This post is the second in a series called "Character and Musicianship." Read the first post about developing empathy through music lessons here.
"I'm thinking of switching to piano. Violin is so hard. I've heard piano is easier."
This is how a violin lesson began with a student recently. Her mom and I locked eyes over her head, unsure if we should laugh or weep. The student was justifiably struggling with practicing. It was the end of the year, she was wiped, and she wanted an easier route.
"I'm glad you find it hard," I told her. "If it's not hard, we aren't doing it right." Music lessons are actually Life Lessons, 101.
We post a lot of pictures of happy children smiling sweetly at the camera while sitting at the piano or holding their instrument. But truthfully, that's not always reality. I can testify first-hand that at home, there are tears, sweat, and blood poured out while practicing (okay, maybe not blood. Definitely the tears, though).
If you haven't read it yet, head on over to Business Insider and read this article about one parent's Hard Thing Rule. In psychologist Angela Duckworth's family, everyone has to be doing one hard thing (she's actually written an entire book on the topic of passion and perseverance, called "Grit"). The hard thing is classified as "something that requires practice, something where you're going to get feedback telling you how you can get better, and you're going to get right back in there and try again and again."
That, right there, is the reason kids need music lessons. Playing a musical instrument is hard. That's the point.
Now, this doesn't mean music lessons have to be unpleasant. The reverse is true, actually. Learning should be fun, engaging, and fascinating to young children. But if they are to truly feel empowered to overcome obstacles, they need to work through them, not step around them. My blog post, "How to get Your Child to Love Music" outlines this principle perfectly. Working hard to improve actually fosters a love for music.
When it comes to practicing, we try to provide as much support as possible to parents and students at Upper Beaches Music School (one of our most popular posts is this one by parent and music teacher Rhonda Hanson, in which she gives her top five practicing tips). Practicing can be fun, and it can be an excellent way to engage with your child. But the truth is, sometimes you just have to put your head down and do it. Sometimes, practicing is a chore. And there is a lesson in that too. Often, there's no getting around doing hard things.
Obviously, we don't just make our kids do hard things to torture them. We want them to learn that there is a high payoff for sticking to it when the going gets tough. Do you know how many students want to quit right before a recital? Lots. They're all so tired, and by this time, they've forgotten the high that came after the last recital. They're working the hardest they've worked all year (because it's really, really hard to get your piece from almost perfect to completely perfect- more on that later). They're sick of practicing the same old piece that they've been working on for ages.
And then, the recital happens. Do you know how many kids want to quit after the recital? Out of the kids that have worked hard, zero. They've played well, and they feel empowered by their choice to stick it out. The kids that didn't stick to practicing even when it was dull, and maybe even pulled out of the recital at the last minute, well... Those are the ones that hesitate to sign up for another year of lessons. There is no sweet fruit of labour if there was no labour.
"So, I've decided to stick with violin," my student told me the next week.
"I talked to my friends who play piano; they told me that piano is just as tough. " Schoolyard talk gets real.
I'm just glad that I'm not the only teacher who makes music lessons hard. After all, would it even be fun if they weren't at least slightly challenging?
Rebecca Lane is the director, founder, and owner of Upper Beaches Music School. She teaches at the school on Saturdays, but most days you can find her chasing after her three young children, one of whom is in the Suzuki violin program at UBMS.