From A Music Teacher And Parent Of Musical Kids — Don’t Force Your Kid To Take Music Lessons (Do This Instead)

by Kristen Mae
A boy lying on a couch next to a violin

I have been the parent of the child who does not want to practice violin today, or ever, but I made him do it anyway. I have been the teacher of a child who does not want to take music lessons, and yet their parent demanded it.

I shouldn’t have tried to teach my son violin at age seven. He was too energetic and fidgety, and our personalities didn’t match as teacher and student. I let him stop after a few months of frustration and tears from both me and him. A year later, when he expressed an interest in learning guitar, we bought him a guitar and signed him up for lessons. He’s been playing guitar for eight years, and about a year and a half ago figured out he can also play piano by ear.

My daughter started on piano at age seven and got frustrated with it after a few nerve-paralyzing performances. I let her quit and a year later began teaching her violin myself, per her request. She still doesn’t want to perform solo, but she began playing with the local youth symphony this year.

As a violin teacher, my feelings are never hurt if a kid decides they no longer want to learn violin. Forcing the issue won’t make them want to learn. In my experience, it does the opposite — it makes them develop resentment toward the instrument, their parents, and even music as an activity in general.

Whether they’re my own children or one of the 70-ish private students to whom I’ve given lessons over the last 20 years, I’ve found that the best way to get a kid to learn an instrument is to expose them to music and instruments and simply offer lessons as an option. If it’s something they’re going to take an interest in, it’ll happen.

But forcing a kid to take lessons puts a teacher in the awkward spot of dealing with a grumpy, sometimes bratty kid who clearly doesn’t want to learn. I’ve had a couple of students literally throw themselves on the floor in protest. I don’t blame the kid — I understand their frustration. They’ve made their wishes clear and no one is listening to them. This isn’t math or reading, a subject all their peers are learning and they need to learn too. Learning a musical instrument is a complicated, frustrating endeavor. You have to really want to learn.

That said, if you’re dying to have your kid learn an instrument, here are a few tips to help nudge your kid toward developing the intrinsic motivation to do so:

Point Out The Music Around You

When watching a movie as a family, point out the soundtrack and talk about what the movie would feel like without any music, or with a different kind of music. Many people don’t notice movie soundtracks, but without them, movie scenes fall hilariously flat.

Listen to all kinds of different music in the car. Invest in quality speakers for your home (you don’t have to spend much to get clear treble and thumping bass) so that you can hear the different elements of complex music. It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing. Just play the music.

Keep Musical Instruments Around

The easiest instruments to learn are piano and guitar. Both can be found very cheap, if not free. Though, with a piano, even if it’s free (shoutout to Facebook Marketplace) you will need to pay a piano mover and tuner to transport it and get it in working order. These two services generally add up to between $400 and $600, depending on where you live. If you’re not sure what to check for when looking over a piano, ask a musical friend or the music teacher at your kid’s school to help you out.

You can get by with a keyboard, but an actual piano (or a keyboard with a sustain pedal) is more likely to draw a kid to the piano bench. No judgment here — obviously not everyone can afford a piano or an expensive keyboard. This is just an observation I’ve made that I’m passing along to parents who are eager to motivate their kids to learn music.

As for guitars, you can usually find used ones online for as little as $50, sometimes even less. Guitar strings are inexpensive to replace, and there are tons of tuning apps to help you keep it in tune.

You don’t have to sign up for lessons at first. Especially with piano, lots of kids will simply gravitate toward it and start figuring out which keys play what notes. And YouTube has thousands of videos offering instruction for simple songs. This is how my son started out.

Provide Opportunities To See Live Music

Take your kids to small community performances, like a quartet performing at the local library or a band playing at a local festival. Even small towns often have surprisingly robust music scenes, and trust me when I say, performers love when kids show up. A caveat: Avoid stuffy classical concerts before your kids are ready. Traditional programs require a lot of sitting still and being quiet and can be tedious for little ones.

Find A Teacher Whose Energy Complements Your Child’s

Once your kid shows an interest in learning more, offer to find them a teacher. If they seem to have a natural affinity and are determined to learn, you’ll want to find a teacher who has experience and high expectations. If your kid just wants to learn how to dabble and has zero interest in playing on a stage in front of strangers, find a laid-back teacher who is on board with this approach. If you don’t want to participate in your child’s daily practice but the teacher expects you to, that’s not a good fit. Any good teacher will not be insulted if, after a couple of trial lessons, you opt to go with someone else. We know the importance of personalities meshing.

Approach Practice With “When-Then” Language — And Start Small

Often, a kid’s resistance is not about hating their instrument or hating practicing in a general sense. They may simply be resisting the perceived cost of giving up their time to practicing. If they’d be able to play video games or join the neighbors outside if only it weren’t for practice, they’re not going to want to practice. Even most adults would have trouble with a trade-off like that.

So you can say, “Once you get your 10 minutes of practice in, then you can go outside to play.” Ten minutes per day is plenty for a beginner. After a few months, increase it to 15, and so on. Allow for a day or two off per week. That way if your kid is resisting practice, you can say, “No problem! You want today to be your day off?” That puts the choice in their hands.

Encourage The Noise

If your kid picks up a musical instrument, your house is going to get louder. Sometimes the sounds your child makes with their instrument will make you want to tear your ears right off. Resist the urge to shush them. Even if you hate it, tell your kid you absolutely love listening to them practice. Ask them to perform. Ask them to play a song again because you loved it so much. Ask if you can record them. Ask if they’ll accompany you while you cook dinner. One day, you’ll make a request like this and realize you’re being 100% sincere.