Why I make my kids learn music, even when they want to quit

My eight year old had a small meltdown this morning.

I’d been helping her practice her violin. We had been going for exactly 12.5 minutes. (Yes, I had a timer on. No, don’t ask.)

“I hate this,” she said. “I hate the violin. I want to throw it down and smash it on the floor.* I want to quit. I never want to play the violin again.”

***

Four years earlier…

Rewind to when the same child was four years old, and desperate to play the violin like her bigger brother.

“Why can’t I start now?” she would beg me over and over. “I’m old enough.”

“The teacher says you need to be five,” I told her. “You’ll get to do it very very soon.”

She did start, and she loved it, just like her brother had loved started learning strings when he was seven. Both had joy on their faces, and huge happy smiles when the teacher turned up before school every Tuesday morning.

The joy didn’t last.

It didn’t last for either violin-playing child. It didn’t last for the piano and harp-playing child, several years before.

There’s a point just before the first year of lessons is up, at which suddenly, learning the instrument becomes hard. There’s more to think about. You haven’t suddenly gone from not knowing how to play, to being a virtuoso. You still sound pretty crummy, and now they expect you to be able to read the notes as well… and think about the bowing… and play low twos and high twos… and the rhythms are tricky, and the pieces are longer…

Learning an instrument becomes hard.

From my experience, that hard, I want to quit phase lasts about two and a half years. It starts just after the first flush of success wears off, and sticks around until about the end of second grade.

Once they get to playing at third grade level, they are functional, competent and more confident, and it seems that they find their own motivation to keep going at their instrument. (Either that, or everybody knows that they should quit and they all breathe a sigh of relief.)

***

The question is: do you let your child stop learning in that early period where they don’t enjoy it?

I didn’t. I haven’t. I won’t. And for several reasons.

One is: learning music - and an instrument particularly - is so incredibly good for a child’s brain. It literally makes them smarter at every thing else. Don’t think about whether they’ll end up playing the violin in later life or not. Think: man, this is great brain training for my kid’s whole future. Playing the actual instrument is almost irrelevant when you think about the other benefits of musical education.

Second: it’s good for children to do hard things. My children are fortunate to be naturally bright. They are good at reading, quick at maths, smart at problem solving. In some ways, that’s a great benefit to them. In other ways, it’s a disadvantage. It means that school work is easy. Homework is easy. Everything is easy.

But having an easy life isn’t necessarily a good thing. If you’ve never had to work hard early on, you don’t know how to do it when things get harder. And if there’s one thing in life you can guarantee, it’s that at some point, life will get harder. When it does, I want my kids to have already built some ‘I can do hard things’ muscles. I want them to know how to push through, how to break things down, how to do what they need to do, even when they don’t feel like it.

When my daughter had her meltdown this morning, I held her close and talked to her. “Don’t think of it as learning to play the violin,” I told her. “Think of it as learning to do hard things in life. And you’re doing great.”

My third reason for keeping my children on with their music is this: they might end up being good at it. I sat in my son’s violin recital the other day and realised something: he is really good. He’s about to do his fourth grade violin exam, and it is a pleasure to hear him play. He has developed a beautiful tone, amazing vibrato, and solid technique. Even more importantly, he understands the music he’s playing. He knows how to phrase it, how to make it meaningful. I felt moved while I was listening.

My son wanted to quit for months and years when he was going through his early hard patch. He is so pleased now that he didn’t. He loves to play, and he wants to go on and keep playing, at higher and higher levels. Even better, it’s a gift to the people around him.

***

So how do you keep your children going when they want to quit music?

There are a few things you can do to keep your kids on track with their practice and lessons.

Make music non-negotiable.

They don’t get to choose if they’ll go to the lesson or not. They don’t get to choose if they’ll practice or not. Just like they don’t get to choose if they’ll brush their teeth. Music is part of life, and it’s what we do here. Shrug your shoulders when they start to fight. “You can argue, but you won’t change my mind.” Be firm, fair and friendly.

Practice with them.

It’s hard for kids to remember everything from their lesson. If you’ve been in the lesson, taking notes, try to understand what it is they are learning, and sit with them while they go over it. Help them break things down and learn to practice effectively.

Small, calm-ish practices are enough.

Practices don’t have to be long, but they have to be regular. It helps if you can stay calm and not scream or get flustered. Remember: fair, firm and friendly. I’ve been known to help things along with small rewards (ie. Smarties) when we do flashcards for note reading. I also frequently say this: “You feel bad while you’re doing this, but it’s only for 15 minutes of your day. You could spend time arguing with me, but that’s just making the time last longer. How about you do it, get it over with, and then you can move on?”

Find a group for them to play with.

The key to keeping my son going with violin was getting him into a Junior Strings ensemble. It wasn’t about the teaching from the group, but the social aspect of playing music with other people. From there he’s moved up to the main youth orchestra in our area, where he now plays in the first violins.

Genuine praise is better than gushy nothingness.

My kids probably wish I gave them more ‘Ooh, you were so wonderful’ type feedback, but I’m just not that person. However, when I hear or see something good, I tell them. I also focus on the improvements they’ve made, or the hard work I’ve seen from them. I’ll compliment them on improved focus, or better note reading, or anything that highlights their progress.

Be okay with your kids being uncomfortable.

A big part of the reason we allow our children to quit and swap and change things around when they’re young is that we often feel bad if they seem unhappy. “They should be enjoying this,” we think. “We’ll turn them off music for life if they’re not enjoying every moment.” Wrong.

Sure, if there’s manipulation, abuse and screaming involved, it’s not a healthy thing to be doing, but there’s no rule that says our children must enjoy every single minute of their life. Plus, constant enjoyment is neither possible, nor realistic. If we aim for that, we allow them to miss out on experiencing the rewards you can get through persistent effort. Music is something that takes a long time to learn and master, and it won’t always be comfortable. If we can remember that, it’s easier to get through the whingeing. If we can be okay with our kids feeling uncomfortable for a while, we’re doing them a big favour. They’ll need to learn this for their lives to come.

What are your feelings about learning music, or quitting? What’s your experience been like?

*NB. I wasn’t worried that the violin would actually get smashed. She’s an articulate child who uses words well.