Should You MAKE Your Child Practice an Instrument?
[Today’s article was written by Melanie Wilson and is part of the 31 Days of Music in Our Homeschool Series.]
Your younger child is whining that he doesn’t like to practice his instrument. It’s a daily battle. Or your older child is telling you that she wants to quit taking lessons after years of practice. But you can see her talent! What should you do? Should you MAKE your child practice an instrument?
I’ve dealt with these questions many times over the past 16 years of homeschooling and I continue to. Of course, I can’t make the decision for you, but I can give you some information that can help you make the decision that’s right for your family. Some of the research I did for this article changed my thinking. Maybe it will change yours, too.
Determine Why You Want Your Child to Play an Instrument
If we’re being completely honest, we sometimes want our child to play an instrument for selfish reasons:
- We play an instrument and want to be able to play together
- We never played or we quit and we want our child to do better than we did
- We’d like to show off the musical talent, especially to those who aren’t pro-homeschooling
Selfish reasons aren’t the best basis on which to insist your child practice an instrument. I play the piano and initially had visions of being able to play and sing with my children as I did with my mother. That dream hasn’t been realized and that’s okay. Some of my boys have a vision of me snowboarding with them and I don’t see that happening either!
When my oldest son wanted to quit playing piano, it wasn’t a difficult decision. I also quit playing piano twice as a child. The first time I quit I found myself playing an hour a day for the joy of it. I hated the music in my lessons and the obligation of practicing. I returned to lessons by choice a year later. As an adult I took lessons from an in-home instructor who was giving lessons to my sons. I progressed quickly and absolutely loved it. Two years after allowing my son to quit piano, he asked to resume lessons and like me, became completely enamored with playing.
Showing off my children’s musical talent hasn’t been a personal temptation. My family and friends are supportive of homeschooling. But even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t want them to play to validate me. The problem is kids KNOW that’s why you want them to play. They will rebel. Maybe they will continue to play if you insist, but they will likely rebel against homeschooling later–an even more embarrassing display for your unsupportive family.
Selfish reasons aren’t typically the problem when deciding if we should make our child practice an instrument.
We want our children to play an instrument for their own benefit.
- We believe it will be an enjoyable hobby in adulthood
- We believe it will make them more intelligent
- We are hopeful that they and others will benefit from their talent
There are reasons to question the beliefs we have about the benefits of music practice. I do play piano now, but honestly, not very often. I am glad I know how to play, however, as playing has been a source of joy and stress relief for me through the years. But it turns out, that I am fairly atypical. The truth is that most people who played an instrument in childhood do not play it now. Will your child be the exception?
We’ve all heard that musical training raises IQ. It turns out that children who take music lessons come from parents who have higher IQs AND have personality traits that lend to them being better students. What that means is that your child will likely be just as intelligent without musical training. See more on this in the next section.
But what about talent education? In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that thousands of hours of practice is what creates talent. As a result, many homeschool parents have become convinced that their child must keep practicing. But a study of identical twins who practiced their instrument frequently or infrequently found that their musical skills were essentially the same. This research suggests that musical talent is largely inherited, even though practice is required to hone skills. Further, studies show that genetics can even determine whether a child WANTS to practice an instrument.
When considering the talents we want our children to develop, Jonathan Harris advises that we consider future prospects. How many opportunities will there be for our adult child to play the violin, for example? Is practicing the best use of a child’s time for his future and for service to God’s kingdom? These are questions to consider and pray about.
Why and how to encourage your child to practice an instrument
There are good reasons to encourage your child to practice an instrument aside from those I’ve already discussed:
- It’s educational
- It teaches character
- It’s enjoyable
Just because practicing an instrument is unlikely to raise your child’s IQ doesn’t mean that practicing isn’t education. Reading history probably doesn’t increase IQ either, but we still teach it to our children. Music expands the repertoire of a child’s knowledge base and is an excellent foundation for a child’s future potential musical interests.
Practicing and working to overcome plateaus and challenges can teach a child to overcome difficulties in life. Regular practice sessions teach a child the benefits of scheduling time for achieving important goals.
As soon as a child is proficient, she will likely begin to enjoy playing the kind of music she likes. Because we know practice is required to get to that point with an instrument, we may want our child to continue practicing.
If you want your child to practice, consider:
- Starting a child on an instrument when he is young. Research shows younger players are more likely to continue.
- Encouraging your child to believe that she is good at playing. Studies suggest that the better a child feels about her ability, the more likely she is to practice.
- Allowing your child freedom. The more freedom I have given my children to change instruments, choose a means of study (group lessons, individual lessons, independent lessons via YouTube), and select music to play, the more they have been willing to practice.
- Creating a family culture of music. If everyone practices an instrument, the more likely it is that your child will see practice as a part of life.
- Focusing on the joy of playing. Research suggests that young musicians who play because it’s enjoyable instead of for a concert or to impress grandma will play more.
My second son took piano lessons when he was too young and struggled. The teacher suggested he quit, but because his older brother was continuing to play, he wanted to keep playing, too. After a couple of years, I noticed he wasn’t practicing. I told him he had to decide whether he was going to practice or quit. He decided to quit. A few years later, he asked to learn guitar. I enrolled him in a group homeschool lesson for a year. He didn’t like it, but was inspired to watch YouTube videos to learn. He continued independent practice and did a few months’ worth of lessons with an individual teacher.
He continued practicing hours a day. I asked him if he would consider playing with our youth praise band at church and he said he would. He started attending practices once a week. He taught himself the ukulele and most recently the electric guitar. What surprised me most was when he started playing piano again. As I have struggled to motivate my younger children to practice instruments, he has been a great advisor. “Teach them to play the kind of music they like.” It’s working!
Have you changed your mind about making your child practice an instrument? Why or why not?
Dr. Melanie Wilson is a Christian psychologist turned homeschooling mother of six. She shares sanity-saving ideas at Psychowith6.com and her podcast, The Homeschool Sanity Show. She is also the author of The Organized Homeschool Life: A Week-By-Week Guide to Homeschool Sanity and So You’re Not Wonder Woman?: How Your Super Power Can Change Your Life.
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