If you’ve ever spent an afternoon moving furniture, you know what it feels like to frustrate your muscles. That’s why they were sore the next day. If you made a habit of frustrating your muscles, they would naturally become stronger in order to deal with the extra workload. It’s easy to tell when our muscles are being frustrated. We feel the strain, a burning, the shaking, and then the failure as we drop the easy chair. Who made those things so heavy anyway?
An analogous situation happens when your child sits with her instrument. Within ten minutes of practice, she gets frustrated by something and either wastes the rest of her practice time on easier music or quits practicing altogether. This is no different from going to the gym and leaving as soon as you felt the first burn of lifting a weight. Only in the case of your little music student, it’s not a burning bicep she feels; it’s perhaps shortness of breath, lack of clear thinking, irritation, and all the other symptoms of what we call “frustration.”
— This moment, when frustration first kicks in, is a crucial moment. —
What a person does in this moment affects not only how well they’ll play that piece or even that instrument…it affects what sort of person they’ll be later in life. Because let’s face it—none of us likes to be frustrated. Being frustrated means being uncomfortable. That’s why it takes uncommon character traits to face frustration when it shows up, instead of seeking refuge in comfortable habits like watching TV. It’s a shame that character traits like self-discipline, perseverance, focus, and courage should be relatively uncommon, yet these are exactly the attributes that a student cultivates when practicing.
Leaning into frustration, as I’ve said, is not natural for most people, least of all children. If you allow your child to skip practicing because he “doesn’t feel like it,” you’ve taken away his opportunity to develop. Of course he doesn’t feel like practicing—it’s frustrating, there’s practically no immediate gratification, and in the other room there’s an XBox! The stereotypical “Eastern style” of parenting acknowledges that our kids won’t stand up to frustration on their own. Kids at first have to be forced to sit and practice the way we force them to eat their vegetables. This is why the Asian stereotype has become that of the super-achiever. Are Asian kids born more talented, more intelligent than Western kids? Of course not. If Asian kids achieve more, it’s because they learned from a young age to recognize what frustration feels like and to work through it anyway. They’ve learned through their own, repeated experience that there’s something precious on the other side of that struggle—excellence.
Obviously, this philosophy can go to the extreme (think Tiger-mommy micro-manager), with the coddling, feelings-obsessed parent on the other end of the spectrum. Where do you fit in? How do you deal with frustration? This is a big topic; we’d love your input!