It’s ancient, cross-cultural, universal. It’s present in our celebrations, our mournings, our worship. We speak it, make it, hear it, feel it. It crosses languages, boundaries, eras. It connects, enchants, divides. Music is an important part of the human experience.

For those who study and make music, the benefits are myriad. In addition to its intrinsic value, music helps its students learn, remember, and develop positive traits like confidence and perseverance. 

Developing Grit Through Music

Though we admire elite athletes, renowned scholars, and top musicians for their talent, no one rises to the pinnacle of any endeavor on talent alone. We know that high achievement requires not only aptitude but effort — sustained, high levels of effort over a long period of time. In her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth calls this committed effort at an interest “grit.” Grit is said to set apart high achievers. 

Can grit, or at the very least persistence, be taught? And how can children — and adults — develop it?

In an instant gratification world where technology lessens our practice with patience and struggle, building the skill of perseverance may be more necessary than ever. And one place where passion and perseverance meet, where grit can be cultivated and its rewards reaped, is in the study and performance of music.

Developing a growth mindset

Dan Jackson, DWS, co-chair of PLNU’s Department of Music with Bill Clemmons, Ph.D., has observed the combination of passion and dedication in his students countless times.

“When a person has average abilities in music and this great desire, they can do something with it,” Jackson said. “When a student has a desire to learn, then we know they are going to be successful. If someone has extreme talent but with arrogance, they don’t learn anything. And they never grow.”

The idea of growth is important in developing grit and in succeeding in any difficult pursuit, including academics. Psychology helps explain the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The first sees abilities as being inherent, unchangeable — fixed. The other believes effort can improve ability. And so, those with a growth mindset are more likely to pursue and achieve improvement.

There is no way anyone can do what we do without being willing to fail.

Jackson’s co-chair, Clemmons, explained that because learning and performing music requires continual learning, mistake-making, and perseverance, it must be approached with a growth mindset.

“Musicians need humility; they need to be able to humble themselves, fall down, get back up, and make mistakes,” he said. “There is no way anyone can do what we do without being willing to fail.”

Risk-taking

Clemmons teaches musical theory, an area that typically challenges even highly talented and advanced musicians. It is expected that they will have to work hard and that they will experience failures and struggle. Their love for what they do and their appreciation of hard work is what keeps many going, he said.

Still, Jackson noted that risking “failure” can have many meanings, and at PLNU, it is always meant to be part of a process of growth and not as a harm to an individual.

“We allow students to fail, but not to be humiliated,” Jackson said. “We use music to build self-esteem. We don’t put them on a stage in front of a huge audience when they aren’t ready. It’s in a safe environment. For example, in my conducting class, it’s nerve-wracking for some; it’s challenging. But the atmosphere is friendly and safe.”

Watch Now: Dan Jackson leads PLNU’s Concert Choir in the traditional Zulu song, Wene Wedwa, which translates to “You Alone.”

Kathy (Reardon) Barkett (95) is a worship leader at Christ Lutheran Church in La Mesa, Calif., as well as the music teacher for Kindergarten through eighth grade at the church’s school. Barkett pointed out that musicians face expectations and potentially criticism from their audiences.

“You have to have grit to push beyond the naysayers,” she said. “Playing and singing music is putting ‘you’ out there. People will have an immediate opinion about you — and if they don’t like the song you’re doing, or the style in which you are presenting it, they may not like you! You have to learn to be okay with that.”

Patience and Perseverance

Phil Tyler, D.M., professor of music, orchestra conductor, and violin professor at PLNU, acknowledges that developing musical skill is a long process.

“There is a point where you get closer and closer to what you are going to be capable of in your lifetime,” he said. “But it’s slow progress, not fast. And you have to sustain the effort in order to stay at a certain level.”

A passion for performance allowed Tyler to persevere through his own musical training. 

“I didn’t really like the practice part or anything that looked like drudgery,” he admitted. “But I loved to perform.”

Barkett agrees that part of what makes music so challenging and so beneficial is that the work is never done.

“Music definitely helps people develop grit,” she said. “You need to constantly work on your craft, not only to improve and perform well, which helps you make wise decisions on the spot when things go sideways — but to keep up with trends in music. That gives you longevity.”

There is a point where you get closer and closer to what you are going to be capable of in your lifetime… But it’s slow progress, not fast. And you have to sustain the effort in order to stay at a certain level.

PLNU alum Erik Garriott, D.M.A. (10) agrees that the study and performance of music can develop grit and perseverance — he has experienced this as a piano player; band member;  music student at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels; and as a music educator and conductor. Garriott is currently working as an adjunct professor of music at the Grossmont and San Diego Community College Districts, teaching students in the continuing education program in music. 

Garriott points out that the perseverance younger musicians develop in learning their instruments is important if they plan to study music in college. Undergraduate music majors develop and need grit to balance their general education and major courses with their homework, several hours of individual musical practice each day, and several more of ensemble practice each week.

“Music is up there with degrees that have the most work,” Garriott said.

Even after graduation, Garriott said, music majors often have multiple jobs at one time.  

Music professor Chaz Celaya, who is the director of PLNU’s commercial music program, has lived that experience. 

“I’ve had absolutely a different pathway than my wife who is an RN,” he said. “There is not as clear cut a path in the arts, but that can be what draws people. You don’t have someone telling you exactly how to do this.”

The desire to create a path and the willingness to take on roles that are related but not the ultimate goal are hallmarks of many musicians’ careers, Celaya’s included. After growing up playing the trumpet, Celaya taught himself the electric guitar and played with several rock bands. Spending time in recording studios with the bands got him interested in the production side of music-making. In college, his interest in the legal and business side of music blossomed. He went on to work in various roles in recording studios, doing engineering, producing music and live radio shows, and working as an administrator overseeing artist signings and development, record productions, marketing, and music publishing. About 15 years ago, he added teaching to the mix. When he learned that PLNU was launching a commercial music program and needed a director, he was thrilled to be able to bring all his experiences to the role of teaching, which he especially loves. 

I’ve had absolutely a different pathway than my wife who is an RN,” he said. “There is not as clear cut a path in the arts, but that can be what draws people. You don’t have someone telling you exactly how to do this.

Though successful, Celaya’s path certainly isn’t one a student can mimic directly nor one he could have foreseen exactly from the outset. It’s been his passion and commitment that have helped him enjoy his varied career so far.

The Courage to Perform

For professional musicians, those in the industry, and even beginners, performance requires and builds grit as well. Clemmons and Jackson alluded to the pressure musicians face when performing. Garriott agrees.

Performance can develop resilience, adaptability, problem-solving, and creativity. It can also help people learn to manage their fears and gain confidence in their ability to handle pressure.

“You can develop grit in music through performance,” he said. “It’s a combination of public speaking and instant criticism. As conductors, we are always nervous, but we can control it. You may make errors, mistakes, you may get bad reviews, you may have a performance you flop on. As a musician, you don’t ignore those things, but you work to improve them next time. You also learn improvisation — how to cover an error, playing it off so you can recover. That’s a big part of grit and something that translates to any career: how to be a creative thinker on your feet. Of course, this doesn’t only come from music, but [music] is a primary provider for that kind of experience. ”

Performance can develop resilience, adaptability, problem-solving, and creativity. It can also help people learn to manage their fears and gain confidence in their ability to handle pressure. 

“It’s nerve-wracking to perform as a soloist,” Garriott said. “But also when playing with a group, you have a responsibility to the group. Each person has much less control than they would when performing as individuals. It’s a lot like playing a sport; it’s organized teamwork.”

The Responsibility to Lead

Barkett, as a worship leader, points out that for musicians whose job involves making music for worship purposes, there are additional responsibilities involved.

“Worship leaders have a tremendous responsibility,” she said. “Not only do they need to have all the music-readiness boxes checked, they have the responsibility to help lead others into an encounter with God. God is doing all the work, but leaders can choose to connect with Him, which in turn helps others connect with Him, or leaders can be self-absorbed or just so worried about the technical side of the worship music that they miss the connection with God.”

Crystal (Richardson) Pridmore’s (B.A. 08, M.A.T. 13) banjolele (a banjo-ukulele hybrid) is one of many instruments she uses in her music classes, for teaching and classroom management.

Benefits to Memory and Academic Skills

Music has a well-documented relationship with academic improvement. 

“Music is so beneficial for mathematics,” Garriott said. “Music is math — multiplication, division — it’s all over the place. You don’t have to tell [students] any of that, but they are doing it inherently. When they get to the subject of math in school, it comes more easily.” 

Garriott is particularly referring to the fact that written music is divided into measures and beats, which include whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes. Understanding how to read written music means understanding these mathematical concepts as well.

The link between music and mathematics has been especially well researched, but music appears to help reading and language development as well.

“Young students, at age 5 or 6, can learn to read music as a language before they can fully comprehend reading in English,” Garriott said.

One reason adult music students are able to progress more quickly than younger students is because adults are already familiar with the reading and mathematical concepts underlying music. But younger students often have the edge on mastering the muscle movements required for playing an instrument and often pick up new concepts quickly because they are always in “learning mode,” as Garriott calls it.

Young students, at age 5 or 6, can learn to read music as a language before they can fully comprehend reading in English

“After age 30, our muscles and brain do not like to learn things that are new as well as they used to,” he said. “But learning music helps. It is multi-sensory, using touch, hearing, seeing, feeling.”

The benefits of music for learning and the brain are also notable for older adults and people with brain conditions. 

“Particularly with the elderly, working on memory in music helps their memory in other areas,” Garriott said. “Music is one of the last things Alzheimer’s patients remember. I have a couple of students with debilitating brain conditions, and music really helps them with memory and muscle use.”

Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Benefits

Crystal (Richardson) Pridmore (B.A. 08, M.A.T. 13) is the president-elect of the San Diego chapter of the American Orff-Schulwerk Association and has been a music educator for 11 years. For the past three of those years, she has been a music teacher at Finney Elementary in Chula Vista, Calif.

Crystal (Richardson) Pridmore (B.A. 08, M.A.T. 13) is a music teacher at a local elementary school. Her 400 students all practice music as part of their general education.

“It’s a Title 1 school with a 100 percent free lunch program, and 70 percent of the students are English language learners,” Pridmore said. “Our district superintendent believes in the arts as a catalyst for social change, offering socio-emotional as well as academic benefits.”

Finney’s 400 students all study music as part of their general education. Fourth through sixth graders are also all taught to play a string instrument — either violin, viola, or cello.

“The thing that I love is that I get to help kids chase success,” Pridmore said.

For many of her students, speaking in English is a challenge. Her classroom is a place where they don’t have to feel behind.

Some children are nonverbal, but they can sing… Kids have spoken their first words in my class at 12 years old.

“You don’t have to excel in English,” she said. “It’s set up for them to succeed. Some of my students are in this silent period that happens when they are just learning English. For some that lasts longer than others, but even in a really intense silent period, kids will sing. When they are successful in one area, it gives them encouragement that they can be successful in other areas. Now that they know what it feels like, they are more inspired to recreate that in other areas.”

It’s not just English language learners who can blossom in a music-rich environment. Pridmore has seen music make a difference for her special education students as well. Just like all her students, Pridmore’s moderate to severe special education students are taught to be the best musicians they can be. But music can also be used as therapy.  

“Some children are nonverbal, but they can sing,” she said. “Kids have spoken their first words in my class at 12 years old.”

She also notes that music cues are powerful tools for working on behavior. Music can also help regulate emotion. For example, she says, music can be very calming for children with autism.

“My classroom management is all done with singing,” she said.

Pridmore values the lessons music has for all students, such as “listening to neighbors and building empathy.”

“You can make music with someone you don’t socially get along with,” she pointed out.

For children who have experienced trauma, Pridmore sees additional emotional benefits.

“There is a lot of trauma in our district,” she said. “Music is very important as an emotional outlet. The arts make happier people. Music is calming, and singing releases more endorphins than even hugging or other physical contact. Music provides grounding and unity. You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe. If you can make school safe, that makes a big difference. Music is an important tool in that.”

The power of music is seen in the way our emotions shift when we hear something.

PLNU’s John Dally, associate professor of music and director of bands and music education, certainly resonates with the idea that music connects deeply with emotion.

“Music is expressive — that’s my schtick,” he said. “The power of music is seen in the way our emotions shift when we hear something. A dissonant chord makes us tense; a beautiful melody can soothe the soul. Amazing energies are built through sound. The ability to harness that is the craft.”

A specific example Dally recalls came at a PLNU band concert several years back. The band performed two pieces of music back to back — the first was a symphony recalling the bombing of Dresden. It included sounds of sirens and explosions and was played in darkness. A requiem followed. The pieces weren’t originally designed together, but the impact of putting them together was felt throughout the audience.

“The music made an audience feel agony and fright and then peace and hope, all without a single word,” Dally said. “I remember people weeping at times during the 18-minute experience.”

Just a Sampling

The benefits of music go far beyond those discussed here. Music is used as therapy in clinical and hospital settings. It inspires and transcends in numerous ways. For musicians of all ages and skill levels, the effort required to sustain, improve, and enjoy music is well worth it. And as our world becomes ever more technical, the gifts of music — it’s expressiveness, it’s ability to enhance learning and socio-emotional wellness, it’s penchant for developing grit, and it’s timelessness — are perhaps more valuable than ever before.

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