This year we decided that the boys should learn some fundamentals of music. I am glad we did it, and I learned a lot from it. The boys also learned a lot, including some music. It was sort of a unilateral decision, coming from the top down, which we generally try to avoid. The boys have taught us well over the years that forcing them to do something they had no say in isn’t something they will put up with.
Here’s how it went: all three boys had been enjoying playing on our very old keyboard, and we also had a little kid keyboard that came with a music book. Unfortunately, the book and keyboard used colored numbers instead of the actual notes so that it was very hard to translate a piece from the tiny keyboard to the regular one. When the ancient keyboard finally gave up the boys started asking for a new one. We decided that they were interested enough in music that it would make sense to buy a nicer keyboard and try some actual lessons.
I had a talk with the older two about music. I told them that I thought it would be a useful skill to have, and that we would like them to try lessons for a year. Our oldest had recently read a book encouraging teens to try doing hard things to build their skills, so he was enthusiastic to gain a new skill. Our middle boy rather grudgingly agreed after meeting the piano teacher. I told them that ten minutes a day of practice was all I wanted, and that they just try their best.
You can probably predict what happened, and it isn’t a surprise ending. Our oldest threw himself into piano, and started charging through the lessons. One day I came downstairs and looked at our whiteboard task list and found that he had changed his practice time to 30 minutes. A week later he changed it to 60 minutes. Sure enough, he sits down and plays whenever he wants a break from something else. I had no idea that music would become a passion for him, although I am fine about not starting him earlier. I think it probably wouldn’t have held his interest until he hit about eleven. On the other hand, we’ll never know, will we?
Things didn’t go the same way for our other son
Our middle boy, on the other hand, plodded along on the piano. He protested the lessons (he almost always dislikes classes and lessons), and only practiced when reminded. This did change over time as he got past the hardest part, learning to read music. Once he could read music, he loved playing it, and often practiced. What he didn’t like was doing only the specific pieces that were next in the lessons, and having the teacher correct his techniques. Interestingly, he started composing music, whereas his brother just wanted to play.
By five months into the year our oldest was ready for extra lessons, and agreed enthusiastically when the teacher suggested it. He also told me that the keyboard just wasn’t cutting it, and he needed something with pedals. We found a free piano (they are never really free, even if you move them yourself) and brainstormed together to find a place for it. Then he helped move the office space around, we enlisted some help, and the piano arrived. We had it seriously refurbished and tuned, which cost about what a good used one would have cost from a shop, and away he went. I thought the piano sounded fine, but he said he can really tell the difference now that it’s been tuned. In the new space we can hear the music all over the house, and it’s lovely.
It wasn’t going nearly so well with our middle son. He enjoyed the new piano and I often heard him playing but he dragged his feet going to the lessons and frequently didn’t get his homework done. After the second time he melted down at the teacher’s house, we sat down and had a talk about it. Actually, we had been talking about it and trying to find ways to make it work better over time, but it just wasn’t working for him. The teacher was awesome with him, patient and encouraging, and never chewed him out for not doing his work. He just didn’t want to be so regimented. Although I kept telling myself that having some discipline was good for him, I could see that he was liking piano less and less. I had been so encouraged when he started to enjoy it, and all that good work was coming undone.
I changed my mind about making him go for a year
I know I said that they were to take lessons for a year. I know they agreed to it. And yet, holding him to the agreement was becoming counterproductive. It was backfiring! What I most wanted wasn’t for him to have discipline, but for him to love music. When I got really clear on what was important, loving music, continuing the lessons for another two months didn’t make sense. So we sat down to have that talk, cuddled on the bed together, and I told him that if he really wanted to quit, it was okay. He was so relieved! He decided that he wants to learn whatever pieces look interesting, and if he can’t figure them out he will ask his brother to help him. It’s not the ideal way to learn good technique, but it’s certainly better than coming to despise playing altogether from being forced into it.
Do I wish he had kept on with the lessons? Yes. Am I fine with the fact that he quit? Yes. I took piano lessons when I was seven, and asked to quit after a year. I always appreciated that my parents were respectful enough of me to not force me to continue. I decided to take lessons again in high school, and I did wish that I had continued, but I was grateful that I had been given a choice. The best way to learn to make good decisions is to be allowed to make poor ones in a safe setting.
What I learned from letting him quit
What I learned from this experience is threefold, and applying it sounds simple but can take some work. First, be willing to offer (or try myself) a wide variety of experiences, because I never know what will become a passion. Second, understand why something is important to try, explain why, and get agreement beforehand. And third, always be flexible. If something isn’t working, don’t try to keep doing the same thing and hoping it gets better. There is a difference between getting through the learning curve at the beginning of something challenging and genuinely not enjoying it.