Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When should you let your child quit music lessons?

I haven't had much time to blog lately between being in and out of town and all 3 of us getting sick (flu-like symptoms? don't worry, we haven't been quarantined...) Tonight I finally got a chance to sit down and catch up on some of my blog reading (which seems to be more important on my to-do list than, oh, lots of things...) and I came across a question on Lisa Belkin's NYTimes Motherlode blog that I wanted to answer. My answer turned into a short book, and I thought I would go ahead and post it here.

The question, from a reader:

I have a question about quitting music classes. My almost 5-year-old has started playing the piano, enjoys it and is pretty much self-motivating when it comes to practicing. My almost 7-year-old has started violin classes (at her own request), but she really needs to be pushed in order to practice, and will tell me that she does not like to play the violin, but once she does practice, she is usually fine, and even insists on finishing additional pieces and actually does quite well.

If it were up to her, she would quit right now though. We have rewards in place (a particular toy after x number of practices) and I also started practicing the violin so that it could be a joint activity. I do believe that learning to play an instrument is beneficial on many levels, and would like her to continue, however, there are limits to how long I will try to push her, since it is no fun for either of us.

Are there any music teachers/parents who can tell me if (and when) there will be a turning point when she starts to enjoy and appreciate it more — or will that day never come? Should I let her change instruments? (Piano will not be an option — I do not want her and her sister competing and comparing — and cello would seem to pose the same challenges.) She will be getting a new teacher after the summer, which might help, although she is skeptical.

My answer:

I grew up in a family where taking piano lessons was almost as important as going to church. I was the youngest and the only one who ended up becoming a professional musician, although all my siblings attained some level of proficiency. I am now a piano teacher, and strongly believe in the benefits of music study for kids (and adults). However, and this took me a number of years to understand (considering my upbringing and my chosen profession), there are lots of other ways for kids to get the same benefit!

What are the benefits of music study? Discipline, problem solving, focus, emotional expression, memorization, eye-hand coordination, time management, goal-directed behavior, performance under pressure...and I could go on. Couldn't many of these same skills be learned by playing soccer, learning to bake, taking art lessons, or building a computer? Think how many successful adults you know who never played a musical instrument. It's not a must. On the other hand, think of how many teenagers you know who study a classical musical instrument and are also into drugs?...not too many, I would guess.

The thing is, children are inherently attracted to music, but playing a musical instrument requires a great deal of work and discipline--a lot to ask of a young child! But it is also something that they are too young to really make a good decision about--they don't know whether in 10 years they will want to be able to play the violin or not, and the skills need to be learned now. So if, as a parent, you believe it is important, I would recommend you stick with it. If, however, it becomes something that is ruining your relationship with your child, it may not be worth it. There are other ways to get the same benefit.

I congratulate you on your own practicing of the violin. So many parents expect their kids to practice an instrument but the kids have never seen their parents do such a thing! So why would they want to do it? Example is a strong parenting influence. If you decide to stick with the violin lessons for her, I hope you will also sit with her while she practices (at her age, unsupervised practice could be worse than no practice at all), and make sure she practices consistently. Consistency is the biggest factor in a student's progress, and progress is the biggest motivator for a student to continue playing.

If you decide to let her quit, I hope you can find a way to do it that doesn't teach her that when things get hard, quitting is the answer. Instead, try to teach her that life doesn't have to be miserable, and it's okay to choose activities that you enjoy over those that you don't...but it is also important to make commitments and stick to them, even when it gets a little hard. The intrinsic reward that comes from doing what you said you would do even when you don't want to is huge!

One other thought--I would be careful about offering too many extrinsic rewards for her practicing. You might find the book Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn an interesting read. Let her discover the intrinsic reward of mastering a skill and making music. That's not to say I'm above bribery when it becomes completely necessary! Do what works, but help her enjoy the ride if possible.

Good luck, and know that whatever decision you make, it will be okay!

As I am reading through other comments and the original question again, I am realizing I could have gone on and on. But I won't, for now. :)


Lorinda said...

oh crap, now i have to know what the other people recommended and i hope she listens to you first. :).

Lauren said...

Very well written reply. I feel exactly the same way. I think I still love music because it was my choice whether to pursue it or not.

(Not saying that I am amazing, just that I have a great enjoyment for it.)

Ashley said...

What do you think it says to a kid when mom and dad cancel piano lessons for a month because they "can't afford it"?

the lunch lady said...

I like it! good job!

Joanna said...

I always love when my students' parents come up to me and ask, all concerned, "Did you like practicing when you were little?" to which I reply, "Of course not. Most of the time I hated it! Every kid hates practicing at some point."

I think every music student goes through cycles of enjoying and hating the process. I've never regretted learning, though.

Thanks for your response. Would you mind me sending parents to your blog to read it?

June said...

This was a beautiful and well-thought out answer! I am happy that Blogger means I can get to know your thoughts better.