To Practice or not To Practice

Both my daughters have taken piano lessons.  The older one started in late second grade, and after two and a half years, when it looked like one or both of us was going to get seriously hurt from the battles that raged over practicing, I let little sister take her place at lessons, on a gray winter day when big sister refused to go.  It was a no-brainer.  Little sister was dying to start– she’d been sitting at the piano and “pretend” playing for months, only her pretend sounded pretty good compared to the cantankerous banging made by most 7-year-olds– so it wasn’t too tough of a decision to let her start a year earlier than I’d planned.  She walked proudly down the street with me to the piano teacher’s house and was so excited to get her own music.

Three years later, she plays like someone with six years of experience, but hates to practice almost as much as her big sister did!
“Why don’t you just let her quit?” say both my husband and my mother, who can’t stand to hear her cry, and who, I might add, never played piano. But quitting piano won’t be happening anytime soon, due to several reasons.  One, even though Emmie hates practicing, she really does like to play, as evidenced by the fact that whenever she sees a piano at a church or someone’s house, she loves to sit down and entertain.  She’s proud that she has a “repertoire” of several memorized songs.  Two, I won’t let her quit because it became evident pretty quickly that she has a gift in playing and memorization.  Third, many adults tell me they wished their parents hadn’t let them quit piano. Fourth, most of her practices go pretty well.  She only melts down once in awhile.  And last but not least, we have a deal– she gets to participate in something that she really wants to do (gymnastics) as long as she keeps up with what mom wants her to do (piano).  So on days when she screams that she wants to quit, I say fine.  We’ll call the gym and quit gymnastics, too.  And some days she wants to do that. But after she sleeps on it, she forgets all about being mad. 

I thank my friend Gabe Meadows for that last piece of advice.  He had an “agreement” with his son, Mark, who is now studying at Johns Hopkins University and has a growing music career (check out his great jazz CD at  Mark was Emmie’s first piano teacher and, like her, had a knack for piano but hated piano practicing when he was a kid.  Gabe let Mark participate in sports (Mark’s first love) if he stayed with piano “until he was 18”.  (Mark says he really didn’t like to practice until he was about 13!)  In addition to having a CD, Mark has won many music contests and received numerous awards, not to mention being paid to play some pretty nice gigs!

I remember I hated practicing, too.  I took lessons for eight years, and 9th grade was when practicing started to mean a whole lot more, as I was accompanying choirs and friends in contests and I sure didn’t want to fail in front of them.  It was so much fun to be an accompanist, that working on a song over and over through practicing was, while not exactly “fun”–  very satisfying once you get it right.

So I think if you have a child that hates practicing an instrument, he’s just like most kids.  If left to their own decision, most kids would probably quit.  Parents have to decide if it’s worth continuing– does the child have a gift? Is it a skill you’d really like them to have? If so, strike a deal.  (Or offer an incentive for good practicing– I used to use Little Debbie’s Snack Cakes… )

And, contrary to what I heard a sports radio personality once say, that no one ever plays piano once they become an adult– people really do keep it up.  My brother has never stopped playing, even though he’s a photographer by day.  I LOVE to play.  Whenever I can find that elusive window of free time, that is…

4 thoughts on “To Practice or not To Practice”

  1. I definitely fall into the category of “wishing I’d kept up with piano now that I’m an adult” I took for 10 years, but won the battle with my parents in my early teen years. I can’t count the number of times I wished I knew music better. Especially in college when it was COOL to play an instrument. I could have been the hot chick in an all-dude band!

  2. I really appreciate what you wrote here. Like many, I took piano lessons when younger (but can hardly play now. Our daughter has beautiful long fingers and a knack for music, we think. But she will not put in the effort and shows little interest most times – such a waste (especially knowing, too, that music indirectly helps us with so much else in life). We haven’t forced the issue much lately, but I realize we need to rethink this one. Little Debbie’s, huh?

  3. Pat:
    You are a very smart and wise woman. There is a reason that God made parents older and usually wiser than kids; we are supposed to guide and direct them, not vis versa. Stick to your guns. Believe me, she’ll thank you for it later.
    I will say that you were kind to mis- quote me. I told Mark that he would play the piano until he was 18 with no conditions. Yes he was a good athlete, indeed; he was voted by his coaches, the “Best All Around Athlete” in his Jr. High School graduating class. But he would have been made to play the piano whether he continued in sports or not. I knew he had talent. He was born into a musical family.
    You see, I never tried to be Mark’s friend; he had plenty of those. I just tried to be the best parent I could. Now we’re best friends.

  4. I love what you’re saying about friendship– it falls right in line with my “manifesto” elsewhere on the site…
    I still think you had something up your sleeve with the sports– didn’t it make it easier for Mark to respect your wishes about piano playing since you also let him pursue his love of athletics?  Some parents mistakenly push their kids into being a “one trick pony” and you didn’t!

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