I’ve been stuck on the Time magazine article I told you about, the one that says homework before sixth grade does more damage than good because the arguments between parents and children aren’t worth it. The article reports that by age eleven, kids can take responsibility for meeting their own goals.
The arguments I have with my kids over practicing their instruments would horrify you. I have broken two violin bows. I have thrown cello music across the room. I have called my older son an asshole and I have told my younger son he’s a brat. All that horribleness in the name of getting through a terrible practice session.
I have tried drinking and eating and meditating. During practice. I have gone to therapy with each of the boys to talk about dealing with music practice conflict.
Before you suggest anything else, listen: I have kids who love their instruments. Neither would choose to quit. I gave them the opportunity. In fact, my younger son wants to be a professional cellist. So imagine what it’s like for parents who have kids who don’t have a choice to quit.
I read all the time about how much string players hated practicing when they were kids. The famous violinist Joshua Bell, said: “I was addicted to video games in my teens – I would sneak out the back door of the University that I was supposed to spend practicing for 5 hours and I would sneak out the back door and play video games for 3 of those hours.”
String instruments are extremely difficult. It takes most kids four months just to learn to hold a violin properly. My oldest son did a recital without playing a note. And parents clapped loudly, because they all knew how much work he had to do that year, to get to the recital.
In order for a kid to be good enough to play in a college orchestra, the kid needs to start cello when they are too young to manage their own practicing. And all professional string players tell stories about how they managed to avoid practicing.
One of my favorite: Noa Kagayama noticed his mom didn’t make him stop reading when he was reading a really difficult book, so he chose to read more and more difficult books so she’d leave him alone about practicing.
I think I like that story because it would work on me, too. My kids know that if they play nicely together outside, I think they are having a charmed farm childhood and I don’t interrupt them to practice. Because I worry that practice is wrecking their childhood.
My younger son is practicing three or four hours a day. It’s nuts. And I have to bug him all day to make it happen.
So maybe kids should not play string instruments so young. As a rule, the very rich do not train to be professional musicians, which makes sense to me. It’s too much work. Why would rich parents bug their kids every day to practice? Why skip out on the Vanity Fair Oscars party to make sure your kid uses a metronome during scales? The history of European musicians is all Jewish. The Jews made sure their kids played instruments because being part of the city orchestra was a way to get out of the Shtetl.
In the US today the majority of string students are kids of Asian immigrants. Those parents don’t care about slumber parties and school vacations. But they know about hard work and playing to win, and those kids work hard to embody their parent’s idea of the American dream, part of which means excelling at a string instrument.
What would happen if I told my son I will not make him practice? He’s a gifted cellist, for sure, but gifted only gets you so far with strings. He would still have to practice six hours a day for a decade. If he started later than most kids, then he would not have access to the best teachers. And the teachers are so important when learning to play.
So if you want to play a string instrument, you need parents enforcing practice time.
I keep thinking there has got to be a better way. But right now I can’t think of one. So when my son is overwhelmed by how difficult it is to practice, I can’t solve his problem, so I document it with pictures.