Should You Force A Child To Study Music?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

My 5-year-old son started violin lessons last week, and he seems kind of, well, meh on the whole thing. My husband and I both play guitar and sing around the house, so he’s been exposed to lots of music from infancy. He likes to sing and requested the music lessons when a friend gave us a hand-me-down violin. But during the actual lesson, he clammed up and only grudgingly sang back the melodies the instructor taught him. It remains to be seen if he’ll want to continue, and if he’ll put in enough practice time to make the lessons “worth” it.

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My husband and I disagree on whether to force him to continue the lessons or not, even if he doesn’t want to. I feel like learning to play an instrument, read music and train one’s ear from an early age is a huge gift to give a child, even if he thinks in the moment that he doesn’t want it. I think that weekly lessons and daily practice should be mandatory—simply a part of his childhood, whether he wants it or not. My husband feels that music should be a joy and that children (and adults) should only proceed if they want to and only at a pace at which they feel comfortable.

Both of us, of course, are drawing on our own childhood experiences of music: We both had violin and piano lessons, but we weren’t forced to practice and were allowed to quit when we wanted to. We both picked up the guitar as adults; he quickly became quite expert at it, curse him, and I continue to plod along as an eternal beginner. He’s happy with his musical life and doesn’t regret stopping the childhood lessons, but I wish my mother had forced me to continue and forced me to practice. (Even as I write this, I can hear my mother saying, “You try to force an angry 10-year-old to go through her scales.”) So yeah, that may be a bit of wishful thinking on my part—it might not actually be all that easy to make a kid put in the hours it takes to be really good. If my son really pushes back against practicing and lessons, I might throw up my hands too.

For now, we’re trying to keep music fun—something we do as a family, singing silly songs we make up. He has an uncanny radar for us trying to “trick” him into a lesson, like when I sing scales to him and call it the “numbers song.” Only songs about trains will do for now. And one thing we do understand, at least a little bit, is the psychology of a 5-year-old boy: He’s allowed to stay up 20 minutes later than his 2-year-old brother, but only if he wants to play or sing a song with us. Also, the violin is his “special thing”—his brother isn’t allowed to touch it.

But there isn’t any reason why music shouldn’t continue to be fun. I’m not sure why I didn’t find music enjoyable as a child and now I do. (My husband helpfully points out that it’s because, as an adult, I have control over my time now, control over who the teacher is, control over what songs I learn, control over how much I practice. Children typically don’t have that kind of agency.) Even if he doesn’t want to continue with the violin, he can try other instruments or just enjoy singing with us. Even if he chucks music lessons entirely, I hope he’ll still be an active listener, letting music be a part of his life for the rest of his life. That alone would make it all worth it.

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