Music lessons' sour notes

From Michael Cross-Barnet: Show of hands, please: How many of you progressive-minded parents out there think it's OK to force a child to take music lessons against his or her will?

I'm guessing not too many. Maybe 10 or 15 percent?


OK, let's add a few nuances. What if the kid is good — really good? What if the lessons in question are not only high quality, but free?

Now, here's the kicker, and this will bring a glimmer of recognition in more than a few readers: What if the child in question is one who rarely, if ever, is willing to try new things without prompting? Who is reluctant to engage in activities in general, without a (figurative) boot in the rear? Who is prone to quit in frustration when what he is doing turns challenging and intense?
As you have no doubt surmised, this is not a hypothetical situation in my household.


All three of my kids have played an instrument at some point. My daughter was OK at clarinet. She played in school bands for a few years, until she discovered theater in middle school, put the clarinet away one day, and literally never looked at it again. (Seven years later, it's still locked in its case in her old bedroom.)

My older son showed interest in the piano when he was 9. He had private lessons with a friend of ours for two years, then was accepted in the TWIGS program at Baltimore School for the Arts. He was good, but he didn't love it. The teacher was too strict. Many times, the kid expressed a desire to quit. Always, my answer was the same: Give it another try. The fact was, I just couldn't say no to free music lessons. Like him, I was once a good pianist. I had quit after several years of lessons and had always regretted it.

My bottom line: Once he was in high school, it would be up to him whether to continue. Before then, the decision would be mine.

Meanwhile, my younger son came home from fifth grade one day all excited. A string quartet from BSA had visited his school, and he wanted to learn to play the violin. We had the normal parental reaction to such news: Pushing back fiercely against the cacophony of squeaky violin strings rising in our brains, we managed to blurt out, "That's wonderful!" When he showed up for the first day of TWIGS and was given a cello rather than a violin, we were thrilled. I love the cello, and it's a lot easier on the eardrums.

What followed has been a repeating cycle of struggle and success, challenge and doubt. When it began to dawn on him how much time and effort are actually required to learn an instrument, he wanted to quit. I wouldn't let him. And so it has gone, back and forth — for years. Some days he likes the cello, some days he hates it, but he continues.

My arguments for making my son take cello lessons have ranged from the practical ("You don't play sports, and you need to do something") to, at times, the philosophical. I have pointed out that making music, like any artistic pursuit, is a gift we can give the world, one that makes it more beautiful place. Granted, this line of argument is perhaps lost on a cranky 11-year-old who would much rather check out the latest game for his Nintendo DS.

But strip all that away, and what it really boils down to is, "Because I say so." I think the lessons are a good thing, and therefore he has them. It is a raw exercise of parental power.
Am I completely comfortable with that? No. Sometimes it doesn't seem right, especially when I wonder whether I am doing this more for him or more for me. I took to Facebook a couple years ago to ask what people thought of my decision. Responses ranged from "It's never right to force lessons on a child" to "Thank goodness my parents didn't let me quit."

On balance, though, I believe I've done the right thing. A sixth-grader is not a wholly rational creature. We don't trust pre-teens to vote, drink alcohol or drive a car. They don't decide where to live or go to school, either — and most people don't have a problem with that. So why should they have the final word over something like music lessons?


Every parent who encounters this dilemma will make his or her own choice, based on a host of factors relevant to the individual case. Was my decision wise, or cruel? Is the compromise I reached (I decide through middle school, his decision after that) a reasonable one? Have you been in a similar situation, and if so, what did you decide?