So your little darlings are off to a nice start on their violins, flutes or pianos, and they’re actually sounding pretty good. Practice sessions are no longer a descent into purgatory for you, and your children are starting to take pleasure in their steady progress. As a music-loving parent, your problems are over.
Or so you think.
Then your child hits that magic age. It could be as early as 8; it could be 9 or 10. Things start to change. It isn’t just the competition from the soccer clubs and the gymnastics teams, either, though sports schedules can be hard to coordinate with music lessons and activities.
No, all your child’s peers have been swept up in the electronic revolution, facing distractions and enticements that the previous generation didn’t encounter until much later in life (if at all). Today’s youth are more hot-wired, plugged in, switched on, connected and Bluetooth-ed than parents could have imagined when they were that age. Kids are pushing for iPods, iPads and iPhones — and parents are pondering all this with a resounding “iDon’tknow.”
And as the push toward preteen adolescence starts ever earlier, the vast force of popular culture begins to descend on your family. Your children are distracted from their Mozart and Debussy; instead, they are drawn in by their friends’ adoration for kiddie pop stars like the ubiquitous Justin Bieber.
What do you do when your budding musician says, “I don’t have time for this. I want to stop my music lessons”?
Know your kids
You have lots of options. The first place to start is with your knowledge and understanding of your child. Is the desire to quit just a passing frustration with the progress of the lessons, or is this a refrain you’ve been hearing repeatedly for a while?
Listen closely to what your child is saying about the music lessons. Does she express boredom with her instrument, qualms about meeting the expectations of a strict teacher, a lack of interest in the musical pieces she is learning, or does she perhaps give the sense that she is all alone in her studies of the oboe while none of her friends have any interest in music?
Second, find out as much as you can about what is going on in the music studio where your child’s taking lessons. Do you know other children, and other parents who are working with the same teacher and the same instrument? Will the teacher help you connect with them? Is the teacher a good fit for your child in terms of teaching style (rigorous versus lenient), expectations (an impossibly high or unreasonably low number of practice hours required) and inspiration? Can the teacher motivate students to meet and surpass the studio’s goals for them?
When you feel you understand why your student wants to quit, but you still hope that he’ll give music just a little more of a chance, here are some things to try:
- Buddy system: Try to find friends who are studying the same instrument, so your child doesn’t feel like the Lone Ranger of the Cello. The obvious place to start is with the teacher, who should be able to line up your child with some fellow students who are motivated and doing well. Playing in ensembles — duos, trios, quartets — is great fun, and also builds all-important relationships.
- A little friendly competition, too, spurs everybody to do just a bit better. Other students can share tips, frustrations and favorite pieces. Most importantly, they’ll all know they are not alone, and they can mutually reinforce each other. Kids in this age group live for their social connections; make sure yours have some musical opportunities to connect with peers.
- Consider a new teacher. If the music teacher has standards that seem unreasonable in either direction (high or low), it’s worth looking for a better fit for your child. Similarly, if your child tells you he is bored with the lessons and the practicing, maybe you need a more imaginative and energetic teacher. Perhaps your child dreads lessons because he knows he’s certain to get a stern lecture. Finding out as much as you can about the student-teacher relationship is key in your efforts to keep your child involved with music.
- Get involved in a positive way. Listen to your child practice and make positive, helpful observations. Help her set a specific practice schedule, with no distractions at that time. And remind her that you don’t expect her to be the next Yo-Yo Ma, but that you want her to have the joy of making music on her chosen instrument.
- Remind your child that quitting music may be a decision that he’ll deeply regret later on. As award-winning Seattle flute teacher Bonnie Blanchard notes in her book Making Music and Having a Blast!, “Quitting is a big decision and one many people regret for the rest of their lives. I’ve never heard an adult say, ‘I’m so glad my mom let me drop piano lessons!’”
Blanchard also encourages young students not to quit after they’ve made it through those difficult introductory years: “You’ve already made it through the hardest part. You know how to read music, position your instrument, count rhythms, and do easily things you never thought you could. It’s downhill now. Enjoy the rewards of your time and effort. It’s payback time!”
Melinda Bargreen, Ph.D., has been writing about music in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere since 1974, including 31 years as the classical music critic of The Seattle Times. A published composer of choral music that has been performed internationally, she writes for several publications in the U.S. and the U.K., and also blogs and posts reviews on her website, melindabargreen.com.