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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 18, No. 2 October 2012

Parental Perspective: Musical Perseverance

by Shira Gilbert / October 1, 2012

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Last month, La Scena Musicale reader Denise Lai posed a question that she cannot be alone in facing. Her 11-year-old twins had been taking piano lessons since they were 5. Now, while the girls’ parents love classical music and play it in the house, the kids are uninterested and resent having to practice. Is it time for a lockdown at the piano bench or to loosen the apron strings and allow the kids to pursue other interests?

How we love to mould these young beings to our own desires! But if the parents love classical music, must their children as well? The friends and music professionals I consulted were unequivocal: persevere. Make music study a compulsory part of your child’s education. (Caveats: you may have to throw in an ice-cream sundae or a new pair of jeans—or adjust your expectations.) How many adults do you know who wish that they had stuck with their piano lessons longer? (Two hands up over here.)

Liz Parker has been teaching piano privately for 28 years. As the younger sibling of renowned Canadian pianists John Kimura and Jamie Parker, she had the benefit of growing up in an intensely musical family. She feels that her “Tiger Mother,” who strictly enforced practicing, and her easygoing Canadian-born father, who took the kids to concerts, were an ideal combination. “For us, quitting was not an option. If we didn’t practice, we didn’t eat. If we didn’t practice, privileges were cut off.” Today, she is deeply grateful. “I tell my students that I know practicing isn’t fun but they will thank me later. Everything that they are learning now [in piano lessons] is transferable to what they will need as they grow up,” says Parker, who likens the discipline and confidence achieved through piano playing to meeting a rent deadline or giving a public presentation.

It can’t all be drudgery, emphasizes Parker, who liberally hands out chocolate following her studio recitals. “Take them to concerts, enroll them in a music class where they can bang drums and socialize, learn how to jam,” she suggests. “Arrange playdates with other kids that take lessons so they can goof around on the piano together.” Parker’s strong sense of lineage and training keeps her motivated: “Music is my lifeblood and religion. It’s why I breathe.  I want to impart that sense of excitement to my students.”

Scott Feltham has played in the bass section of the Montreal Symphony since 1999. He is equally firm about making his kids stick with it. “Every kid resents practicing,” claims Scott. “They start to not hate it when they start to see the results. Everything changed for me when I became a good enough pianist to play Bach.” This is a great point: stick with it long enough and the music becomes its own reward. Considering the Lai girls, he says: “If they have been taking lessons for six years, they are probably close to being able to play real music”—as opposed to watered-down versions of classical pieces. “They don’t even know music yet, its emotional depth.”

Parents and teachers have the shared role of keeping the child motivated and emphasizing their accomplishments. “Music is incredibly complex,” says Feltham, “It is hard for kids to see the trajectory.”

He suggests setting a goal—Grade 8 Royal Conservatory certification, or the end of high school—before they are allowed to quit.

I also consulted my friend Dorothy Stavrinos, who has taught piano privately for many years and is the mother of two teenagers.  Growing up the eldest of four girls, piano lessons were mandatory through to the end of high school. “It was simply something you did,” says Stavrinos, “regardless of your talent.”  Once she had her own family and regularly played and listened to great music in her home, learning music was “a natural extension” for the kids. Her daughter stayed with piano and added violin while her son flourished on guitar and sax instead. Now she can’t get him to stop playing.

While Stavrinos isn’t a fan of dumbed-down piano transcriptions of popular tunes, she sees an opportunity when a student brings in an Avril Lavigne or Adele song. “Maybe the student doesn’t want to be identified with classical music because it isn’t what his or her peers are into.”  But instead of sitting down with the sheet music, she challenges them. “Let’s try it by ear, sing it to me and then let’s work it out on the piano together.”

It’s also not the end of the world to take it down a notch. “Teenagers want so much in so little time,” says Stavrinos. “Make a deal where they don’t have to practice as long each day but they follow through with their commitment to go to the lessons. See if the teacher can work with that.”

Ultimately, as Feltham says, “Learning music is a gift you give your children. You are giving your kids another way to express how they are feeling.” Perhaps this is the most convincing reason of all to stay with music lessons, especially throughout those teen years.
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