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Ideas on Learning

Music lessons and when to call it quits

Justin started violin when he was 8. His older sister had been in lessons for a few years already. So he was primed for the quick advancement that younger siblings experience.

But Justin's interest in the violin never developed. He came to lessons but was clearly not that interested. In the beginning, he didn’t dislike lessons. It felt like an extension of his school day that he’d prefer to avoid.

To make matters worse, he was not inclined to practice and, being a rather strong-willed child, his parents chose to not press that issue.

So, he’d come to lessons week after week working on the same song. It felt like he was enduring the lesson. Finally, he began to tell his parents that he wanted to quit.

So, finally Justin's parents had to tackle the question: Do we continue lessons or do we stop?

Some parents would say this situation already carried on too long. Why pay for lessons and spend time each week coming to lessons when the experience is generating so many negative outcomes?

Part of the reason, no doubt, was that their oldest daughter loves playing the violin. They love music. They have a clear vision in their mind of a musical family. And along comes a non-compliant child.

I have compassion for that experience because that was my situation, too. My youngest son, like his sister, took piano. But, by the time Theo was 10, he was making it painful for us. The only way that he would practice was being told. And then, it required me sitting next to him on the bench. It was a battle of wills and a drain on my supply of parenting energy.

Finally, when Theo was 12, I came up with an exit strategy. I told him that when he finished the next song, it would mark completion of the musical skills I wanted him to have and he would graduate.

This was not the finish line I had dreamed of, but I had to recalibrate. I had to put a flag in the ground, declare victory, and move on to a less stressful activity.

In retrospect, I kept Theo going too long on the piano. But I have a never-say-die tendency and will keep pushing on a project, even my child’s music, long after after all the vital signs indicate it is time to quit.

More importantly, I hadn't yet discovered the importance of intrinsic motivation and how to build that.

I have Theo to thank for learning some critical lessons about teaching and parenting. Fortunately, I managed to not do too much damage before figuring some things out.

Now, out of college and starting his career, he comes home with a mandolin and wants to play music with me and my friends. This blessing is not because I insisted on his practicing. It is because he saw me doing something fun that he wanted to be a part of. (Note: He hasn't touched the piano since that last lesson.)

When we tell our child they have to do their math homework, we have the support of our culture backing up that opinion. There are messages everywhere about the importance of education. There really is no opting-out.

But children recognize that music is a discretionary activity. And they are right. It is an activity that is entirely about improving the quality of their life and at some point they need to decide if that is the result they are getting.

And it is critical for parents and teachers to shape their education so it does improve the quality of their life now and when they are older.


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