Who’s in Charge?

The biggest problem most parents face with music training is getting their children to practice. Some of my colleagues have invented systems for making practice fun which is laudable and I heartily approve. But the very fact that there is a need for this means that practice is inherently NOT fun and has to be made palatable. However, no matter how wonderful and enjoyable these systems are, there will still be times when a child will not want to practice. Not just the typical “I want to go play with my friends instead,” but a fairly constant lack of cooperation or out-and-out resistance to doing even a small amount of practice. Parents can try new methods or call the teacher for advice but in my experience, it always boils down to one thing – is the child going to do what the parent says or not? Who’s in charge?

I have many parents who tell me, “You don’t know what he does to me at home!” (Oh, yes I do – I have two violinist daughters, remember?) My answer to these parents is always the same: is your child going to do what you say or not. Who is in charge?

This is a decision that a parent has to make. If you feel that children should make their own decisions, then music lessons are probably not for you and your young one. If, however, you decide that your child is going to study music as an important part of his education, I offer a Very Important Observation:

When there is a problem with practicing, the real question is rarely whether the child wants to play the instrument or not (no matter what he says at the moment), but if he is willing to do what the parent says. 

Therefore, if we are convinced that we parents can do a better job than our children in deciding what is good for them, somebody has to run the show. Who’s in charge?

Those who complain that their children refuse to practice or practice well often confess that these children also resist doing any other task required of them, meaning they are not particularly obedient or compliant about anything.

But here’s the big difference: when a child doesn’t want to do his homework, his parents do not make frantic phone calls to his schoolteacher. When a child doesn’t want to do his household chores, they don’t call a psychologist. When a child resists going to catechism they don’t ask for help from the priest. The problem is just dealt with. Why then do parents get so upset when their children don’t want to practice their musical instruments? Why do I find myself counseling anxious parents on this problem with after hours phone calls?

The answer is that many parents feel that music training does not fall into the category of discipline like school work, chores, religious training, exercise, etc., but into the category of passion, like falling in love. Whereas parents may have no scruples about making a child do any of the tasks listed above, they often feel that passion for music or love for the instrument should make practicing easy and pleasurable for the child.

Yes, love conquers all, but as anyone who has been in a long term relationship can tell you, love can vacillate. Sometimes you love your partner more, sometimes a little less, and sometimes a LOT less. The love that you know is there (even if it doesn’t seem apparent), self-discipline and a bit of wisdom are what tide us over in difficult moments, but can we seriously expect young children to know this? Discipline and routine keep adults going. Children, however, usually don’t have either, so they must be imposed. Who’s in charge?

Yes, love conquers all but first it must be cultivated. As any mother can tell you, taking care of your children is what develops your parental love for them. As happily  married couples can tell you, love at first sight may occur but it is being together, taking care of each other and working together that are essential to continuing love and a strong relationship, and you should expect to have some difficulties or even some unpleasantness along the way. Unless a music student is born wise, passionate and disciplined he won’t become aware of any of this or develop any of these qualities unless his parents make him practice and thus help him to cultivate his relationship with his instrument and with music in general.

So, parents, take heart! Applying discipline to your children when they are too immature to apply it to themselves is one of greatest gifts you can bestow on them. It takes lots of energy, time and conviction on your part. If you remember, however, to think of music training as just another discipline you impose on your children, it will become a lot easier. Just keep asking yourself: who’s in charge?


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7 April 2015

4 thoughts on “Who’s in Charge?

  1. Makcolm

    Hello Eloise,

    Thank you another very interesting post. I was particularly taken by the contrast between how parents see musical education and other studies and how love/musicianship must be cultivated.

    On love, your words evoked in me the faint memory of something I think C S Lewis once said, to the effect that falling in love was good but the real business of love begins when that sensation ends.


    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Malcolm. The quote you mentioned is certainly apt!

  2. lyzrusso

    Excellent post! I’ve seen this for a while. It’s a parenting problem. Are they going to do what The Mom tells them or is Mommy a pushover?

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Yes, it’s a parenting problem. Sherman tank moms like me (and I’ll bet, you too) don’t have a problem with this but many parents do. I find I spend a lot of time convincing parents that it’s OK to impose discipline on their children, that music should not be optional but an important – yes, essential – part of a person’s education. Thanks for your comment.


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