Betsy DeVos, and why I quit piano for ten years



I threw in the towel at 17. I remember worrying when I was 13 that my piano career was behind - I didn't have a major recording contract, full calendar of performances with major orchestras, or a Grammy. I thought to myself grimly that I had better ramp it up before I became obsolete! Age 16 was that deadline, and, guess what? By 16 I still didn't have any of those things. Furthermore, I wasn't cleaning up at every competition I entered, especially at the international level. To my teenage self, that meant that I wasn't good enough and never would be. Time was up. And so I told my piano teacher that I was not auditioning for conservatory and would be going to college. 

The idea that my performance *at that moment* in a competitive arena was an accurate measure of my abilities dictated how I thought about myself in all areas of my life. In high school, when my brother got a better score on the national qualifier AHSME math exam, even though he was two grades below, I thought resignedly, well, guess I'm terrible at math! 

Luckily, college helped changed that mindset, partially because it was a fresh start - I no longer had to be a good pianist because no one knew I was a pianist. I could study anything, so I picked biochemistry because it was a broad major and I'd always loved learning about the world and how it works. But it turned out in the premed-eat-premed major I'd chosen that I was, in fact, way behind. In my first semester, perhaps for the first time in my life, I saw what a difference preparation could make. For example, I failed my first physics exam. It tested material typically covered in a high school AP class, which most of the class had taken but I had not (it was not offered at my school). The average test score was around a 94%. My score was in the 30's. The professor put up a histogram of the scores on the projector for the hundreds of us to see, circled the three worst scores at the low tail end of the curve, and stated ominously, "If this is you ... come see me."

I went to her office, stunned. Wasn't I good at science?? The professor, a wry woman who was clearly brilliant but also clearly annoyed at having to teach this class, asked me how I prepared for the exam. I said that I read all the chapters covering the material and went to all the classes. "And how many practice problems in the problems book did you do?" she asked. I stared blankly at her. Practice problems? She saw my hesitation and asked, "Do you ... even have the practice problem book?" No. I had done no practice problems. She rolled her eyes. In one of many moments where people change my life but have no idea that they're doing so, she said, "Get the book. Do the problems. That's how you learn science." 

Thoroughly humiliated, I bought the book and did just about every single problem in it. Despite my first exam, I ended up with an A in the class. More importantly, I was empowered. I was NOT bad at physics. I was just not good at it yet, and I could change that with some elbow (brain? brain elbow?) grease.

For the first time in my life, I had the confidence to keep going at a tough challenge. When the all-male study group told me I didn't get the right answer because I was a girl and girls are bad at science (they were serious, by the way, and this was in the early 2000's), I got mad because I knew they were wrong. Some of them had taken the course before (I knew one girl who sat in the lectures for all of next year's classes to get a head start) and others had been doing research in the field (at local universities, etc.). And so I studied more, and I beamed inside when I beat their exam scores. Once I got a 99% on a tough test and a friend happened to see my score. For the next four years, anytime I relapsed into "poor me I can't do this" mode, he'd say, "Whatever, 99." I entered college a failed music prodigy, according to me. But I left college knowing that I could improve at just about anything. 

A few decades later, I'm watching Betsy DeVos's confirmation hearing and it is a disaster. I don't think I would have been hired as a babysitter with her answers, let alone hired to oversee American education. That aside, an interesting moment for me was when Senator Al Franken asked her about her views on proficiency versus growth. DeVos's answer was as incoherent, uninformative and unprepared as her others, but the question was a critical one - should educational success be measured by individual students' growth or by whether they meet a set of standards? A light bulb went off. I was living proof that a growth mentality enhances learning more than a proficiency one. I went from being someone who judged her abilities by some impossible standard, who met challenges with the fear of failure, to someone who believes she can do just about anything with enough courage and effort, and who seeks out challenges. Senator Franken reminded me how important mindset is to the ability to learn. 

For this reason, it's a good thing I quit piano while I did. I needed time to realize my own potential, to have the confidence to tackle harder challenges. And building a performance career is the most challenging thing I've ever undertaken. It grows my mind, body and spirit every single day. I now play piano better than I ever thought I could, and I know I will continue to improve the longer I work at it. We all have real limitations, but over the years I've realized that my attitude doesn't have to be one of them.