Parent’s passion: Keep playing that piano. You’ll thank me someday. I hope.

As a longtime fan of advice columnist Dear Abby, I valued her practical answers, especially about raising children. However, one question stumped her years ago, and she threw it out to her readers to answer: Should children who hate piano lessons be forced — even kicking and screaming — to continue because they may eventually find joy in it and even decide that music is their passion? Abby’s mail was split. Readers wrote that they hated every second of their childhood piano lessons, and the experience soured them forever on music. Others wrote to say that they were now with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music or the Boston Pops and were forever grateful that their parents held their ground.

One mom maintained that parents force kids to do many things, including bathe, brush their teeth and eat their vegetables. Why should music be any different? Her son begged to quit piano when he was 10. Today, she said, he was a noted conductor and music professor.

But another mother lamented she had made a mistake insisting her child stick with weekly lessons. The lessons never stopped being a grim ritual, and her highly musical child lost her enthusiasm for music.

The problem is knowing which child yours will be, the one who blossoms into a symphony musician or the one who flinches whenever Mozart is played.

I have no idea how you tell the difference. Nor do I know if passions are deeper and more lasting when they’re discovered by the child rather than force fed by the parent.

My own parents left me and my brothers largely on our own to discover our talents and interests. A battered hoop in the yard was enough for my older brother to fall in love with basketball and become a top-rated college player. Somehow, my younger brother found his way to ice hockey, a sport he still enjoys as an adult.

(I am still searching for any sign of artistic talent. I had two guitar lessons as an adolescent before the teacher and I mutually concluded that I lacked both passion and talent. My choir career ended in sixth grade when Sister Josita pulled me aside, explained to me the meaning of “tone deaf” and then asked me to mouth the words rather than bellow them, as I had been doing under the belief that I could sing.)

With my first child, I was surprised to discover that even 7-year-olds take all sorts of after-school lessons and that the coolest summer camps fill up in February. While I learned how to make pot holders at my day camps, today’s campers can master beekeeping, surfing and French cooking.

Parents today believe that their children’s lives should be a rich sampler, so their kids take violin on Monday, Irish dance on Tuesday, soccer on Wednesday and drawing class on Thursday. When a glimmer of real talent emerges, they are far more willing to spend time and money to nurture it.

I have a cousin who wakes at 5 a.m. to drive her 8-year-old daughter to a skating rink in hopes she will become the next Kristi Yamaguchi. I don’t know if the little girl will conclude at age 16 that she’s not Olympic material and never lace up her skates again, as happened to a high school classmate of mine. My classmate complains often of the weekends spent on the ice rather than at the movies, the sleepovers she never had and the intense focus on skating that essentially turned her life into one long training session.

The problem for parents is that they can’t foresee the rueful adult mourning a lost childhood. They only see the extraordinary young skater who seems to come alive on the ice and has the possibility for greatness. And how does a parent distinguish between the usual griping about any regular activity, whether it’s homework, Sunday school or chicken for dinner again, and true discontent?

There comes a point when a child can’t be carried downstream any longer by the current of the parent’s enthusiasm. The turning point seems to be around age 14 when the violin prodigy announces that he’s switching to drums and the promising cross country runner says she’s tired of the morning practices and would rather concentrate on her art.

Of course, that’s not where the story ends in some cases — there’s always the possibility of that conversation 10 years later that begins, “Mom, I wish you had never let me quit . . .” That’s why Dear Abby was smart enough to realize that parents can never know for sure where their child will fall.

In our household, we have not pushed lessons to mixed reviews from my older kids. One of my twins was quite annoyed that I signed him up for a middle school club on his response, “That sounds Ok.” That wasn’t, he told me later, an affirmation but an appeasement.

38 comments Add your comment

Brad in Jasper

September 14th, 2010
6:39 am

My mom insisted a year of piano around 8-9 years old if nothing else to simply learn music theory, much as you would take a foreign language. While I may have lingered in piano lessons long after my interest had passed, it carried me to other interests with other instruments. I am grateful for the experience, but I had an older teacher that insisted on pure classics, which soured me on the piano somewhat. Had I more choices with some jazz, blues, and more popular stuff, maybe I’d have hung with longer? My approach with my own children will be a year of piano or some instrument for basic music theory, beyond that they’re free to explore.


September 14th, 2010
7:01 am

I, too, had a year of piano when I was 11, and it focused on the pretty standard classics. I wanted to play the trumpet, but no band until the 7th grade back then. My dad told me that piano would give me the important foundation – and he turned out right. Going in, I knew I would do the lesson only for 1 year, so I was able to make it through.

I think we just have to accept that there is no answer to this issue. It will vary from a child to another, from a family to another, etc. Some will eventually found the benefits of the forced lessons, and others will turn away from music. However, who is to say that they wouldn’t have found the joy in music (or develop a hatred toward music) without piano lessons? We just don’t know. We just do our best.


September 14th, 2010
7:04 am

With children its a crap shoot at best. However allowing a child to quit something after they have begun is being irresponsible. Being forced to continue a particular enterprise will teach them later to be in life to be tenacious, keep up the good fight, never surrender.

Only quitters quit.


September 14th, 2010
7:04 am

I guess I am more of a “if it looks interesting to you, try it for a while.” I wanted to take music in high school and wasn’t allowed to. I did suffer through a year of piano, in which I had no interest and talent.

My own kids evidenced an interest in music. The elder was first chair flautist, her brother played the trumpet (and now plays anything with strings, which he got from his dad), and the youngest started wanting to play the saxophone at 5, and now plays it, the flute, and the piano (self-taught). They also dabbled in baseball, softball, gymnastics, basketball, cheerleading, and 2 were heavily involved in drama (legitimate drama, in addition to the drama of teenagers.) I think all enriched their lives, but they were all self-chosen.


September 14th, 2010
7:08 am

I dutifully tried to find something my son enjoyed and could find some level of success with. After trying soccer, baseball, bowling, swimming, and a few others, he asked ,”Do I have to do sports for you to love me?” That was the end of sports! Somehow he’s managed to find other interests and is doing just fine as a college senior.


September 14th, 2010
7:09 am

@ Brad–I agree with you. My son ASKED to take piano lessons when he was about 6, and he played ( beautifully!) until he was 11, at which point he decided that he wanted to quit. I held my ground for about 6 months, but decided that the daily battle to practice and the weekly battle to lessons wasn’t worth the discord in the family. He quit, and after a year, decided to audition to be the keyboardist in his church youth group praise band. There, he blossomed! In addition to keyboards, he sang, he took up both electric and acoustic guitar, taught himself to play bass, and even backed up the band on drums on occasion. When he went off to college, his guitars went with him, and he joined a group of musicians there. I learned that it wasn’t that he didn’t want music to be a part of his life….he wanted his music to be his own expression of self. I remind him that the piano lessons formed a great foundation for his later musical exploits, and, like Brad above, agrees.

New School

September 14th, 2010
7:38 am

Wow, these comments are dead on (espeically Stevie and Dr NO). I took piano lessons while I was elementary school age which was ol for a while. When I wanted to stop my parents insisted I finish out the next few months… which was the right thing to do.
Now, I’m mid-40’s and wish I had kept at it – so much so that I’m currently shopping for a piano and looking for lessons. I am currently taking guitar lessons and loving every second of it. I think the key is to find the right teacher to match the songs to your tastes.

New School

September 14th, 2010
7:39 am

Wow, just look at all my typing errors. My apologies all.

another APS teacher

September 14th, 2010
7:39 am

Whenever my 17 year old son (who plays sax and clarinet) wanted to quit, I always asked him to give it a few more months to see if he was just having a bad patch and would soon get over it. He’s always agreed to give it a while longer and has always thanked me later for encouraging him to not quit. My mother always allowed us to quit. While I like to blame her for my lack of achievement in ballet, violin, viola, and horseback riding I do understand that I was the one doing the quitting. My lack of commitment is not her fault. It’s mine.

Mike Brady

September 14th, 2010
7:57 am

By tattling on your friends, you’re really just tattling on yourself. By tattling on your friends, you’re just telling them that you’re a tattletale. Now is that the tale you want to tell?


September 14th, 2010
8:10 am

My daughter started piano lessons at the age of 5. She was already showing interest in music, could identify all of the hits on the radio, and had strangely accurate rhythm. Neither hubby nor I have musical talent and signing her up for piano lessons was an experiment. Today my daughter is 7 and can play by ear, read music, and can identify every note on the keyboard with her back turned. She also started a love for classical music at the age of 4, with the help of Fantasia. While the other girls her age were jamming out to Hannah Montana, she was blaring out Mozart in her room. For her 6th birthday she asked for a piano instead of a party. We found an inexpensive baby grand on Craig’s list, which is now her most prized possession. That said…We treat piano lessons as an elective. She has to bring home good grades and have good behavior if she wants mommy to continue to pay for the lessons. Piano lessons are a privilege, not a requirement and she looks forward to lessons every week. She also has a tip jar on the piano. Whenever she masters a difficult piece, I drop a quarter in the jar. If piano lessons ever became a battle I would let her choose something else.

Old School

September 14th, 2010
8:44 am

My daughters were fortunate to have a fantastic (and much revered) band director. He encouraged our oldest (percussionist) to take piano lessons when she began band in the 6th grade. Her piano instructor was a tough task master but she did quite well and the lessons continued well into high school. Her piano skills and the music theory both instructors taught served her well as she mastered all the percussion instruments and especially the marimba. It earned her several music scholarship offers from several colleges.

The youngest was a little different story. She played baritone when she began band. Piano lessons for her were not so successful. To her credit, she adhered to the family rule about finishing what you start and soldiered on until we & the instructor were certain it was not a good fit. We usually expected them to finish the school year and then we would discuss continuing but as I said, she was different. When in 7th grade, she told us she wanted to play bass guitar, I agree but borrowed a double bass from the school and found a student instructor through the FSU Strings Department. Best decision we ever made for her. She took weekly lessons on that bass and within the year, we bought her one along with the bass guitar and amp she originally wanted. At 30, she is still an excellent musician on all three of her chosen instruments although her career is non-musical.

Our family rule (for ALL of us) was: If you start something, you see it through to the end of its logical time. Then we’ll review, discuss, and you’ll continue or try something else. We parents reserve the right to make any change we deem necessary for the overall good of the child at any time. It worked well for us!

DeKalb Educated

September 14th, 2010
9:18 am

My mother insisted that all five children take piano lessons. Like some other comments, I found out that I had a “pitch problem” (aka tone deaf) but great rhythm. I went to ballet classes and joined the local company. I minored in dance in college and went on to choreograph local community and church productions. The piano lessons served as a great base for me though I still can’t carry a tune. I made it through three years before settling on ballet lessons every day. My brothers all made it through 1-5 years of lessons and some went on to marching band in high school. None of us resent our time at the piano or our mother’s dream of the next Van Cliburn. My own children were encouraged to try different sports and artistic endeavors – art, music, drama, soccer, wrestling, swim team, baseball, tennis and football. Lots of practices, games and tournaments. Those kids who find a sport or artistic outlet usually do better in their classes and are too tired to get into trouble. They learn some discipline and some valuable social skills. My children were never allowed to quit mid-season. All commitments were met and honored. That was the true lesson.


September 14th, 2010
9:21 am

PBM failed Kazoo lessons and was kicked out of the band because he couldnt play an note and something about eating glue sticks…


Retired Educator

September 14th, 2010
9:26 am

Fortunately, I grew up in a home where both parents were visionaries. Both were educators and my father was a United Methodist minister. Certain things were not optional for us…six children. We had to go to church, we had to get a college education, we had to learn to type, and we had to take piano lessons. It was truly an uphill struggle for them to educate all of us. They provided the bachelor’s degree and each of us went on to get higher degrees…two Phd’s and one MD in the mix.

We all did all those things. As I said, they were not optional. Some did better at piano than others, but we all got the fundamentals. Unfortunately, the one that did best was a severe diabetic and was accepted at Juilliard at a very young age; however, her illness took over and she passed away at age 31.

I think we all appreciated the things that they did to provide opportunities for us, even though some were retrospectie. Hind sight is still 20/20. We can all play the piano some, but I wish that I had given more to the effort.

Retired Educator

September 14th, 2010
9:30 am

By the way, this is a nice feel good topic. LOL A good break from all the heavy duty topics.


September 14th, 2010
9:38 am

I don’t know if it is a “feel good” topic, but it sure is a fluffy topic :-)

Retired Educator

September 14th, 2010
9:42 am

Fluffy…Feel Good. Feel Good…Fluffy. OK

Steve Martin

September 14th, 2010
9:44 am

“I always enjoyed the banjo. The banjo is happy instrument I mean have you ever heard a sad song on a banjo? Listen to this…*banjo playing* Murder, death, destruction.

See now that just doesnt work on the banjo.

Family of 6

September 14th, 2010
9:58 am

My kids take martial arts because it’s an activity that accommodates all ages at only one location (compared to baseball or soccer). If it’s not their passion, at least it’s a physical activity that also teaches patience, respect, and self-defense. I think that at under 10 years old, they shouldn’t really have a much choice about what to do, where to go, what to eat, etc. I joke with them that when they reach black belt, they can decide to quit. (At our dojo, kids never get black. They go straight from brown to the adult class with a white belt :)

teacher & parent

September 14th, 2010
10:10 am

Music is an essential element of a well-rounded education. The teacher is key – it needs to be fun and the student should feel accomplished. Piano is a great “gateway” instrument, but it’s by far more fun to play in an ensemble of peers, thus band and orchestra!
I like the poster above who stated certain things were expectations in his home. Parents set their children up for success when they adhere to clear expectations. there will always be expectations in life!


September 14th, 2010
10:16 am

As a music educator I can tell you that once I share with people that I teach music and play the piano, I often am told by adults how they really wished they had stayed in piano. It’s a regret that most adults I’ve met have. I started playing at 4 and was never allowed to quit, even though my siblings were. I hated practicing. Eventually I got over it and practiced daily without reminders. It’s a skill that I am extremely grateful for having. My oldest just started really learning to play. She just wasn’t into it a young age but now plays every day. My youngest has no interest but does have the talent. I did make him participate in band at school for a couple of years. I know the advantages of being in music and I insisted that he at least experience it. I say let kids experiment with playing the piano and other instruments. I feel the same way about art. I can’t draw a stickman, but I took it in college and learned to appreciate it more.


September 14th, 2010
11:28 am

My child, not a joiner of much of anything, hit middle school with no musical background except whatever she got in grammer school. She decided, out of the blue, she wanted to learn to play an instrument and join the middle school band or orchestra. I wanted her to have a group to which she belonged and something that challenged her.

So, bewildered but happy she was choosing something, she tried several instruments, I bought her one, got her lessons at a local music shop. She joined the band and now, years later, she has two masters in music.

She was a smart child (and is a smart adult, now). She aced most advanced classes without too great an effort. What was so good about music is that she learned to do something that was hard, that took consistent effort. She learned persistence and had to work hard, over years, to develop skill. What I am sorry about is that it was harder for her than it would have been if I had at least gotten her piano lessons when she was younger.

Part of me wishes she had wanted to be an engineer. She will never make very much money, she will always have to have several jobs to make ends meet. But, she is doing something she loves and feels passionate about. So, it was all worth it.


September 14th, 2010
11:54 am

Off topic–why did these two headlines seem to go together?

Shake-up on APS board 1 killed, 2 hurt in shooting

I have laughed all morning about my eyes seeing those two as all one headline.

Ole Guy

September 14th, 2010
11:56 am

Triple L, Retired, I’m not sure if I would refer to this topic as “Fluffy”, or “Feel Good”. One of the tougest things for anyone in a guidance role…ie parent, mentor, etc…is knowing when to step back, release the reins, and watch the kid go charging into life, knowing that mistakes, big and small, are sure to appear.

As a flight instructor, there comes a time when you gotta exit the bird and tell the kid what every student pilot wants to hear…”Take it around the pattern”! The kid will probably let the airspeed drop, excute an uncoordinated turn on final, and bounce the bird on the concrete…all recoverable mistakes from which the kid will learn.

By the very same token, there comes a time when the direct influence of the parent has to yield to the kid’s internal drive (or lack of) and true desires.

Fluffy? NO WAY!


September 14th, 2010
12:06 pm

Both of my children took piano through elementary school. Both continued in band in Middle School and High School. The oldest has not much with her music other than continued long term friends and good memories. The other sang in a very selective tour choir, participated in all state band, attended college on a music scholarship, became a music therapist and uses her talent working with disadvantaged youth and missionary work. It was money well spent and I guess something I was never able to do.


September 14th, 2010
12:07 pm

And yes, as someone has said this is a good topic. It is good parents can provide some extra arts as schools cut back.


September 14th, 2010
2:25 pm

There is a difference between “sticking with something” and all-out torture. I played the flute, rather than the piano, and although I am completely tone-deaf and lack good rhythm, I did enjoy playing the flute until… my band instructor was a particularly mean teacher. (My experience with this person was not unique)

I had very few teachers with whom I did not get along swimmingly, but this band conductor sticks out as someone who was not only cruel but had horrible classroom management (and this was with the “good” kids, who were the only ones allowed to take band at my middle school). My parents insisted I stick with the flute, and eventually we had as epic a battle as parents can have with a middle schooler. Finally, finally, my parents let me quit band. I never regretted quitting; I only regretted having such a sour experience, but as a teacher, I let that guide me now.

The ironic thing is, I insisted upon sticking with ballet for 12 years, until I could go no further because I lacked the musical and athletic talent (and physical make-up) to take pointe. Frankly, I was terrible at ballet, but I loved it. I didn’t lack fortitude; I just didn’t want to be yelled at everyday by a power-abusing adult.

PS. I still enjoy music, I can still read it, etc. At least I got something good out of it!

A Concerned Parent

September 14th, 2010
2:27 pm

President Obama speaks to our children about education, and this is your topic.


September 14th, 2010
3:05 pm

Parents please be sure to questions you children and teenagers regarding the speech today from the #1 goofball/failure. No doubt it was chock full of excuse making, blaming, lame information, brainwashing techniques and poison.

We must keep our children safe from this Campaigner n chief until Nov 2012 when he is rightfully booted from the whitehouse.


September 14th, 2010
3:58 pm

Maybe they will let those geniuses like Newt and Sarah and Glenn reBUTT (emphasis on the second syllable) the pro-education points the Pres. makes. I am guessing the Right Wing will come out against education and civic-mindedness, if Obama speaks in favor of it!

Ole Guy

September 14th, 2010
4:09 pm

Concerned Parent, this is precisely the type of topic which coincides with Presidential admonitions to youth. When I was in the 4th grade, many many many moons ago, the “Head Nun” spoke to the kids on the importance of studying with diligence so that we could “beat the Russians”. Quite obviously, those words meant next to nothing to nine and ten year olds. However, the importance of those “foreign words” reverberates to this day.

Give the kid the opportunity to explore and to discover the purpose of those things which we ask, be it playing the flute, piano, or applying our studies for a purpose as yet not understood.

Contrary to what appears to be your disdain for the topic de jour in concert with President Obama’s address to youth, it is a perfect fit. Thanks, Maureen, for your keen insight.


September 14th, 2010
4:13 pm

topic is zzz


September 14th, 2010
5:27 pm

Perhaps music educators can correct me, but a very large portion of professional pianists and violinists started their instrument VERY young. If a parent wants a child to be a professional pianist or violinist, then they need to start early – say 4 years old the latest? For other parents, who just want their students to learn to enjoy music there is really no need to insist on their children sticking with lessons – unless you want them to learn about stiking with something they don’t necessarily enjoy. Piano lessons are a lot more expensive than broccoli or peas we want to make sure our children eat, if you can afford it, then that’s parents’ option.

Proud Black Man

September 14th, 2010
5:34 pm

Hated guitar lessons but 30 years later I play one bad axe!

@ Dr NO

I will mail you those invites to the PBM Nut-Hugger Club when more positions become available. :)


September 14th, 2010
5:43 pm

Atlanta—-Where’s the beef? What’s tomorrow’s topic…Chicken nuggets vs. pizza for dinner??? or How to pack a nutritious lunch in a bag.


September 19th, 2010
10:48 pm

Everyone always comments about the people that A) develop into wonderful musicians as a result of beginning music lessons at an early age and sticking with it, or B) are pushed away from music as a result of being forced to take lessons they didn’t want.

I fall into group C: people who were not forced to take lessons as a child, but are now musicians who lack some technical proficiency on piano. One of my only regrets is that my parents DIDN’T force me to keep up with piano lessons.

As a singer, musician, and music teacher in a public school, having better keyboard skills would help me in more ways than I can count. Piano skills open up more jobs– many places look for an all-in-one music director/keyboardist, and I can’t do that. Piano skills give you more options in the classroom, and allow you to teach more effectively in the absence of an accompanist– there’s no “surprise! that’s what the accompaniment sounds like!” at the dress rehearsal. Piano skills allow you to fill in when you can’t afford an accompanist, or when one cancels on you the day before a concert. And, piano skills would have made passing a few classes in college a LOT easier– not just for the musical background piano lessons give, but because a lot of classes required me to demonstrate a certain amount of proficiency on the keyboard.

I make do, and I can play piano well enough to function as a singer and music teacher. But no amount of practice (at this point in my life) is going to allow me to accompany my own students for a choir concert or for solo competitions, or to get hired for an otherwise perfect job as a church music director where part of the requirement is proficiency on piano.

I’m not saying I would have turned out to be a famous pianist, but sticking with lessons beyond the one year I had as a child would have made a huge, positive difference in my life as a musician. So, to answer your question, LLL, just because a kid doesn’t start lessons as soon as they can physically hold a violin, doesn’t mean the lessons don’t serve a purpose beyond teaching the kid to enjoy music. There are a lot of possibilities between virtuoso and amateur.

I don’t know what the answer is– I definitely don’t think it’s a good idea to turn kids off classical music forever by literally dragging them to piano lessons… but I like the point that we force our kids to eat veggies and brush their teeth, why not music? I think it’s something parents have to decide for themselves based on their own children– for some, it may be merely encouraging the child through a rebellious stage; for others, it may be pure torture.

And by all means, KEEP MUSIC IN SCHOOLS. For some kids who can’t or don’t take lessons, it may be their only exposure to music, and music just may be where they discover who they are.


September 20th, 2010
2:11 am

I begged for a piano and piano lessons. Mom said no, we had enough to fight about as it was. She had been forced to do it and hated every minute. I’ve been trying to quietly discourage a friend who was likewise forced and is forcing her own miserable child. Sigh. It’s not as if all young women these days must be able to play in order to hook a man.