How Do You Talk a Parent out of Quitting Music Lessons?

Indeed! A question often asked by perplexed teachers. Some of you may not be sure you should try to change a parent’s mind on this issue, but first know that if parents are willing to discuss it with you, you have a chance of convincing them to continue. Some of them even want you to. Others talk about quitting because they’re afraid to bring up what’s really bothering them and that’s the only way they know to start a conversation about it. In any case, those who have firmly made up their minds to stop lessons will not give you this possibility.

There are lots of reasons, sometimes reasons underneath reasons, that families want to quit music lessons. But sometimes you have to figure out the reason the parents want a child to quit – or are letting him quit as they don’t always tell you the truth right away. Why? Because they often don’t know the truth themselves. And that’s why we have to get into a conversation with them about it.

This isn’t the old school way of doing things, however. I once had a student who got a hard time from her grade school and then middle school friends about playing the violin. So at the beginning of every academic year and at her mother’s behest, I would spend the whole first lesson talking to her about why she should continue. Years later she made the same announcement to her next teacher (I pass them on when they get to a certain level) after the summer vacation and he immediately said, “Fine, I’m sorry to lose you. Goodbye.” Her mother told me that her daughter was expecting the usual arguments in favor of continuing and was quite upset about him letting her go so easily. I explained that old school types like this teacher, who was from the then recently broken up USSR, would never argue with you about your decisions. (You also had to pay them with money in an envelope or they wouldn’t take it, just to give you an idea.) They considered this to be unprofessional. And professionality was of upmost importance to many of these teachers, no matter how they felt personally about the issue. They feared that to try to convince students to continue, would be seen as protecting their own interests and we can’t have that!

Or can we?

I must not be very professional then, because I never go down without a fight. The violin is wonderful, music is wonderful and I always try to “save” students, no matter what others may think. So here are some of the reasons that parents often give for quitting and a few tried and true rebuttals from the arsenal I have developed over the years:

Their child has no passion for playing the instrument.

1. Their child may not show passion NOW, but there’s nothing to say he won’t develop it. This has happened with my students so many times that I have lost count. Also in my now quite considerable experience in teaching, the children who show the most interest in playing when they’re little (and even ask for the instrument) usually don’t continue as pros. Instead  the ones who kick up the most fuss, protest, don’t want to practice when they’re little and don’t even want to play the violin in the first place, may wind up going whole hog when they’re teenagers, much to their parents’ and my surprise – and sometimes even their own.

2. Even if they never develop passion, there are so many upsides to learning a musical instrument at any level, that it behooves child to continue until at least 14 years of age. I did this with my own children: “You do as I say until you’re 14 and then you can make your own decisions.” I knew that they would play so well by that age that they wouldn’t quit altogether. And they didn’t, even though my older daughter pursues another career. She is a high level executive in her workplace and sometimes takes her violin to work to demonstrate cooperation to her rather bemused employees. Well, if it keeps her practicing…

You take music lessons because you want to become a professional. My child doesn’t show the desire to pursue a profession and therefore the whole endeavor is a waste of time and money.

Do you learn to read and write only so you can be Shakespeare? How about maths and science only if you want to become a nuclear physicist? If you don’t take these subjects to the highest level is it ever a waste of time to study them?  Most people would agree that it is not. You might pull out the statistic that 60% of CEO’s of multinational companies play music up to a professional level. That may be apocryphal – I don’t remember where I read it – but the following article definitely helps:   (Sorry, but you have to cut and paste.)

My child has the passion but not the talent to have an important career.

1. Would you really want your child to have a big career as a soloist?  It’s not as glamorous as you think. I remember a friend (not a musician) of mine some years ago making the comment about her very talented daughter, “She doesn’t want to be only an orchestra player.” I was totally taken aback: orchestra jobs are the holy grail of many musicians as they give you the stability to pursue everything else you want to do. I pointed out to her that she might not want her daughter to have the life, albeit exciting, of a soloist or a quartet player – they never know which city they wake up in because they travel so much. Not conducive to a decent family life – or really a decent life at all. Ruggiero Ricci, for example, was not at home for any of the births of his five children. Also, many of the soloists I have met do not want their children to pursue music as soloists either, which I find telling. But okay, orchestra jobs are very difficult to get and not everyone wants them. However, as Robert Mann (first violin of the Juilliard Quartet for fifty years and renowned teacher) told his son, Nicholas, who is also a violinist and teacher,

“…if you love what you’re doing, you will find a place in the music world as long as you’re not expecting some great ego gratification.”

So there’s room for everyone who wants to pursue a career as long as you have realistic expectations.

2. Why would you want your child to become a professional musician unless they really want it? See music as a stepping stone to higher accomplishment in other fields. (See above article.) Music makes everything better – and makes us better, too. Your child could become a true  amateur which means he loves music for music’s sake and gets great enrichment from it on a personal level. Look how many famous people play music very well for their own enjoyment. Nomal people too. One of my ex-students is a perfect example. He certainly wasn’t a talent and we plodded along for years. At the end of high school he quit lessons and then went on to become a physicist with a very good job. But he always played the mass at his parish church (which amazed me because he was unbelievably timid) and found amateur orchestras to play in. His social media page only talks about the violin where I see photos of him with his musical friends in the various amateur orchestras he plays in. He looks so happy – but not one word about his very responsible job. What if his parents had made or let him quit? Music is an integral part of his life and an automatic social life for someone as shy as he is. I shudder to think what his life would be like had his parents not supported him in taking violin lessons. The same for me, really. Everywhere I went in the world I found an immediate social life because I play the violin. So even if the study of music doesn’t prepare you for a profession in it, it can prepare you in so many ways for life in general.

3. It’s important for children to have hobbies they can carry forward in their lives. Either you pick their hobbies for them or encourage the ones that are good for them, or they may find them on their own and you may not like their choices. I tell parents that their children may or not play soccer when they’re seventy, but they surely will be playing the violin (look at me!) at that age.

My child wants to quit because he wants to play sports better.

This one strikes a nerve for me. I sense that behind this there is a sports coach encouraging the student to quit music, both in subtle and unsubtle ways. Enough of my elementary and middle school students have told me this about their sports coaches to make me realize how insidious a threat they can be. They make their whole endeavor so attractive, they draw children and their families in slowly slowly until parents and students find themselves in up to their necks, in some cases going to five training sessions a week plus scheduled games. Here I ask the parents one question: who gets to put on their resumes that the team won a championship, the players or the coach? Will playing almost full time in grade or middle school help them get into college (unless, of course they are incredibly talented for sports which most are not)? Probably not. But playing music well will certainly look good on a college application (as well as a personal recommendation from their violin teacher). Not to mention all the other above mentioned benefits. And I point out to them that I consider it unethical to suggest a student give up another interest to play music better, no matter now talented, unless my advice were specifically asked for and even then…  Children should use their youth to explore lots of possibilities, not just one.

It’s too expensive.

While that’s often a matter of priorities, don’t point this out – you will just make them feel bad and it won’t help. It is expensive. Acknowledge this and cite all the benefits their child is getting. If parents are having financial difficulties, you can try to come to an arrangement. Sometimes the expense argument is a cover for something else, so dig further to make sure there aren’t other reasons lurking in the background.

My child doesn’t want to practice.

Who does? And if you ask the parents, you will probably discover that the child in question doesn’t do much else very willingly either. Only many parents have this strange idea that practice should be a choice instead of an obligation like everything else they require their child to do. Sometimes parents just want to be reassured that their child is normal. To these parents, I quote Viktoria Mullova who quite succinctly says: “I hate to practice.”

What not to say:

Do not to tell parents that their child is talented and could play oh so well. You put too much pressure on the child like that. Some parents will hear the “T” word and take everything to extremes. I am reminded of the cartoon of a violin teacher telling a young student, “Young man, either you behave yourself or I’ll tell your parents you have talent.” Other parents do not want their children to pursue music seriously because they think other professions are more remunerative and will therefore run even faster in the other direction if you praise their child’s talent. Most parents do want their children to be happy and productive, however. So go for what music can do for their child, not what their child can do for music. Go for convincing them that music is a core subject, common to the personal and professional success (outside music) of far too many people to mention.

And don’t worry about looking like you’re protecting your own interests. You may be, but more importantly, you are protecting the future of music. Without amateurs on stage and in the audience, classical music may be doomed. So be “unprofessional” and get in the trenches. Allowing our students and parents to quit without trying to defend them against their own and society’s short sightedness sends the loud and clear message that music isn’t important.

Which, in the long run, really does go against everyone’s interests, doesn’t it?

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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27 February 2020

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