Let ‘Em Quit or Make ‘Em Play?

photo by bigdrumthump @ flickr.com

When I was in the third grade, I totally wanted to play the drums. But back in the 1970s, girls were not encouraged to play percussion instruments. Nay, the “banging” instruments” were reserved for the boys. I was, however, presented with a shiny flute and told that if I was ever good enough that, one day, I would be able to play the piccolo. Whoop dee doo.

Years went by, and while I may have played well enough, I just never felt anything for the flute. In fact, at one point, our house was robbed and I actually prayed that the thieves had taken my flute. They did not. In middle school, on band days, I used to look back at the strawberry-blond haired drummer, Kevin Eastman, with a kind of longing and wish I was the one doing the boom-tap, boom-boom tap thing. (I used to look back there so much, I think I sent Kevin the message that I liked him more than a little bit. But I digress.)

My parents basically made me stick with the flute until I entered high school, at which point I was allowed to drop it.

"keys" by MiiiSH at flickr.com

Fast-forward thirty some odd years. My son has been taking private piano lessons for just over a year now. He loves the piano. I mean, I think he loves it. I have never had to ask him to practice; he just goes and does it on his own every day, and I assume we would have epic wars if he didn’t like to play because I really want him to play an instrument.

This year, boy had the opportunity to try another instrument through school. He was given three choices. Like me, he ended up with his last choice: violin. Unlike me, he rarely practiced. And while he diligently made it to orchestra and lessons, truth be told, he didn’t care if he ran out of rosin. He didn’t care if he was in the last seat (and he was), and he didn’t really care if my car accidentally ran over his violin (which almost happened once). I wasn’t surprised about his attitude. He was assigned an instrument for which he had very little feeling from the get go. And I allowed him to slack with his violin because he had the piano. By April, after one orchestra concert and another on-deck, he decided he was “totally done” with the violin and, frankly, I couldn’t wait to return the standard-sized rental along with its hour-glass shaped case.

In May, my husband and I attended our son’s piano recital, which was held in a beautiful, intimate room at a nearby college. The children played their pieces, one after the other, on a gorgeous Steinway up on a stage in a room with perfect acoustics.

Before the concert started, the piano instructor, Ms. Esther Wadsworth stood and addressed the audience, welcomed everyone, and then read a piece of writing composed by one of her students, Nick Conley, who would soon be graduating from high school and, I assume, would not be continuing his piano studies with her. I am not certain if Nick wrote this piece as his college essay or just as a kind of thank you note for Ms. Wadsworth, but his words struck me. He wrote:

Nick Conley

I cannot imagine my life without piano. But this was not always the case. I was only six years old when my mother forced me (literally) to take piano lessons. I was not having fun with Piano and desperately pleaded with my parents to let me quit. The negotiations did not go as I had planned and was told I had to finish at least my first year. My piano organization held an annual recital for all of the students to perform. I was to play first. After my cue, I approached the highly glossed Steinway and seated myself. I honestly don’t remember playing anything; it all seemed like a haze.

As the recital continued, the pianists got better and better. The final musicians played Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Billy Joel, Shubert and Elton John with ease, making the piano come alive. By the end of the recital, I had lost all eagerness to quit and was filled instead with a lust to learn more. And so I did not quit piano and stayed with the grueling theory work and played songs that I did not enjoy. Now at the age of seventeen, I am ironically the last chair in that same recital. Piano has become my outlet, and I use it to channel my emotions into melodies instead of bad habits. If I am lucky enough, maybe I can prove to some kid sitting in the first few rows that all the hours of energy and dedication are worth it.

So after the violin was gone, and after hearing Nick’s essay, and after hearing the students perform in the recital, I wondered: Should I have made my child stick with the violin? Isn’t one instrument enough? And what if one day he says he wants to quit piano? Or (gasp) fencing? How do you know when it’s time to let an activity go? When (if ever) do you override your child’s desires and force them to stick with an activity?

17 responses to “Let ‘Em Quit or Make ‘Em Play?

  1. It seems like Nick’s parents simply required him to finish a commitment that he started – that is, to finish out a year’s worth of piano lessons. Our school district has an instrumental music program, and kids have to commit to one year if they’d like to play. I can get behind that.

    If your guy likes to play piano, and he enjoys it, go with it! He’s having fun and enjoying music. He may decide he wants to pick up a different instrument at some point as well.

    That’s my two cents.

    Keep us posted!

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    • Both of my older sisters took accordian or — for were forced to — and were really very good, but when they became adults they dropped music altogether, never picking up an instrument of any kind, and never forcing their children to take on music. Only one of their children decided she wanted to toy with the keyboard, but that was short lived and was just a teen pop star fantasy so to speak.

      My boys all have taken piano for 6 years and 4 years, and the youngest is just preparing himself to start, casually banging on our ancient Mendelson piano which has a few keys which have only 2 strings, and the edging is chipped everywhere but it’s in tune as best as possible. We have numerous instruments in the house so access is not terribly limited, but both older boys battle against doing music of any kind, and the younger one gives his piano teacher a hard time all the time, they really hate it. In six years and a lot of money later the eldest only has grade one piano, and the younger one is just below grade one. It’s quite a process and they won’t go practice on their own no way, no way, no way.

      As a child and teenager I didn’t have the ability nor given the opportunity, and had enough going on my plate, so music wasn’t on my agenda; now later in life, I play guitar everyday and spend time on the piano too. I would hate to just let the piano lessons for my children come to a screeching halt, but think about it everyday; it’s a real inner battle while listening to the complaining because in reality I chose to pick up the guitar, I choose to sit at the piano and I chose to learn music theory, not some demanding parent who knows what’s good for me. Do I wish I had taken music in my younger years ? Not really; I just wasn’t ready.

      Two realities I live with is my son’s teacher finally got her grade 10 piano in her seventies (age) yet started as a child, and secondly, a very, very very, famous guitarist looked me in the eye one night and said: ” My father beat me, literally drew blood often to get me to learn guitar. I hated it. I hated him but look at me now!”

      THANKS FOR TAKING THE TIME AND YOUR PATIENCE TO READ THIS. I have the name of a famous pianist, my son has that name too; he has a cousin with the same name as that pianist’s wife; it was never planned that way. That’s just the way it is …R Schumann.

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      • This is such a beautiful and heartfelt post.

        I understand this struggle.

        I guess I would just say that there is some kind of balance between smacking your kid around and making him or her bleed for an instrument (or a sport) and letting him or her take a break or pursue something he or she might like better.

        Look at you. All these years later, you are enjoying the guitar!😉

        I had it in my mind that my son would play piano until 5th grade and then he could quit. He’s in 7th grade now. ANd he shows no sign of stopping. He likes it. Is he going to he Schumann? I doubt it, but is it a nice outlet for him? Yes.

        And his teacher is wonderful.

        Even if he stopped at the end of the year, I’d feel content that he’d learned something wonderful that he’ll never lose — and he has a greater appreciation for music for participating.

        Nice to meet you.

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  2. Oh, my goodness, do I ever have a lot to say about this.

    My parents allowed me to quit everything that I tried and did not like. Ballet, piano, Girl Scouts, etc. They never forced me to play a peewee sport. They never wheedled me into continuing with something when I expressed that I hated it. I think their philosophy was that I was a kid, and (as long as I got good grades) I should be allowed to slack off and not do stuff that I didn’t want to do…I would have plenty of time to be forced into doing things I didn’t like when I was an adult.

    My fiance, on the other hand, was consistently made to do activities that he didn’t much want to do. A child psychologist told his parents early on that if they didn’t push him out the door to do things, he would be content to sit in his room and play by himself all day. So they got him involved in Boy Scouts, peewee sports which he did not like, camps and activities and so on. He is so good-natured that he dealt with all this with aplomb, not resisting or complaining. He pretty much marked time until he was old enough to choose, for instance, not to go to church (they offered him the choice not to when he was 12), or not to play a sport (they insisted until he was 15, and then said he didn’t have to anymore). I, by contrast, spent most of my time playing in my room by myself all day.

    I really have no idea which of us was raised better. BF spent a lot of time doing things he didn’t want to do, but he also had a lot more experiences than I did. I spent a lot of time learning that it was okay to quit, which did not exactly serve me well when I grew up, and I had to unlearn that pretty painfully. If my parents had forced me into activities that I hated, I might resent and dislike them even more than I already do, or I might be pleased that at least I know how to play a single Bach piece on the piano, if I can’t do anything else of worth.

    But the epiphany moment that Nick’s essay describes above? That might never happen to 80% of the kids who are forced to play an instrument or a sport that they resist. It’s pretty fortunate that it happened to him, IMHO. I think what happened to you is far more common: such indifference to the chore of creative participation that your parents yoked you into that you secretly hope the instrument will be destroyed.

    As for your son, he has an instrument he likes. He’s already inspired. Does he need to be more inspired? As a nonparent I can’t tell you the answer, but I think the question, asked realistically, is worthwhile.

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  3. My philosophy is trying it and see if you like it or not! If you don’t get a high you have the right to not continue this activity. However, if you have a responsibility you must finish it. Like it or not! It builds character and success at the end. Amen.

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  4. I have an opinion on this as a now adult who wishes she was forced to stick with an instrument as a child.

    I was presented with the options of piano and violin as a child. I liked playing both, however practicing was something I hated. Being a naive child, I thought the best solution was to just quit if you don’t want to practice. I didn’t think ahead 20 years and believe that someday I would be sorry I gave up so easily. No one forced me to stick with it. I am very angry with my parental units for this.

    I think you have to realize that it may not only be an annoynce for the child, but for the parents as well. If the parents are the ones annoyed with the whole thing, not a good reason to allow them to quit.

    Well, it’s however many years later, and I despereatly wish I had stuck with it and could now play an instrument. (at least one) I’m mature enough now, to realize that learning /practicing a skill can suck big time. There are many frustrating periods when giving up seems like such an easy out. Yet, I now know it’s SO worth it when you master the skill.

    I think with my kids, I’ll force them to play until at least high school, if they still don’t like it at that point, they are free to quit. I would hope after several years “growing up” with the instrument, their minds could change on the matter with maturity. Youi never know, Cal could grow up to be bored with the piano, but become a master violinist! Just my 2 cents!

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  5. Pey-Lin Carroll

    Great question. I think that if we help our children set short term goals when they are struggling at a task then they will enjoy small doses of satisfaction along the way. Telling them that if they just keep practicing for nearly a decade then they will become Great is a lofty proposition for young children starting at step 1 or 2. Help them enjoy the process rather than nag them about the expected end result. I too struggle with this as a parent to not get caught up in the heat of frustruating moments.

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  6. Hmmm…very good question. Both sides of the argument are totally valid. You don’t want to teach your kid that you can just give up on stuff that’s difficult, and not fulfill commitments made, but you also don’t want to force your kid to do stuff he truly doesn’t enjoy. Somewhere in the middle there must be a balance. Certainly it’s not unreasonable to make the kid stick it out for the school year with a musical instrument, or finish the season for a sport he’s signed up for. But when the end of the year or season comes, is it reasonable to make the kid sign up for another year or another season? With so many different activites, might it not be better to drop the hated one and try something else that the child might find really enjoyable and perhaps have a special talent for? Isn’t that what childhood is about? Trying different things so you can find “your thing”? If you are forced to stick with violin, you will probably never have the chance to discover your love for the saxaphone. And if all your time is taken up on the soccer field, you’ll never have the chance to find out you love tai kwon do, or competetive swimming, or tap dance, or pottery, or …. You get the picture. And of course, whatever we “let our child quit” or “force our child to continue” will undoubtedly be the “wrong” choice in that child’s opinion 20 years later! (As Amy still blames her parents for letting her quit.) All we can do is try!

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  7. Me too, me too- had to play the flute, so girley, hated it, blew my brains out and sounded terrible. I wanted a drum set but was told “NO” not for girls. Then the Go-Go’s came along with that fem woman on the drumbs and I wanted to “get the beat.” So unfair!

    With that said, if a child starts something- an instrument, sport, dance lessons, school project, they need to complete it (in my opinion) and move onto the next subject/thing that interests them- or continue with what they began if they enjoyed it. Forcing a child to participate in something they do not like or enjoy over and over and over is NOT a good idea for MANY reasons… but not asking them to finish something they started is NOT good for MANY reasons also. It’s called “teaching responsibility” and what I see very often, is a huge lack of it- not just on the part of children but adults also.

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  8. Amy…I knew you would comment on this…Renee, you always come up with such great topics. I make my kids finish out the season [if it is a sport] or the year commitment [whatever the case may be]. If they hate it, I don’t force them back to it. It is better to learn and try new things to find something you like. No quitting in the middle though! I want to teach them that when you make a commitment, you keep it, even though you dislike it. That is life.

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  9. Ahhhh I was on the other side of the fence back in the 70’s I got to play the trumpet. Actually I got to use my Dad’s beat up Coronet (which I love now but hated then cuz it was old and beat up). Girls were not encouraged much on the trumpet and there weren’t any boys in band that caught my attention. (That I remember) Mom taught me to play her accordian. I wonder where that is, used to love listening to her play. I LOVED the piano. We always had a piano around be it the old beat up upright in the basement that was never tuned OR the baby grand. My Cousin Shauna gave me a few lessons when I was 11 or so. I still can’t play a musical instrument worth a damn.

    My older 3 kids took to their instruments with gusto. Playing at higher levels at early middle school. Marching Band was our life for about 7 years. Our younger 2 children were given the opportunity but never fell in love with their instruments. Maybe we were tired and didn’t support them as well. Maybe the instrument choices at the beginning were poor for the younger ones and better for the older ones. The music department saw some changes by the time they got there.

    Musicality is a critical point of education. Love it or hate it … all children should be encouraged to learn what they can. Should we make them keep it up? Well… I think the quitting thing (which I also did at the point of High School) has to be taken on a case by case basis.
    Is kid frustrated?
    Does kid love instrument? Change instrument?
    Is the music department at the school wonderful? (If not seek private instruction)
    Is the kid experiencing teasing or other outside influences that are impacting his/her choices?

    I can barely read sheet music, much like I can barely speak french. However, when I hear it I understand it and its complexities. I think this is valuable and my musical education continues through out my life I love listening to music in all forms amateur to professional.

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  10. I have a daughter who is a gifted flute player. Will she be a professional in a symphony one day – doubt it. As of this point she’s not willing to go the extra mile and put in the time that demands. However, she loves the flute and when she’s away from it (like this summer when she’s a counselor at overnight camp without a lot of time to practice) and she gets a chance to play it, she’s reminded of why she loves it. She says it takes her stress away. Did she always love it – no but she did like it.

    She had other activities that she didn’t love however, and that she wanted to quit. The big one was Girl Scouts. In about 7th grade she realized it was NOT cool and asked if she could quit. She knew it would be a problem because I was her troop’s co-leader. I told her she had to stick it out until the end of the school year and then we could talk about it. During that year we did lots of cool things, including indoor rock climbing. She loved that and on our way home I asked her if she was glad she went and would she rather be the one who went rock climbing or the one who heard about her friends that went rock climbing. Of course, she answered she wanted to be the one that went. Well, she stuck with Girl Scouts, in a troop of girls that also stuck with it, until she graduated High School. And, along the way she earned her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting (sort of like the Eagle Scout Award.) And now she tells younger girls all the time to stick with Girl Scouting because she had fun and did things, like going to Europe with Girl Scouts, that she wouldn’t have done otherwise.

    So I believe that kids should have the chance to find their passion but that parents should guide them. If you believe your child is in an activity that they may enjoy in a few years, encourage them strongly to stick with it. If it becomes a battle, then after their one year commitment, let them quite but encourage them to pick another activity. I agree that childhood is a time to try new activities and find what you like and if you can’t, keep trying. To sit at home is not a great choice although kids don’t see it that way. I believe that all kids need down time but I also strongly believe in guiding them to activities they may love/like.

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  11. My mother insisted that I take piano lessons when I was young, and for 8 gruelling years I despised every moment until I was allowed to stop during high school. Maybe if I had never been forced to play I would look back and think man, I wish I could play the piano. But from the day I learned I no longer had to take lessons I never looked back, and have sat at a piano perhaps 5 times in 15 years. Now having my own kids, if they ask to take up an instrument, sport, or other I will stand behind them 100%. But, I also think you have a finish what you started and set some kind of deadline and make a decision then whether or not to continue. On the other hand, in fourth grade I joined the band playing the clarinet, and I loved it because it came naturally to me. I was second chair all through grade school and high school and had a lot of fun playing with my peers. Looking back though, I wonder if I loved the clarinet and hated the piano because my mom pushed so hard for one and not the other?

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  12. My good friend Dominic owned the largest local educational music store for 30 years. He said, “Don’t let your kid quit anything. They want to quit everything.Their instincts can’t be trusted. If it’s not for them, you’ll know not them. That’s why they have parents. ”

    A tad harsh and one-sided, but truer than not in my opinion. As one who has allowed my two to quit Trumpet, Clarinet…and yes, both quit fencing. When your son tells you he doesn’t like being poked, you can hardly insist that fencing is the sport for him.

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  13. I, too, was started out with piano lessons at age 7. I really had no talent and to this day cannot even hum a tune on key. I took lessons under the encouragement of my mother for about 6 years! I still cannot play much, but it did leave me with an appreciation for musical talent and the piano is still my favorite instrument. Today I am just a very happy listener.

    Should parents encourage their kids? Probably for a year or two. My son took cello for a year, but the instrument case was bigger than he was, so he gave it up for a clarinet. He, too, did not do a lot with it, but he enjoys music to this day. His favorite performer is James Taylor.

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  14. I am in a similar situation with my ten year old, though not with an instrument (yet). Our fight is over karate. He wanted to take karate. Begged. So we found a school and he started classes. They have different “clubs” the kids can join that are supposed to give them access to extras – so far, haven’t seen many “extras”. These clubs are made to sound wonderful to the kids and only a select few are asked to join. (I think everyone is asked, myself, just not all parents say yes) We said yes, because Goose seemed to enjoy the classes so much. This “club” required a 3 year contract and is a bit more expensive than regular classes.

    A year into the contract, he started dreading karate class. Two years into the contract, he is crying, not wanting to go to karate class. We are 6 months from the end – FINALLY. I am torn sometimes. Should I have made him finish it? He dislikes it so much he cried. Dislike is the only reason – I took him to classes and watched. There was no abuse or anything of the sort.

    I want to raise a child who doesn’t quit. Who follows through on his obligations, but was this as much my fault as it was his? More so? Should I have considered that an 8 year old can’t promise he will still be gung-ho for karate (or anything the same) for three years. We as adults have changing likes and dislikes.

    I am glad it is almost over!

    Marlene – Goose’s fave is James Taylor as well. He was singing “How sweet it is” before he was even speaking complete sentences..

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  15. Hello again Renée-Ann:
    I found something else we have in common. I, too, wanted to play the drums (in fact, at church, love to keep my hands and feet going to the drums).
    Mom put me in piano when I was 7, and I tried to learn for 2 years and then I quit. I hated trying to figure out the music sheets. I played by ear but don’t ask me to read music. It’s like another language to me🙂

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