How I killed my son’s love for piano (a cautionary tale about motivation)

MarcilieCooperation, Empathy, Encouragement, Kind and Firm Parenting, Letting Go, Positive Parenting, Responsibility6 Comments

I grew up in a home with two pianos, one organ, and hundreds (thousands?) of small hands muddling through and eventually mastering Suzuki, Hanon finger exercises, and Bach Inventions over the years.

Seriously, the (often unpleasant) sound of kids practicing piano was constant, since my Mom taught lessons after school as well as before, and before the students arrived, my three older brothers and I were required to practice ourselves – – starting at 5:00am so we could all get our time in before breakfast.

Did I mention that one of the pianos resided in the unheated basement (in Utah)? Yes, there was a space heater down there but I have vivid memories of practicing while enveloped in a blanket that kept falling off my shoulders.

Do you hear resentment? (Eek!)

Despite the cacophony, cold fingers, and hour-long commutes to my own piano lessons in Provo, I appreciated and enjoyed my skill and felt like a competent musician.

I quit after college but purchased my own piano as soon as I had the money and space for it.

And the narrative I had about music practice stayed with me. It went something like this:

“Music is about hard work, putting in the time, breaking things down, persistence, performance, and practice, practice, practice. Music teaches discipline and builds grit. It teaches math. Music performance earns recognition and admiration. Music practice is essential to having success.”

It’s kind of ironic, then, that when my piano-teaching mom created a week-long music summer camp for my four-year-old son and his same-aged cousins, she called it, “Music is Fun!” (I had somehow missed the fun part in my narrative.)

This was my son’s first experience with music instruction and it was followed by private weekly piano lessons when he entered kindergarten.

Like most first-time parents, I was committed to my child’s success. We read together regularly. I took him on educational field trips. Our cupboards were filled with educational puzzles, games, and yes, flashcards.

And pretty much every day, I sat with him during piano practice. I was also (apparently) committed to him living out my own history with piano:

  • Sit down every day.
  • Practice seriously for a long time.
  • Until you get it right.
  • Even if you’re cold and the blanket falls off your shoulders.

(I am proud to say, however, that I did NOT require him to get up before the sun rose!)

I could tell that my son had talent. His ear was perfect. He could sing like an angel. Rhythms came naturally. He had a spark! Music was in him and I was determined to help it blossom.

Piano lessons and practice went on even throughout the summers until he was in 3rd grade.

And then, the rebellion began. It sounded something like this:

Me: “Sit down at the piano now.”

Son: “I’m too exhausted. I can’t do it.”

Me: “Yes you can, just sit and get it done.”

Son: “No.”

Me: “Yes.”

Son: “No.”

Me: “Sit down and just get 20 minutes in. Then you can have computer time.”

Son: Silence. No movement.

Me: Long lecture about how talented he was, how sometimes it’s not fun but it’s worth it in the long run, how music teaches so many wonderful skills like math and discipline and blah blah blah blah.

And then finally,

Me: “You’ll do it now or no computer time at all.”

I hadn’t yet learned about Positive Discipline and was relying on my old bag of tricks: coaxing, lecturing, demanding, bribes, threats … all that good stuff.

I was absolutely determined to mold him into the pianist I knew he could be. I wasn’t going to give up easily.

And so we fought. A lot.

Every day was a battle. And every day we both lost even if I could get him to practice.

Our relationship was deteriorating and my attempts to “motivate” only made him love piano less.

Eventually, he told me that he wanted to quit.

While thinking through how I might convince or strongarm my son into continuing, I ran into his classmate’s musician parent. I was certain the parent would validate my position when I told him all the reasons I wanted my son to stick with it:

“Music teaches so many wonderful skills and builds character, too. It teaches discipline and builds grit. Music teaches math. Music performance earns recognition and admiration. He can’t see that now, but he’s going to regret it if he quits.”

The parent, a bass player (and professional real estate developer), replied, “It’s true, music teaches so many wonderful skills.”

But then his smile and crinkled eyebrows conveyed confusion as he asked,

“But how about joy? Isn’t music also about expression, creativity, and joy? Where’s the joy?”

It was like a lightning bolt to my soul. Where WAS the joy?

In my determination to mold a disciplined, competent, gritty musician, I’d killed the joy. I’d also done some serious damage to our relationship.

And I realized right then that it was indeed time (for me) to quit.

We let go of piano lessons. I took my first Positive Discipline parenting class. I focused on investing in a connected, mutually respectful relationship with my son (and I’m still working on it).

My son’s two younger sisters did still take up the piano. But they did so in a very different way and continue to play today (although my oldest daughter has recently taken up bass lessons in college!)

Two years after he quit piano and out of the blue (to me, anyway) my son asked if he could take drum lessons. “Why not?” I thought.

Fortunately, I knew nothing about drums and couldn’t have “helped” him if I’d wanted to.

I’d also learned my lesson about pushing too hard and the downside of valuing results more than the relationship. So, the drums were entirely his thing.

He’s now a senior at a music conservatory and university. He’s majoring in jazz performance, drumkit. He’s also been taking piano lessons at school.

Go figure.


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6 Comments on “How I killed my son’s love for piano (a cautionary tale about motivation)”

  1. Dear Marcilie, thank you always for being so honest about your insightful parenting experiences and sharing them so generously for the greater good. This one is a gem!

  2. Wow. You had me at “I started my son on piano at 4.” Very useful words for me to hear since I tried the same thing

  3. This articles has not come a better time than now. One of the parents in my parenting class just asked about how to deal with her 9 year old daughter’s rebellious behavior when practicing piano. There is no joy at all and instead, there is a lot of pain and hurt in their relationship. I will share your article with her.

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