(Part 2) On Success and Expectations

In Part 1, I shared my thoughts and experiences on success and expectations. Upon reading it, some of you might have thought: "Hmm, that's not how I think of success" or "I don't want to put expectations on my child when learning music is suppose to be a hobby to enjoy".

And that's totally fine because our individual perception and relationship with success and expectations are shaped by our different personal experiences. The point is not to have us all agree on what success in learning music looks like for every child, but to give some thought into how the parent's relationship with success and expectations shapes the learning experience for "the child before me".

Let's first consider the idea of having expectations, on which there are many a varying view out there. I've come across quotes like this one:

And this one:

Intriguingly, what provides food for thought is that there is truth in both view statements.

Is it bad to have expectations of your child in what is meant to be a pleasurable activity? Some of us might have worded our reasons for having our child learn music as "I just want him to enjoy playing", "She just needs to learn enough to play the pieces that she likes" or "I just want her to have the option of playing an instrument to relax or to have fun."

These at first may come across as having "zero expectation" or low expectations - and presumably reasonably so, especially if the child is at a young age. But when our child doesn't enjoy music lessons or won't cooperate during practice, or can't yet play the tunes she wants to, or chooses watching TV over playing music to unwind after the school day, we might get upset. Because our expectations that he should enjoy playing music for fun are not matched up to in reality. We might start questioning the time, money and energy being spent on music lessons when our child does not demonstrate the interest, initiative and progress that we expected of him. See? Expectations are at play here!

What then, is the approach to take? I would say that it is to link reasonably-high expectations to achievable results. Egad! Now we are gunning to show results?! Where does playing for enjoyment and fun fit in here?

Figuring this out takes some working backwards: you only start to taste enjoyment in performing task when you reach a state of flow. This is when you have merged your knowledge (i.e. knowing how to do it) and skill (i.e. actually doing it) and have practised it to a stage where doing the task becomes easy. Once the basic task is easy, you can relax and flow with it, and even embellish it with your own style and character - and fully own the task. Think how many times you would need to repeatedly fall into the water and stand back up on the board again when learning how to wakeboard - before you can glide (seemingly) effortlessly in and out of the wake with the sea breeze in your hair. In the case of music, you would now be playing for fun, for relaxation and for personal enjoyment. To help our child get into the state of flow, we first have to help him get through the hard work of learning. It is in this stage of learning, that we set bite-sized expectations, frame them as SMART goals and work towards achieving results in these areas. Some reasonably-high goals shared by our young students in January's goal-setting group lesson include to start every practice with "the hard parts" or to learn a particular piece by a certain time. The goal-setting exercise went hand in hand with getting the children to understand that putting a system of good habits in place was critical to helping them move towards their goals. Expectations without focused action remain as expectations.

Is it that simple though? How do we deal with failed expectations because we don't know how to right-size a challenge or we can't figure out how to make home practice work for us? That's where our relationship with success comes in. Seen this?

Let's hear it from Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar, on how they make great movies: "Initially, the films we put together, they're a mess. It's like everything else in life—the first time you do it, it's a mess. Sometimes it's labeled ... "a failure" ... but that's not even the right word to use. It's just like, you get the first one out, you learn from it, and the only failure is if you don't learn from it, if you don't progress."

Success is messy. Practice is messy. Within what may appear as a messy practice session where all we managed to do was to keep correcting the same mistake that kept coming up in just one hard part, we are helping our child to create a new ability to play that one part and to progress in learning the piece, and to eventually make it easy and enjoyable to play. Yes, we failed in meeting the expectation to practise the hard parts first before the easy parts. We didn't even do more than one hard part, much less have the time and energy to play any easy parts! But success and failure are not the opposites of one another - they go together: failure is a necessary part of success.

Success and expectations are not the harsh language of the Tiger Parent. They are regular elements in our everyday life and not words or concepts to be shied from for fear of sounding unreasonable or creating stress for our child. On the contrary, conversations about success and expectations can sensitise children to their own perspective and relationship with success and expectations, and help them learn to discern between positive and negative ideas of success, and between internal and external expectations.

I recall penning down my reasons for having my eldest start music lessons in 2013 but cannot locate any record of it. I am pretty sure I had centered my reasons around her just wanting to enjoy playing music. While these still hold true 8 years on, I now wouldn't shy from boldly saying that I want all 3 daughters to each find success through being a musician. Depending on how we frame success, I believe that my high expectations for them - and their own high expectations for themselves - will get them there.

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