Want To Be a Better Piper? Change Your Mind(set)

Ever felt like there's no way you'll ever be as good a piper as you want to be? Maybe you started learning 'too late', you just 'suck at tuning', or you just 'won't ever be able to hit the beat'.

While these may feel relatable, they're actually symptomatic of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a 'fixed mindset', which is when you believe intelligence, talent, and other qualities are just something you're born with, and that can't be changed.

If you suffer from this outlook, you probably think that if you're not good at something, you never will be.

I chose the phrase 'suffer from' very deliberately there, because this mindset is something that will severely limit your progression at anything in life – but the good news is, it's also completely curable.

The antidote is what's known as a 'growth mindset', which is when you believe that those supposedly innate qualities can actually be developed with practice, direction, and effort.

Unsurprisingly, your mindset plays a major role in your motivation, resilience, and achievement. I talked about this a bit already in this article about the 'power of yet'.

But while you may understand the concept of a fixed and growth mindset, sometimes it can be hard to see how exactly these might manifest themselves in our bagpiping, and how we might practically try to turn around limiting beliefs and change them into a healthier outlook that will allow you to flourish.

Here are just a few practical examples of fixed vs growth mindset in action. Can you think of any others that relate to something you've been frustrated with or working on this week? This month? This year?

Example 1:

Fixed Mindset: "I'm just not good at [insert bagpiping skill here – tuning, rhythm, etc]."

Growth Mindset: "I can improve my skills with applied, consistent effort and practice."

Tip: This is probably one of the worst defeatist attitudes to have, and I see so many pipers put heavy limits on their own progress simply because of this one mindset issue. This is the perfect situation to apply the 'power of yet', where you add the word 'yet' to the end of any potentially limiting statement. "I'm just not good at tuning my pipes" becomes "I'm just not good at tuning my pipes... yet." Can you see how powerful that tiny adjustment is?

Think about a time you struggled to master a skill, and then improved over time. Could you read a novel the first time you picked up a book? Could you write in perfect cursive when you were in grade school? Could you drive on a highway the first time you sat behind the wheel of a car? No one starts out as an expert, and everyone is capable of improvement – especially you.

Example 2:

Fixed Mindset: "When I get feedback on my playing, it feels like harsh criticism, even if it's objective and constructive."

Growth Mindset: "I appreciate when I receive any criticism of my playing, as it helps me hear things I may not have picked up by myself, and I will be able to learn and grow so much more as a result."

Tip: People tend to avoid situations where they have to ‘put themselves out there’ and risk judgment (and, if we're being really honest, what we're afraid of is 'failing' our own expectations of how good we'd like to be, rather than accepting the reality of where we are in our progress as musicians). It’s hard to be brave enough to be vulnerable, and to put your playing out there for your peers and teachers to hear and critique. Everyone struggles with it. That’s a real shame though, because without exception, students who try something – especially when they fail and then get detailed, personalized feedback on problem areas to focus on – improve exponentially faster than the ones who hang back and avoid evaluation by others. 

On the flip side are the pipers who don’t want to admit (to themselves or others) that they have any weaknesses at all. Ego is most definitely a dirty word in this scenario. Have you ever received a constructive critique (even if you've asked for it, or respect the evaluator's skill and ability) and wanted to challenge their assessment as wrong, or unfair?  Not even being able to admit you’ve experienced a failure in the first place is like trying to drive a car that’s stuck in neutral – you’re not going to go anywhere, but you’re going to grind some gears and annoy people in your immediate vicinity when you try.

Feedback is a blessing! Although it can be painful to receive the first few times, even if it's delivered gently and completely objectively – like with most things, the more you do it, the easier it is. Don't be afraid to receive feedback, and remember it will be the fastest way to buttress your weaknesses and turn them into strengths, rather than remain contained by your piping frustrations.

Example 3:

Fixed Mindset: "I’m already a really good piper, so I don’t need to get any better."

Growth Mindset: "We are all lifelong learners, and there is always room for improvement."

Tip: Jack Lee, Callum Beaumont, Stuart Liddell... name any of your piping heroes, and I can point you to an interview or conversation where they have said that they have never had a perfect performance, and they are always learning new things about the bagpipes. These are the best of the best, who have failed in performances at the highest levels in the world more times than you've ever even picked up your pipes – if they say they are always learning more about how to do things differently and improve their playing, chances are you have a fair bit more to learn, too. Ever heard the old saying that 'any day when you don't learn something new is a waste'? Always have an open mind, and remember that the pursuit of knowledge is an amazing reward in an of itself. Don't fall prey to the 'status' of being 'really good' (side note: 'good' is relative depending on how skilled the listener is...) and thinking you don't need to work at piping anymore because you've somehow 'made it'. Like any skill, piping requires consistent practice and applied focus to keep pushing it to the next level, and every single one of us, at any level, can always find new ways to improve and progress.

Example 4:

Fixed Mindset: "I'm naturally pretty good at music, so I don’t need to try hard to succeed."

Growth Mindset: "Time, effort, and persistence are essential for mastery – 'talent' will only ever get me so far."

Tip: I've seen so many pipers fall prey to this one, especially if they started playing when they were younger, and are returning to piping in adulthood. I can tell you from experience teaching students at every level over 30 years of bagpiping, that players who work hard and apply themselves consistently run rings around supposedly 'talented' players who rest on their laurels because they have rarely had to work hard to succeed at music. Plus, as anyone who's reached any higher levels of piping can tell you, the farther you go in your improvement journey, the harder it is to fight for every inch of progress – and anyone who isn't committed to persistent effort will not ever reach those levels. If you want to improve, apply yourself to practice consistently and with an open mind.

Example 5:

Fixed Mindset: "Other people’s successes make me feel bad about myself."

Growth Mindset: "Other people’s successes encourage and inspire me. They show me what's possible."

Tip: For starters, piping is a pursuit most of us started because we wanted to experience personal fulfilment of some kind. Ever heard the saying "comparison is the thief of joy"? That saying means that everyone is on their own development timeline, and someone else's success or failure has absolutely nothing to do with your own. Think of your progress as a flame – when it burns brighter, like when you win a competition or have a breakthrough moment in your improvement, you should want people around you to celebrate it getting brighter, not get annoyed that yours is brighter than theirs, or even worse, try to blow it out with negativity and jealousy. The same goes for how you view other people's successes – celebrate their wins for what they are – just an exciting part of their progression journey, that has no bearing whatsoever on yours! If everyone does this, you'll have a chorus of supporters shielding your flame and helping stoke the fire alongside you when your hard work pays off and it's time to celebrate your successes.

Example 6:

Fixed Mindset: "Successful pipers are lucky/talented and never fail."

Growth Mindset: "Failure is a vital part of success. Most successful people have failed many times, but they succeeded because they didn’t quit."

Tip: Failure is part of every success story. The people who succeed aren’t the ones who magically got it right the first time; they are the ones who failed and kept trying anyway. Whenever you feel discouraged by another person’s successes, ask yourself, “How did they get there?” When we see someone’s success, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what is “under the water,” or all the rejection, failure, effort, persistence, and learning that went into their achievements.

Example 7:

Fixed Mindset: "If I don’t succeed right away, I get frustrated and start to criticize myself."

Growth Mindset: "Improvement takes time and I need to celebrate the small steps. Every inch of progress makes a huge difference!"

Tip: I'm going to let you in on a little secret – winning a competition or nailing a skill or embellishment or tune you've been working on for a while might feel great... but in the scheme of things, they actually aren't that important. What is important is that you are always, always progressing, even a tiny bit, every time you practice. We often make time to celebrate big wins, but those only come from the 'small stuff' – the supposedly boring, grinding, every day effort that cumulatively leads to that big payoff. Make sure you listen back to recordings of yourself from the previous week, month, year – and take time to celebrate your effort, the times you tried something and failed, but bounced back and kept going. Learning is a lifelong process and an ongoing journey – your goal should be to take steps toward improvement every day, not to set arbitrary deadlines or unfairly high expectations, and then feel awful and talk negatively to yourself when you don't meet them.

Take Action

If you're a Dojo student, you can explore how to realign your mindset for success as part of our 11 Commandments of Mastery course, or browse our many articles and resources about recording on the Dojo U blog.

If you're not yet a Dojo Student, we'd love to welcome you! You can take the 11 Commandments course, which covers the 11 essential mindset tweaks you'll need to prepare yourself for mastery, or explore our monthly membership options and join us as a student, where you can learn more about this topic in a guided way with hundreds of other pipers around the world cheering you on!

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