Thursday, April 2, 2009

If music be the food of love, play on!

Recently, I had a chat with a mum whose daughter was taking piano lessons but didn't seem to be very interested. She would drag her feet when it came to lesson time and hardly practised except when her mum nagged her to do so. Her mum was contemplating letting her stop her piano lessons but was undecided and wanted to know my views.

On the surface, this appears to be a no-brainer - no interest, stop. But having taken piano lessons for over 10 years and given some piano lessons here and there, my experience tells me that the situation is slightly more complex than it seems. You see, learning to play an instrument involves HARD WORK. After the initial euphoria of being able to play a tune dies down, having to spend hours at the piano hammering away at the same old piece just to get it right can be tedious and at times, downright frustrating. So after a couple of years, the motivation to practise tends to wane and you'll find that your kid seems to have lost interest.

The truth is, very few kids, safe for your music prodigies, enjoy practising. My personal opinion is that learning an instrument requires more patience than say dance or sports because the progress tends to be slower and the practice portion not as enjoyable. So what you deem as a lack of interest in music could just be a lack of interest in practising, the latter of which probably applies to 99% of kids.

When I was in primary school, many of my classmates took up piano lessons. By p6, about half of them have dropped out. I begged my mother to let me do the same because the lessons and practising were eating into my leisure time. Basically, I wanted to have more time to play. Being the authoritarian mum, she said "no". And looking back, I thank God she made that decision because in truth, I love music, I love being able to play the piano, and it has given me many hours of enjoyment.

What all this has taught me is that when our kids claim to have "lost interest" in music, dig deeper into what they're saying and don't be too quick to take it at face value. I often hear adults saying they regret giving up music lessons when they were younger and wished their parents had forced them to continue. Would you want your child to look back years from now and think the same thing? It's not a clearcut decision, so my suggestions on what you can do are as follows.

First, examine what it is that your child doesn't like. Is it the practising? Or the exams? Or is it really the music itself? If it's the last one, then by all means, let him stop lessons. But my feeling is that often, you can't really tell, especially at the early stage. For both my kids, I tell them that they have to learn until Grade 5 (although they need not take exams at every grade before that). To me, Grade 5 is like the PSLE. It's a milestone, albeit an artificial one. It certifies that you have reached a certain level of maturity and understanding in the subject. Once you have reached Grade 5, you would be better able to assess your true feelings about music or the instrument. (Coincidentally, when I was talking to Lesley-Anne's ballet teacher, she said the same thing about ballet - only at Grade 5 can kids really make the call as to whether they enjoy dancing).

Lesley-Anne has been on the fence about music for a few years, her true passion is ballet. But she dutifully followed through her lessons until she passed her Grade 5 exams in both theory and practical last year. I, of course, had always hoped that she would continue because she's very musical, but since I had told her I would leave the decision to her beyond Grade 5, I had to respect that. So when the results for the Grade 5 theory came back, I asked her what she had decided (with bated breath). She said she had thought about it and decided she would continue learning, but without exams. Hallelujah! Can you tell I'm pleased? And once she had taken ownership of that decision, I found that she now practises more on her own.

Andre is now at the Grade 2 level and starting to be lazy about practising. He says he doesn't like exams and I'm willing to let him skip a few, but the Grade 5 rule still holds.

You can also try other ways of keeping the interest going, like ensuring that your child's teacher makes lessons fun. Taking exams every year can put a dampener on interest because most of the time is spent on exam preparation rather than enjoyment of the music, so one possibility is to minimise exams. You can read my earlier post on my kids' music experiences.

Letting your kid learn music (or anything for that matter) is a commitment that your kid has to agree to. I feel, and this is again only my opinion, that if you feel the interest is not there to begin with or your child won't be able to put in the requisite time, then DON'T START. Otherwise, you'll be caught in the dilemma later as to whether to force him to continue against his wishes or allow him to quit, which sends the negative message that quitting is ok when things get difficult or boring. Once your child understands and agrees to the commitment of having lessons, do persevere even if at times, it may be tough going. That's how you build resilience and determination.


Alcovelet said...

Mon, your post is a godsend! I'm facing a similar issue now, but for something he's gonna continue no matter what (*tightening my jaw*)- Chinese class!

A lot of it is about the reasons outside the lessons themselves, like yup, cutting into playtime or the hassle of having to go to class! Aside from the reasons you listed, they also have to learn that they can't indulge in their own whims all the time, and that there are expectations that they must live up to. I don't mean they must become a star pianist or an ace student, but the expectation is that they must persevere. Life is all about that.

monlim said...

Good for you, Ad! Something like chinese is even harder cos it's not optional. So even if they have no interest, they still don't have a choice. We can try and make lessons as interesting as possible but yes, definitely must continue!

Jo said...

Ah...the practising for piano exams....I think it can really kill a child's enthusiasm & interest. My experience is no different. My elder daughter loves to play ANYTHING except her exam stuff. Since she learnt to play her scales & pieces earlier this year she seems "tired" of playing them - and I don't even expect her to practise daily. She is only doing Grade 1 ... the long road head...sigh.

She definitely loves music and loves to play all sorts of other tunes...but when it comes to the exam stuff I think she's actually bored with the repetitive playing. Also, she's the moody type...confirmed by her piano her standard of playing varies from week to week. Meanwhile, I have to remind her to practise as often as she can.

I myself didn't complete the higher grades...I was a late starter and decided to stop once I was in upper secondary to concentrate on my studies. Nowadays kids are starting so early...did you read the article in today's Life section of the 6-yr old doing Grade 5 ? Amazing !

Elan said...

I hated piano lessons and my mum, like yours insisted I had to continue. I actually wanted ballet lessons instead and she "conned" me into piano by saying that I could have ballet lessons after passing Grade 8 piano! (Stupid me, didn't realise I would be too old by then).
I started lessons in Primary 1 and failed Grade 4 so many times that I was in Sec 4 and about to do "O" levels when my mum finally realised my utter lack of talent and musicality, the futility of it all and agreed to let me stop. The only part I truly enjoyed were the theory lessons, I loved learning all the foreign terms. However, my teacher at that time wanted me to only do the practical exams :-(.
I was and still am totally tone deaf. Even now, I don't enjoy music - to me its background noise and often it feels irritating to me. I don't know if this is just me or the result of being forced to have 10 years of lessons I did not enjoy.
So I have offered my sons music lessons but they were totally against the idea so I never forced them to have lessons. One son is like my husband and he learns the guitar from his father and they enjoy themselves strumming together once in a while. The other son is like me and gets irritated and bangs doors when the brother is playing his guitar (although I have never told him about my bad experiences or allowed him to see that I don't like music)
So for those of you thinking of insisting that your children continue with music, please analyse carefully what the problem is. If it is total lack of musicality, forget it!

Fortunately for me I still get to enjoy dancing. I have ballroom dancing lessons with my husband twice a week. I prefer it this way because I can't follow the music on my own, he does the following I just follow him!

monlim said...

Jo: If your kid hates the piano exams, I suggest you don't let her take it every year, esp since she shows interest otherwise.

Yup, saw today's Life. Obviously you need real talent to be able to achieve that and good for that little girl, but I always hate it when the media plays up the age factor. Already there are enough over-competitive parents who want to accelerate their kids in the graded exams, for its own sake, articles like that make it worse. Why should it matter whether she's 6 or 16 as long as she enjoys the music? Anyway, my opinion only lah.

Elan: your failing grade 4 repeatedly should have been a big hint to your mum! So sad that you may hate music because of the negative experience. But good for you that you're willing to let your kids take up what they enjoy. And btw, I heard it's not too late to take up ballet, they have adult ballet classes now!

Jo said...

Yeah I agree but I guess the human interest factor in today's article is really the age factor. If she wasn't so young, it wouldn't be a "newsworthy" piece.

There are too many such articles nowadays about "special" kids. Last week there was one about talented kids in sports.

I did have some reservations about starting her on exams but I relied on the teacher's recommendation & experience. In fact, I hesitated till almost the last day to register her. I'll see how it goes this year. I agree yearly exams are not necessary !

To be absolutely honest, I am also a bit "tired" of hearing those exam pieces over and over again ! In my view, I think she started with them a bit early, she tried out 5 -6 pieces before narrowing it down to the 3. The enthusiasm was there while she was in the learning process but somehow when she put it all together it became "boring" after a while. She loves learning other tunes every week though but the problem is she'd rather practise those new tunes first instead of the exam stuff. And for me...I prefer hearing the new stuff too !

eunice said...

Elan: Yup not too late for adult ballet. I took it for a year. Be warned, if you are not very fit like me, you'll feel PAIN after the first 2 lessons. I had problems walking up stairs.

Monica: Music is the one place I have not pushed Sean. I figured if he really wants it, I'll let him take up a musical instrument. If not, I don't want to lose any more hair over nagging him to practise etc. He took piano for 1 term and as I suspected, not much interest.

Ad: Like you, the one thing I force on him is Chinese. Sigh... think it's a genetic thing. My mum forced it on me too. but I have no choice.

monlim said...

Jo: An exam once in a while is good cos it exposes them to what is expected at that level. But not every year. Learning the exam pieces is useful cos those tend to be harder than pieces in regular books. What Andre's teacher does is he still buys the exam piece book even though Andre won't be taking exam this year, and he makes Andre learn other pieces as well. So that helps them keep pace with the syllabus with the drilling preps for exams. Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

6YO doing grade 5 exam and pass is not amazing. It's just paying the exam fees and this is showing how bad the kia-suism is becoming. Deadly and point of no return.

6YO getting distinction in grade 5 would be more news worthy with a track record of all distinctions. JMHO.

breve1970 said...

Thanks Monica. Will not let Hannah take any exams next year (after her Grade 2 exams in the latter part of this year). She is practically dragging her feet when I nag at her to practise.

Puzzled by Puzzles! said...

Great posting!
Practising is part of the package and it is a cycle. If u don't practise, u can't play well. When u can't play well, u don't feel like practising. Both my kids play the piano and violin. I see reminding them to practise as part of my job. They are responsible to their teachers themselves. There was a time when I asked ds to stop his piano because he wasn't interesting in the practising at all (his interest was in music theory). We came to a compromise with the teacher that he would get lesser playing pieces and more time to focus on theory. He took the grade 5 theory with dd last yr. Both of them did well and and even got the same score! :)

I like the your goal of tagging grade 5 as a milestone. With maturity, an older child can decide if this is what they want. Practising will also become less of a chore if they are willing to do it themselves.

monlim said...

S: Totally agree with you that practising is less of a chore if they decide that's what they want. On a separate note, you're Lilian's friend, right? Glad to have you on my blog!

Puzzled by Puzzles! said...

Yes, she's the one who recommended me your blog. I have been a lurker for awhile. :P

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