I’m not sure there’s any torture greater than listening to your child practice the piano. Well, maybe violin. I’ll admit that listening to a child practice violin could be worse. I mean, at least our piano is in tune. (Mostly.) My daughter is eight years old and she has been studying the piano for four years. She’s getting there. This year she played her first Bach minuet, and she’s learning her scales and cadences. I don’t have any idea whether or not she will be interested in pursuing music in her adult life, but I’m a big believer in the idea that learning music teaches you how to think. Given that her dad and I are both professional musicians, we figured it was important to make music a part of our kids’ lives from the very beginning. (Our younger daughter is four and will start lessons in January. Oh God.)
My husband and I came to music in very different ways. I was a classical pianist and then in high school I played in the marching band. I picked up instruments pretty easily and over the course of my four years in high school I played clarinet, flute, saxophone (bari!), French horn and mellophone, trumpet, trombone, and even, for a semester, tuba. I was the president of the band and I competed in piano competitions. (You may have deduced that I was not Prom Queen. We’ll leave it at that.) Jason played in rock bands, and despite a stint on the viola (which in our 13 years together I have never heard him play), he mostly stuck to the rhythm instruments: piano, guitar, bass, drums. (He also failed to be nominated for Prom King. We are well-matched.)
It was interesting to discover that despite our differences (he’s Jewish and I’m Presbyterian, he’s a Yankee and I’m a Southerner, he dropped out of college and I have a master’s degree), we have very, very similar stories about how we made our way to music in the first place. Both of us asked our parents (me at age seven, him at age eight) if they would let us take piano lessons. None of our parents on either side was a musician. I had a babysitter with a piano and I was fascinated by hers and wanted one for myself. Jason had seen pianos at school and asked his parents to get one for their home. I think back now on what it must have been like for our non-musician parents to have their precocious kids ask for something they hadn’t themselves considered. Clearly they took the requests seriously enough to go out and find pianos.
Both of our families said yes.
Would I have done that? I often wonder: if my kid were gifted at something I knew nothing about — say, snow skiing or robotics or architecture — would I know how to support that interest, that gift? Would I recognize it when it appeared? Would I be present enough to notice it? I like to think that one of the greatest things a parent can do is learn when to say yes.
I imagine you’ve all read the documentation about how music is so great for education, but I feel compelled to add some personal insight. I absolutely think I’m better at math because I understand spatial relationships and balance through music. I know for myself and I see through my daughter how important it is to practice something frustrating until you start to crack it open and understand it. The thrill of getting something right after it’s been beating you up for weeks is unmatchable. Giving recitals teaches you about deadlines, about performance, about concentration. But a botched recital can also teach you to roll with the punches, to let little defeats slide, to get up the next morning and get back to work. Even as an adult, I often need help remembering that.
We finish dinner in our household and I tell my daughter it’s time to go practice. She groans, and I groan, and my husband groans, and the next half hour of our lives is torture. Our older daughter does everything she can to avoid practicing. Our younger daughter does everything she can to steal attention away from her big sister. My husband and I do everything we can to go into the other room. But about once a week, our little pianist says, “MOM COME HERE AND LISTEN TO THIS!” And then something miraculous happens: she makes music.