his subject comes up again and again every time I’m together with a bunch of moms; do you force your child to keep taking piano lessons even when he starts to hate it and complains endlessly? Most parents were allowed to quit and always bemoan the fact that their parents didn’t make them keep with it. I come from the opposite side: my mother wouldn’t allow me to quit. “You’ll thank me one day!” she loved to say.
I never liked playing the piano. Never. It was not the instrument that spoke to me. I wanted to play the harp. “That’s much too expensive!” my mother informed me on more than one occasion; expensive unlike, say . . . a piano? Because pianos are dirt cheap, don’t you know. Anyway, playing the piano–and eventually the organ–was my mother’s dream. The woman loves an audience and the thought of playing in front of the church congregation every week was her fondest wish. But she had nine siblings and her mom let her quit when she complained, blahblahblah. We all know where she was coming from. So my mother decided that she would force her children to play the piano until they graduated from high school no matter what. They would praise her name for it one day!
When I started piano lessons at age 8 it wasn’t too bad, but within a year I grew to hate it. I hated the lessons, I hated the piano in general and I especially hated my mother for forcing me to play. By the time I was ten I would get terrible stress headaches every lesson day and I would cry most of the way to my teacher’s house. My mother refused to budge. “Just think how wonderful it will be when you can play the organ in front of everyone,” she would sigh. Not being the kind of person who likes to perform at all, this was the most horrible scenario I could imagine. “You’ll thank me one day,” she would shout from the car as I dragged myself to the piano teacher’s sliding glass door. One day I snapped. I narrowed my eyes and said in a very even, cold tone, “once I turn eighteen I will never touch the piano again.”
I don’t think it ever occurred to my mother that her daughter would be more stubborn than she was. Even after a go at organ lessons, which my mother thought would be “exhilarating” (“wait, now I have to play with not only my hands but my feet too? Forget it!”), I continued to hate all of it.
Fate smiled on me when I was sixteen. I was in a car accident and my arm was badly broken. Not only did I have a cast but because my arm had broken backwards (The bruising was horrifying), the muscles and tendons were a complete mess and I needed physical therapy for months.
I finally got to quit piano lessons.
Once my arm recovered and I probably could have resumed playing, I never did. I was as good as my word; I never played the piano again. And as a side benefit I grew to hate my mother for disregarding my feelings by forcing me to do something I so clearly hated. Now if I sit down at the piano I can kind of pick out a tune with one hand; I barely remember anything. Am I sad about this? Not at all. I hated playing the piano. It was my mother’s dream, not mine. There is no regret at all.
So now I have children of my own. And the idea of music lessons eventually came up when they were little. I do believe that learning music is very important; I believe that learning to play an instrument can teach discipline and responsibility. But so can lots of other things. In the Mormon culture especially, learning an instrument is very important. So this is what I have done with my children: they have all had to take music lessons, usually on the piano. The minimum for lessons is one year; that is non-negotiable. Every human being should learn how to read music; even if it’s just to sing an unfamiliar hymn in church. It’s just a life skill like learning to make your bed.
After one year we reassess. If the child wants to continue to play the piano, that’s great. If they want to go on to another instrument that’s fine too. Finn went on to play the trumpet, York quit completely (he is just not the kind of person who is drawn to playing an instrument. It is not where his talents lie and even at the age of eight I realized that about him and I was OK with that.) India continued playing the piano for a few years and then we had a couple of years off because we could not find a teacher that she gelled with. She continued to play on her own nearly every day and finally we found her a great piano teacher last year. She’s doing well and still enjoys it. Arabella has finished her second year of lessons (we got a late start with her), rarely needs to be reminded to practice and has never mentioned quitting. Maybe she’ll stick with the piano, maybe she won’t. She’s shown some interest in the hammered dulcimer than I have sitting around and if she wants to take lesson in that instead I have no problem with that.
My musical story has a happy ending (besides the fact that I don’t hate my mother anymore). When I was about 32 I decided to finally take harp lessons. I had loved the harp all these years and realized that it wasn’t too late to learn something new (why have we decided that childhood is the only time you can learn anything new???). I found a wonderful teacher and rented a harp. Let me tell you something, it is a million times easier to learn an instrument as an adult! All that music theory my piano teachers tried to explain over and over and over? It finally made perfect sense. I loved the harp and was mature enough to practice every day. I progressed a jillion times faster than I had as a child. When we moved to Texas I turned my harp back in and with six kids under age 11, I just didn’t have the time to start it up again down here.
I have missed playing the harp. Mister knows that. So my sweet husband tried to buy me a harp for my birthday. But it’s rather hard buying an instrument when you know nothing about it. So he had to spoil his surprise and tell me his plan. I was more than thrilled to help him find the perfect harp. We picked it up yesterday and I am over the moon.
To answer my original question: should you make your kids keep taking music lessons when they complain about hating it? Please don’t make a blanket statement, yes or no. Think about your child; think about her personality. Ask if there’s another instrument she would rather play. My cousin really wanted to play the saxophone but her dad said no because saxophones aren’t in an orchestra which means it’s not a “real instrument”. She had to settle for the trumpet which she didn’t like much at all. Would your child be better suited for some other pursuit? York has the brain of an engineer that likes to invent and solve problems; playing music felt very dull and stifling to him. We accepted that facet of his personality and moved on. Not everyone in the world is suited to music.
Also ask yourself why you want your child to play so badly. What does it say about your hopes and desires? If you always dreamed of playing on the stage, don’t try to live out your fantasies through your kids; it’s going to backfire at some point. Why don’t you take lessons? You may be too old to become the next Van Cliburn, but you can still get pretty good and you’ll feel much so much prouder of yourself than you would of your child. It really isn’t too late to start your own musical training!
Believe it or not, your job as a parent isn’t to gild your child with hobbies and talents and trophies. Your job is to help your child find her interests (not to decide what they are for her), learn discipline and love herself. If music is a part of that, great. If not, that’s OK too. Be prepared to let it go. If your child is a prodigy, you’ll know early on. Be sensitive to what your child really needs. Not everyone wants to play in the high school marching band or accompany the church choir. Every child does need to be listened to and validated.