"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
October 24, 2012
Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Piano Lessons, Part 3
by Emily S. Jorgensen

Lesson 3: You can lead a piano student to the bench, but you can’t make him play.

There are a bagillion well-meaning parents out there who want what is best for their children. And a goodly portion of those seem to include learning to play the piano as one of those things.

I have heard parents explain they want their children to have that opportunity because they didn’t have it; I have seen parents put their children in piano to keep up with the Joneses; I have talked to parents who enjoyed piano themselves and so want that for their children; I have known parents who regret so much that they quit piano that they will not allow their children to do the same, no matter what.

I even know one parent who made her child sign a contract that the child in question would never blame the mother for the child’s choice to quit piano (this contract was entered into after many, many fruitless fights over the issue).

Because of the myriad reasons parents choose to place their children in piano lessons, I have seen countless battles, showdowns, and power plays revolving around piano practice and lessons. I have learned there are some battles you can’t win as a parent. I have learned there are some battles that are worth fighting. And, I have learned there are some that are not.

I, myself, gave my mother several well-earned gray hairs in the piano lesson arena. I finally pitched enough fits by seventh grade that she relented and let me quit. Luckily for me, I realized after a few piano-less months that I loved it, and I missed it, and it did not need to be a battle with my mother.

So, I asked her if I could please take piano lessons again, on one condition: I wanted to choose the teacher.

I chose a teacher who was a humble, sweet man, whom I now recognize was not a well-qualified teacher. I think he had minored in music in college for a little while, and life had led him to the point that he was trying to make a living for his family by cobbling together several part-time jobs, one of which was teaching piano lessons at a local music store.

He gave me a gift that would shape the rest of my life and career — he let me choose what music I learned. One month that was a Haydn rondo alongside Bette Middler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Another month it was the first movement of a Mozart sonata and “Memory” from the musical Cats.

After nearly two years of lessons with him, he suggested I learn Debussy’s Clair de Lune. After I played it all the way through one day with marginal success, he said to me, “That’s the hardest piece I know. You need to find a new teacher.” I cried.

With him I had really enjoyed music again. I felt successful; I knew I was learning these songs because I wanted to and not because someone else was making me.

This time, when we went piano-teacher shopping we found a highly qualified teacher with a doctorate in music. I flourished and went on to earn two degrees in music.

Obviously, not every student will or should make a career out of music. A great deal of personal enrichment and opportunities to serve others can come from even a modest amount of musical education. Parents know this, and most of the parents I work with do not expect their children to become concert pianists. However, if they are being really honest, nearly all of them do have some type of expectation that their child will reach a level of success in piano that they value.

And so, it is always with a healthy dose of such feelings as anxiety, dashed hopes, frustration, powerlessness, or even hurt that they ask me this question, “Do you think I should let her quit?”

Not all parents come to this crisis, of course, but those that do nearly always hit it when their child is 13.

My answer is entirely dependent on the individual child.

Young teenagers know enough about life to grasp that their choices have consequences, and that some of them can be far-reaching. However, they are nowhere near mature enough to really understand all the ramifications of their choices. That’s the biggest reason they still need parents at that age.

They aren’t likely to accidentally poison themselves as a toddler may; they can fix their own food (though it may not be healthy); they are even physically able to do meaningful work, and could theoretically fend for themselves in many ways. But they still lack the wisdom requisite to make alone the choices that could affect them for the rest of their lives.

However, and here is the sticking point — they will never learn how to make those type of choices until they are given the opportunity to make them.

So, at what point do we push what we know is good for them, and at what point do we let them make the mistake?

In my work, when a child is clearly talented (and I believe this is just a stage of development they are going through), I recommend the parent stick it out, and the child will likely grow out of this desire to quit. I have seen that happen many times.

However, when the child is obviously much more interested in other things, and is talented at those other things, I ask the parent to consider why exactly they want the child to continue lessons. Is it for the child or for them?

Honestly, if quitting piano lessons (or football or dropping out of honors classes) is the mistake a child makes that teaches them about regret and long-term consequences, then a parent is pretty lucky. There are much more difficult ways to learn that lesson.

At some point, being a good parent means realizing when it is not the moment to parent. At some point it is the moment to let them gain their own wisdom, even if it is the hard way.

It is always the moment, however, to love them. Even when they don’t measure up to our expectations and hopes — in fact, maybe especially when they don’t.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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