My friend Mollie, a gifted artist, posted a gorgeous photo of a dragonfly on her blog yesterday with these words under it: “Violin lesson today for my daughter. Every other week, we seem to repeat the same old battle about practicing and going to the lesson, but when she's there, she does well and seems to enjoy it.” It is typical of Mollie’s unique artistic sensibility that she made an intuitive connection between the dragonfly and the sentiment; this is what I admire so much about her vision and her craft. In those few words she summed up the same internal debate I’ve been engaged in much of the summer.
Last spring, following a school unit on the recorder, Holly took her recorder home and played it now and then. Gradually, even though she was working off little more than her own instincts with occasional advice from me, she began to improve a little bit.
So I suggested she take recorder lessons over the summer. But she wasn’t tempted. She’s a free spirit; to her the fun is in spontaneously picking up the recorder and attempting to ad lib a tune or two, not studying it with the goal of continuous growth in skill level.
In some ways, I was disappointed about this; in other ways, I was not. I’d like to see her develop an interest in music as well as the sense of commitment that goes with becoming good at an endeavor such as playing an instrument. At the same time, I have no desire to start fighting the Practice Wars.
Although Holly’s summer is not turning out to include music lessons, the issue will arise again soon. She starts fourth grade in just six weeks, and that’s the year that all the students in her school get to take free lessons on a band instrument of their choice. Holly has already expressed ambivalence over whether this is something she wants to take advantage of in the fall, and I’m already struggling with the decision of how much to push it.
One argument says that studying an instrument is beneficial for a number of reasons. Learning music theory supposedly improves math skills, not to mention the fact that it sets the groundwork for music appreciation. Also, I think being in the school band is worthwhile as far as the teamwork and patience that kids develop from the experience. During Tim’s fourth grade year, I was amazed at the way he and his classmates learned from the band director basic skills such as sitting still and listening to each other. And I love seeing the kids all dressed up for their twice-yearly concerts.
At the same time, if taking instrument lessons is something we parents insist on, we lose all leverage for the arguments about practicing. We can’t say “If you want to be part of the band and take lessons you have to practice” if the lessons are done at our insistence.
I haven’t yet decided what to do this fall. So far, Holly continues not to show much enthusiasm for the idea of instrument lessons. It’s something I would really like her to do, but if I’m going to expect her to spend time practicing, the lessons have to be something she wants. I could insist, saying that just like getting to school on time and doing homework, it’s a process that I consider necessary. Or I can just shrug it off and say if she doesn’t have the passion for it, I’m not going to require her to go through the motions.
This is one case where I’m hoping to see peer pressure kick in. During the first few weeks of school, each fourth grader has opportunities to try out the different instruments before making a choice. My hope is that once her friends show some excitement about it, she won’t want to be left behind.
But even if that happens and she does choose an instrument to study, I’m likely to end up like Mollie, conflicted over how much to argue about practicing.
I’ve already lost the battle with Tim. After that initial year of free lessons, he hung on for one year of paid lessons, and then we reached the point of “If you’re not going to practice, I’m not going to pay for it.” Unfortunately, that was just fine with him.
I hope it will be different with Holly. For some kids it must be, or there wouldn’t be so many talented musicians out there. A few of Tim’s friends have stuck with instrument lessons over the past three years, but not a lot.
In another month and a half, fourth grade will begin for Holly, and she’ll have to express an opinion about what she wants to do with the opportunity before her. I can hope. But I can’t make her share my feelings just by wishing it so. And now is probably not too soon to acknowledge to myself just how often as she grows older that sentiment will hold true.