Should You Make Your Kids Keep Taking Piano Lessons?

This 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.

I am too crazy busy with end-of-school stuff and a huge church party tonight and a Blog Her conference tomorrow and Friday to spend more than a few minutes here and there playing. But come Sunday, I’ll dust off my old harp books and go to town.

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.

8 thoughts on “Should You Make Your Kids Keep Taking Piano Lessons?

  1. We are so lucky here. The Band Boosters (a parent organization) runs a band camp every summer that allows beginners to just pick an instrument and learn to play it (and to read music) every day for 4 weeks, during which they cover the equivalent of one year’s worth of private lessons. If they like it, they can continue it the next summer. If not, they can try a different instrument, without feeling guilty that they “wasted” an entire year.

    I just love how it encourages the kids to experiment with different instruments, maybe find one they like, and gives them the chance to learn in a fun group environment. And it only costs 200 dollars (the equivalent, around here, of 4 weekly private lessons). There’s no way we could have afforded this sort of thing otherwise!

    1. Man, I wish they had that program where we live. That would save a lot of $$ and kids’ wanting to play an instrument only to realize how hard it actually is.

      When I first started the harp I found a friend of a friend who did a harp camp. Every day for a week she would give a two hour group lesson where a bunch of women (mostly late teens and older women) would learn songs and see if we actually wanted to play the harp. Since a harp is such a major investment, it was a great way to test the waters before having to commit to something that cost a lot of money.

  2. Love, love, love this! I’ve written about my piano/music issues on my blog before, so I can totally relate with what you said. Although, I must say, my mom was quite the opposite. She had no issue with letting me try and quit whatever instrument I wanted. Therefore, I spent a year taking piano, flute and viola as a child. Nothing stuck, but still, I had the opportunity.

    As for my kids, I have two who take piano and love it. The other two tried it and hated it. I only pay for lessons for a kid if they love learning the instrument. If not, it feels like a waste of time and money.

  3. Thank you for this post! I am so glad to know I am not the only one who doesn’t feel that “making” a child play an instrument is a requirement for admission into the “Good Mormon Mother Club”. When I told my Visiting Teacher that I let my daughter discontinue her cello experience, you’d have thought I said I was letting her get a tattoo!

    I believe that musical education is very important and I do encourage musicianship in my home. My children “have” to choose an instrument in Grade 5, which is when the “Band or Orchestra” option becomes available in our school district. I don’t care which instrument they choose (we can rent an instrument from the school district for $45 per school year, so my financial investment is minimal), but they have to stick with it for the whole school year. If they decide they don’t like the instrument they chose, they can choose something else the next year, but they have to do music every year. They also have to practice 30 minutes per day, as required by their teacher. Once they get to Middle School (grade 6) they also have the option of switching to Choir. I believe that one’s voice is, indeed, an instrument – basically I just want them to learn to read music and gain some appreciation for something other than what is played on the radio. 🙂

    My eldest has played the cello since he was 10, and has received music scholarships to help him pay for college as a result. My middle son has been in advanced choirs (All-City, All-State, et cetera) and my youngest son (who switched from trumpet to choir when he got braces) is also a pillar in his highschool choir. My daughter just switched to choir after a year of cello and she has expressed some interest in piano lessons, “But just for the summer.”

    I guess the point of this comment is that I agree that music is important, but it’s not the only important thing nor the most important thing.

  4. Um, gotta say, this bit is funny to me…I have lived in Utah since I was a young child. My non-LDS friends were and are the ones in whose homes things like musical skill and excelling at extra-curricular activities were top priority. It seems to me its important in most families I would encourage my kids to associate with, but what the heck goes on “out in the field”?!
    Aside from that, I appreciate your insight on this topic. We’ve been going back and forth now that our kids are old enough to start things like music lessons… 🙂

  5. What a great post! I think I will bookmark it and refer other parents to it when I hear them asking this question.

    So what about when they do want to keep having lessons, but Refuse.To.Practice? My son loves recorder (which his class has been learning at school since grade one, so in grade five he’s reasonably competent) and is forever practicing it. And, he’s never had piano lessons, but my parents have a piano, so every time we go over there he picks out some tune he’s just learnt on the recorder, and now we’ve just been given a reasonably good electric keyboard and he will play it for a hour at a time.

    But. He has to have an ensemble instrument for school, and he chose cello. We’ve been able to hire the cello and he gets lessons through the school at a very reasonable price, and in school hours, but – He.Won’t. Practice. He always has some reason – he’s sprained his finger, or his ankle, or his cello’s out of tune, or he’s got such a bad headache. But it all adds up to practicing once a week if he’s lucky.

    Anyway, sorry to offload, it’s just something that’s driving me up the wall. We’ve talked about just stopping the lessons, but once stopped it’ll be awfully hard to go back, because he’ll be further behind, and although he could do recorder as his ensemble instrument, he’d already be a year behind the other kids who have been doing that and having lessons, so I suspect he would quickly find that a trial too. Anyway… first world problems, as they say.

  6. I’m sorry to play devil’s advocate, but I’m one of those ones who actually benefitted from being forced to continue piano. I liked it at first and am generally musical, but I reached a point at about year 3 where I was not playing as well as I wanted (REAL music, not dinky songs about alligators and umbrellas). And that made me hate practicing. I also did not like my teacher, but I lacked the voice to explain this to my mother. Well, she made me continue, as you well know, and got me through that horrible year. The next year, we switched teachers, requested real music, and by the end of that year I could play Fur Elise. And after that I LOVED piano! I played for 10 years and was pretty good by the time I stopped in college. I’m very very grateful Mom didn’t let me quit. But it took a lot of blood sweat and tears (on both our parts) to get me through that year to where I would enjoy playing.

    I still agree with everything you said, though. Definitely assessing each child’s personality and musicality is important. Clearly I was talented enough to play piano and was just too lazy to practice!

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