, President of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and CEO of the National AfterSchool Association (NAA). He is an adjunct music professor at Ohio University-Lancaster, nationally-known speaker, and author of Enhancing the Professional Practice of Music Teachers: 101 Tips that Principals Want Music Teachers to Know and Do (2010, Rowman and Littlefield) and Grit to Teach and the Mindset to Stay: Do You Have What It Takes? (Sentia Publishing, 2016) and other books and articles for principals, teachers, and afterschool professionals.

Connect with Paul on:

Dr. Young presented on his topic “Mindset & Grit: Keys to Successful Performances” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!


Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Brendan McAloon, Program Coordinator, August 9, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (