Commit or Quit?
Updated: May 17
What will you do when your child tells you she wants to quit music lessons?
Because, let's face it, the likelihood is that, at some point (or points), they will want to quit, so we might as well be prepared for the conversation.
Music lessons (and the practicing they require) are not completely, 100% fun all the time. There are complex skills involved, both physical and intellectual, for every instrument; skills that don't come easily or intuitively. For every breakthrough, there is often a long period of feeling "stuck." Most of the time, when kids say they want to quit lessons, it actually means they want to quit practicing.
Unfortunately, it is the practicing that eventually allows the playing part to be so much fun! And it can take years of lessons to get to the point where a student is truly self-motivated to keep playing and practicing and learning. So many students quit before they reach that point... and those are the students who come back to Between the Lines as adults saying "I took piano lessons as a kid, and I wish I hadn't quit, because I really want to be able to play!" Of course it is possible to learn to play as an adult, but it's a bit harder, because adult brains are somewhat less elastic, and because adults tend to have more other responsibilities pulling them away from practice.
So... what do you say when you hear the words "I want to quit"? Well, it depends on a few factors.
What was the original agreement about taking these lessons?
I encourage parents, students, and teachers to make an agreement at the beginning of the lesson process. The agreement should include a minimum term. I have had students take one or two lessons, and then the parent calls me to tell me that their child isn't having fun, and wants to quit. Two weeks of lessons is not enough time to make that decision. If a full school year seems like too long a commitment to start with, then maybe the fall term, for example. Agree to take lessons until Christmas, say, and then renegotiate. But having that agreement in place will help to avoid a student quitting over a momentary frustration.
The agreement should also include responsibilities for all parties: the parent agrees to monitor and assist with practicing (and the teacher agrees to provide the parent with the skills to meaningfully assist), the student agrees to daily practicing (the length of practicing is not particularly important, especially at first... it's the fact of making priority time every day to practice that sets the habit and good work ethic) and the teacher agrees to change some of the repertoire, if required, to make the lessons and practicing more fun for the student.
Why does the student want to quit?
The songs/scales/exercises/worksheets are too boring/easy/hard. This is an issue to bring up with the teacher. Any good teacher should be able to alter or add material that the student will like better than what's in the method book. They may recommend a supplementary book that has level-appropriate versions of popular songs, or they may be able to make such an arrangement themselves. They may need to find a different way to explain rhythmic notation, if the student doesn't understand. In this case, the first step should not be to quit, but to discuss the problem with the teacher, student and parent all together to find a solution.
The teacher is mean/too tough/treats me like a baby/etc. No teacher likes to think that a student doesn't like them, or their methods. But I assure you, we'd like it even less if we knew that a student missed out on the joy of playing music for a lifetime because of us. If a student isn't making a connection with one teacher, they may well make a great connection with a different one. So if, after a month or two, your child wants to quit because of the teacher, start looking for another teacher. Enlist your current teacher's help, if you can. We really have your child's best interests at heart, and if we're not the right fit, we might have an idea who might be. (In fact, teachers who like and respect each other but know they have very different teaching styles often recommend students back and forth to try to find the best fit.)
I don't have time. This is by far the most complicated one, since sometimes it's actually true. Parents want to give their children every experience and every opportunity, which sometimes results in kids being over-programmed and overwhelmed. Learning to play an instrument does take time, and some of that time is out-of-class practice time (even if that's just a few minutes a day). At some point, there actually isn't enough time to do it all! If your child is really at that point, then something has to give, and while I'd hope that it wasn't the music lessons to be cut, that's not my decision.
I feel like I don't have time. Usually, though, this is a great opportunity to teach some time management and (referring back to your original agreement) find a way to make the time commitments work. It also often requires some parental policing of what the activity priorities are. Last week I had a student complain that she can't practice because big brother is playing XBox Live and the piano makes it too hard to hear his co-gamers on the headset. I'm sure the parents had no idea that this was going on, but if your child is having trouble finding time to practice, it may be time to lay down a few rules about what trumps what in the hierarchy of after-school activities. (I would assume that practicing piano probably outranks playing video games, and the gamer is the one who should take a break while the practicing happens.) Learning the self-discipline of practicing (even when we don't feel like it) is one of the greatest benefits of having taken music lessons. And steady, patient practicing will get the student past whatever the current frustration is and back into the fun of playing music!
I'm not good at it/it's too hard. Well, isn't that the point of the lessons in the first place? I don't mean to be glib, but learning to play an instrument isn't easy. Even the students who breeze through the first year often come upon a challenge at a more advanced point and get even more frustrated because they don't understand why it's suddenly not coming easily. Yes. Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes your fingers won't do what they're supposed to do. Sometimes you want to saw the piano in half with a chainsaw... but you don't. You persevere. It's not supposed to be easy, and everyone struggles at some point. It is important for us to realize that sometimes, the things that are hardest to attain are the most valuable once we attain them.
Instructor Adam Jones
I believe that music is an integral part of being a member of the human race.
As such, I, personally, would no more imagine quitting music lessons than quitting Math, or History, or English. Of course, I'm the fourth generation of music educators in my family, so my feelings about the importance of music education may not be yours.
But regardless of the relative priority of music lessons in your home, the process of learning an instrument is a challenge that prepares us for other long-term challenges we will face in our lives. Not all (in fact, very few) of us will take up music as a career. But all of us will have tasks and challenges that take a long time to master, and being able to use the problem solving skills developed through music lessons will make those challenges easier to overcome. Consider that before you allow your child to quit taking music lessons.