On Musical Misery: reflections on my own fixed mindset


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Having read a lot about growth and fixed mindsets of late, I was given cause to reflect on my own experiences as a learner and came to the realisation that there were some things about which I had a very fixed mindset. Music was one of those things. By the time I reached Secondary School I didn’t see much point in persevering with the subject because I believed that you either had musical talent or you didn’t.

In year 6 I was amongst a select few who were chosen to learn to play the violin. I was delighted. My mum didn’t play an instrument so the violin I borrowed from school was both precious and alien in equal measure. I can still recall the smell of resin as I opened up the violin case; the feel of the horse hair bow; the iridescence of the mother of pearl on the handle. I wanted to master it. I wanted to be able to throw it under my chin with ease. I wanted to be a violinist.

Sadly, however, I never mastered it. I didn’t even come close. I don’t think it’ll be a surprise to anybody who has tried to play the violin but it’s really very tricky. You have to contort your head, neck, arms and fingers to play the thing whilst simultaneously reading sheet music. Having never seen the latter before, you might as well have put a Jackson Pollock painting in front of me and told me to play from that. It felt like I was learning to be contortionist at the same time as learning to read a foreign language and it was, frankly, challenging.

Because it was such hard work, I didn’t practise often enough. Practising at home was also a pursuit that was not encouraged by my mum. I can forgive her for this. At that time, she and I lived in a small flat and there would have been very little escape for her from the painful sound of her ten year old daughter murdering a piece of music in the back bedroom.

The culmination of my lack of effort and persistence was a cringe-worthy performance of the violin group in front of the entire school. We were stood in a row at the front of the hall and I had to resort to pretending to play. I remember to this day holding the bow just above the strings and trying to follow the arm movements of my peers. To be so exposed in my failure was embarrassing and subsequently coloured how I felt about Music. I quit the violin group and concluded that I did not have musical talent; that whilst I didn’t try as hard as I could to master the violin, my lack of innate talent was the main thing working against me. It was easier to adopt a fixed mindset than persevere and find out what I was really capable of.

I pity my Secondary School Music teachers for having to put up with me for the three years that followed. My fixed mindset stunted my progress. If my teachers did try to convince me otherwise, I didn’t believe that there was any hope for me. It seemed like a waste of my effort to make sense of the Pollocks because I was never going to be any good. In a school where nearly every other girl played an instrument, I felt like a bit of a rebel. At the end of every year there’d be a compulsory graded performance. For three successive years I performed ‘Three Blind Mice’, probably a bit angrily, on the recorder. Not only did I not believe I could get better; it was easier not to care.

Whilst I may never have become a Vanessa-Mae, I believe now that it wasn’t a lack of talent that held me back (I’m not sure how much I even believe in the idea of ‘talent’ any more). The main thing that held me back was my fixed mindset. If I could go back and speak to my 10 year old self I’d tell her to believe that she could one day play the violin but that it would be hard work. Adopting a growth mindset is about belief. It is a matter of faith. I think it’s also a matter of acceptance – accepting that dedication is necessary.

When I next come across a student who refuses to persevere because they’re convinced they have neither the intelligence nor the talent; when I next come across a student who puts on a front of not caring and when I next come across a student who’d rather fail to try than try and fail, I’ll remember that I’ve been there. Maybe I’ll tell them about my fixed mindset and my belief that I just didn’t have it in me to be musical. Whilst I’d love to be able to follow such a conversation by whipping out my violin and effortlessly playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto to demonstrate the fruits of adopting a growth mindset, to do that I’d actually have to learn to play…

Do you have a fixed mindset story?


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