My 13-year-old singer wants to quit piano lessons

I'd love to let her quit so that we can stop fighting about it, but I know she'll regret it if she does.

By Cary Tennis

Published June 21, 2007 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When does one stop pushing music lessons on kids? My 13-year-old daughter is an all-around straight-A student. She performs in Los Angeles musical theater; she has an incredible singing voice. Outside of school, I pushed the private ballet and piano lessons from the time she was 5. When she dislocated a knee around the time she would have been moving on to pointe shoes, we took it as a sign that we had no other choice but to stop pushing in that area. Although she complained about taking ballet, I felt it was my responsibility to provide the motivation and continuity early on.

Her voice blossomed without warning when she was 10, and I enrolled her in private voice lessons once a week. She is now doing work in the recording studio and has great potential as a serious young singer.

Here's the thing. She loves the voice lessons but hates the piano lessons. I know how important it is to continue both if one should decide to pursue music as a career. She knows this, as well, but when she hears about an upcoming piano lesson, she becomes nearly apoplectic, writhing and gnashing, blaming me for ruining what was an otherwise great day. I am so tired of this that I am more than willing to stop the piano lessons. I feel that she will regret this, however, some day, and wish that I had pushed a little longer.

When is it OK to stop forcing and pushing lessons she hates? I know I wish my own mother had forced ballet on me more. She stopped when I complained at 13.

Tired of Yakking

Dear Tired of Yakking,

Maybe this is a good thing that she hates her piano lessons right now. Maybe this is her miracle moment -- not that she hates music, but that she is ready to begin using music to express her emerging self and the teacher is preventing that.

Maybe the music teacher wants her to wear old wooden shoes.

It hurts when you outgrow your shoes.

Kids endure. But they act out at home. They writhe and scream as if they were being tortured!

Because they are. They're being prevented from growing, and that is a kind of torture.

Oh come on, it's just a piano lesson. Yeah, I know. That's so melodramatic.

But I remember.

OK, take me for example. I loved nothing more than the classical guitar lessons I was getting -- from a true master, I might add. And yet I hit a bad spot. I developed a resentment against the teacher because he commented on my hair. How stupid is that? But I was 13! I was growing my hair long! I was going to be a hippie! I was emerging as a person and wanted to express myself! He was a redneck! He was a genius but he was a redneck. So I got all huffy and bullshitted my parents and they let me quit. And that quitting was a radical rupture. It was a failing. I had adolescent stuff happening that needed to be taken account of in that relationship, in that musical relationship, but instead the situation was too rigid.

If she's a musician, she has to keep playing. But maybe she needs to play something whose technical requirements are low enough that she can be expressive of her emerging self. Maybe she needs to play the blues, or rock 'n' roll, or pop songs.

Does she play and sing at the same time? If her voice is her primary instrument, maybe she needs to start playing and singing together.

Is that allowed? Would that ruin her for the Met?

Maybe some loosening up needs to happen.

Is there any way you can take some of the pressure off but keep her going to lessons? What about making them once every two weeks for a while? And what about making them fun? Is that possible?

Is the teacher amenable to changing her approach for a while? Can you talk to the teacher about what is going on?

And why not take a look at these tips from a teacher on how to keep a kid from giving up on lessons.

It would be different if your daughter were not already a talented musician. But she is. So if she has reached a point where she needs to express herself with the piano, it may indeed be torture playing scales and arpeggios and little learning tunes. So, again, if you can talk to the teacher and if there can be some flexibility, so that your daughter can actually progress as an expressive musician, then great. Make some room within that piano-lesson space for her being, for her emotions.

So what is the harm if for a few lessons she slacks off, or the piano teacher and she simply listen to some music together, or eat sandwiches together, or talk about what she's listening to on the radio?

And if the teacher wants to stay on the same track, if she can't respond to the child as a human being, then maybe you need a new teacher.

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