Sunday, December 21, 2008

Don’t Quit Music Lessons

I started learning to the play the piano when I was about five years old. I remember seeing a group of beautiful pianos at the Illinois State Fair and I told my mom that I wanted to be able to play. She asked, “Really!? If we were to get one would you practice?” Of course, I said I would practice since I had no idea what I was getting myself into at that young age. They bought a piano and I started taking lessons.

My first lesson was with Mrs. Atterberry who was in her young nineties. She taught me how to play a very simple tune so that I could leave my first lesson with success. She was my teacher for a few years and then she died. I had a little time off from lessons while my parents found me a new teacher, Mrs. Weyhrich. She was patient and extremely talented. She could play the music with her left hand even though it was meant for her right and she could read any and all music at first site…. I know, ‘cause I tested this. She was amazing. She remained my music teacher until we moved out of the area when I was sixteen. She later became my daughter’s music teacher until she retired.

Throughout the years of learning to play the piano I had moments when I loved it and moments when I hated it. Sometimes it was enjoyable and sometimes I thought it was torture. I remember during practice times I would arch my back over the bench with my feet holding me up by pressing on the piano. I would hang upside down until my mom would yell from the other room, “I don’t hear any practicing!”

The advantage to learning a musical instrument while young is that we have someone like my mom reminding us, nudging us and not letting us give up. I’m sure that many times during the years I would have been satisfied to quit the demands of learning to play the piano. My mom had started taking lessons when I did and she never finished. When my daughter began learning to play the violin I, too, started taking lessons with her. Like my mom with the piano, I never finished learning to play the violin. I can play as much violin as my mom can play piano.

When we are learning something through our youth we forget once we are adults all those years of practicing, the feeling of never accomplishing anything of value, the struggles to overcome the desire to quit. Once we are adults we either need to persevere on our own or surrender to our desire to quit. We no longer have a mom to remind us that we need to practice and enforce our progress.

For everything we learn there is a hill to overcome. We get to this point where we feel there is no way we will ever learn what we are struggling to learn. During that moment it is no fun, we loose interest and sometimes feel it’s hopeless. So, we tell our parents we are no longer interested. When, in fact, we just need to keep going until it does turn around. The feeling of finally mastering that which we once thought was hopeless and struggled through and wondered if we would overcome, outweighs those previous doubts. It’s exhilarating. It makes it easier next time to have faith that it will all come together.

If only I had a nickel every time I had someone come to me and share that they wished they knew how to play the piano or wished they had never quit. I’ve never had anyone ever share that they quite and it was the best thing they had ever done. They are always expressing regret.

Have you ever noticed that parents with musical talent also have children with musical talent? It’s not because they are born that way. At birth the doctor doesn’t say to the parents, “Yep, this one’s a born musician!” No, they had parents who understood that there are always those difficult moments when quitting is attractive but they need to overcome instead. They don’t let their children quit. That’s all it takes, not quitting.

Well, I should be more truthful. Not quitting will create a musician, but perfect practicing will make a competent artist. Practiced doesn’t make perfect, it makes habits. Perfect practice makes perfect. When I was in college and took a sociology class I decided I was going to get a head start and read the first couple of chapters. During my first class I learned I had been given the wrong book and those chapters were not in the new book. I was grateful for having read them because they explained this very point. Gold medalists and master musicians and all of the other talent we watch throughout the world didn’t happen because they practice non-stop or that they had some advantage of being born that way. They excelled in what they do because each and every time they practiced they practiced perfectly. If we practice imperfectly, we develop imperfect habits. Instead, every move, every note, every effort is made to create perfection. It isn’t the number of reps, it’s the quality of the move.

I can remember in fifth grade I practiced a song over and over and over again. Each time I made a mistake I started the entire song over from the beginning. I did that for weeks. When I performed the song at a school program I wasn’t even nervous. I shared that with my mom and she said it was because I had practiced it so much. I didn’t even realize what I had done that was so right. Looking back I realize that I had practiced perfectly and didn’t accept anything less.

A few years ago I heard a parent explain the reason they allowed their child to quit was because they were no longer interested in music. Well, that isn’t true. I found this an interesting argument to justify her decision. I can see that a lot of parents probably allow their children to quit music lessons because they’ve convinced themselves, or their children have claimed that they are simply no longer interested. Let’s look at that for a second. The music industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Millions tune into American Idol and vote every year. MP3 players, stereo equipment, and musical instruments sell off the charts. ITunes makes gobs of money selling just one song at a time.

Then, there are ways that we use music to our advantage. We start our worship meetings with appropriate music to set the mood. We go to the store and they have music playing to set the mood. We attend a motivational seminar and they have exciting energy driving music playing to set the mood. Our favorite pop stars tour and sell out tickets to their fans. Bands and talented artists work their fingers and voices to the bone trying to succeed in the industry.

I could go on forever about the impact and depth to which music is involved in our lives. Yet, somehow, this one son is simply no longer interested in learning his instrument. He is the one and only exception to the music craze. NOT! He simply met that point of resistance where it became work and not so much fun. He met the learning curve and decided he didn’t want to, wasn’t sure if he could, and had a momentary loss of memory for why he was even doing this. This is the moment NOT to quit. Children need these opportunities throughout their childhood to teach them perseverance. Learning now to quit when times get tough and we are no longer interested only begins a habit of response that they follow throughout their lives. Let them learn now that they are made of more than they realize and don’t let them quit. They will eventually realize that they really do like it. When that time comes they will have a skill they will be glad they have.

I can remember those days when I hated playing the piano. By the time I made it to my teenage years I could play some beautiful and complicated music. Every time I was bored I played the piano. If I was stressed I played the piano. I used it as an outlet for my emotions. I was grateful for the ability and skill to be able to express myself and it gave me confidence. But, I wouldn’t have had that pleasure had my parents allowed me to give up when things were tough, during the times I hated it, or if they believed it just wasn’t for me.

I’m grateful that my parents never let me give up. I hope that some doubting parent reads this and decides not to let their child give up, either. Then, they will appreciate not being the person who wished they had never quit. They will be grateful for their talent and perseverance.