What happened when I let my son quit violin

We were in New York a few months ago, and of course we played with every animal we saw because my kids are, at this point, probably more farm than city.  And of course we had the violin and the cello because we travel with them everywhere because we practice every day, no matter what.

And I had this idea that I wanted photos of the kids, but I didn’t want normal, boring portraits. A while back I found the photographer, James Maher, and I was blown away by his street photography. And then I saw he sells his most popular prints to guardians of visual taste, like Tiffany. So I became obsessed with him, and then I cut a deal with him to hang out with us in New York City and take photographs for a day.

It’s amazing to see your life through someone else’s eyes, but that’s what I got with James. And one thing I realized was that we spend a lot of time practicing.

I would have to say that James got the most shots of two things: the kids practicing and the kids fighting. Which is probably an accurate representation of their lives.

And you know how you can tell you’re working with a great photographer? He takes a kid who is being an insanely picky eater and makes it look like art.

So in New York, my son decided to give quitting violin another whirl.

It was practice time and he said he wasn’t practicing.

I said he was.

He said, “I’m quitting.”

So my son practices every day. I have never met a family who did not have arguments between the mom and the kid while the kid was young and learning an instrument. So a lot of the Suzuki Method is the mom learning how to fight about practicing without making the kid hate music.

My son has been playing since he was three years old. The test to know if a kid is ready to learn to play a violin is if the kid can stand in one place and sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

The the kid spends a year learning how to play the song. I’m not kidding. A string instrument is incredibly difficult. Just learning how to hold the bow takes a three-year-old a few months.

My son is nine. So we’ve had six years of fights. And now I’m writing this blog every day, where I tell everyone how great it is that we unschool and kids can teach themselves and kids know what they’re passionate about. It’s hard to align the Suzuki Method with unschooling. I’ll admit that.

I told him I’m considering it and he should give me time to think.

This is exciting to him because I have told him for as long as he can remember that he can quit when he’s in high school, and he only recently realized that he’s not going to go to high school so there is no quitting opportunity on the distant horizon.

He said he’s quitting now.

I said he’s practicing now.

He said he’d only practice if I pay him.

I ignored that.

We were staying with my friend Lisa, at her apartment. She said to him, “You should go play in Central Park. Open up your case. See if people put money in.”

My son got excited.

She said she read in the New York Times that the amount of money you get depends a lot on how good your sign is.

He said, “I’ll write: Violinist. Please pay me.”

Lisa said, “No. That’s not going to work. It needs to be clever. Like you’re asking them to pay you but with something clever.”

We all thought for a minute and Lisa said, “How about I told my mom I’m quitting violin and she said people would like hearing me play. If you like hearing me play, put money in my case.”

My son said. “No. I don’t want that. I don’t want to tell people I’m quitting. I worked too hard at violin to quit. Let’s just ask them for money.”

I wanted to jump for joy and kiss my son and kiss Lisa and kiss the world that my son does not really want to quit. But I played it cool. I said, “Okay.”


25 replies
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      He didn’t actually end up playing. We realized that it was both Easter and Passover and really not a good day to be trying to get anyone to spend money in New York City. But I promised him he could do it next time we were there.


  1. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    Exquisite unschooling-judo moment!

    It wasn’t about the violin or the lessons or music. It was about where the motivation to play and to practice comes from. Now it evidently comes from inside. Wonderful story.

  2. CJ
    CJ says:

    “this is the first duty of an educator; stir up life, but leave it free to develop.” Maria Montessori.

    When you study Montessori philosophy on children, there is much to be found about allowing the free time to permit the imagination and the work of the child to flourish independently. There is also a great deal about planes, or these sort of windows in time where a child is open to and ready to excell at something. Much of the American schools that identify themselves as Montessori, are not really, because they taut themselves as highly academic, competitive, rigorous programs and they often ignore some of her major tenets. But, I do look to her writing often about the great responsibility we take in by the great fortune of being so blessed to give children their surroundings, and encouragement.

    I am not sure this isn’t a little too tiger mommish pushing the strings from age three through now. I am torn by being super happy for him making his own choice to continue, and wondering if it isn’t just to make you feel good/happy with him? And, did he make money, and was he proud when he did? I will say I don’t think you need to worry if this isn’t in alignment with unschooling, because providing opportunities and giving the tools when desired is a big part of unschooling. Just the Q is, whose desire?

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      there’s not like button but your comment is so clever. I want to frame it. And then when people ask what it is about I’ll tell them this story.

  3. karelys
    karelys says:


    This is awesome!

    You made me think, in the almost 3 years I’ve been married the best thing I’ve learned is how to fight and how to forgive.

    I’m better but not THAT good! your son has played violin longer than I’ve been married.

  4. mimijml
    mimijml says:

    Neat how you got your son to admit that he doesn’t really want to quit right now.

    However, having too often trapped myself by sunk cost fallacies using wording very much like “I worked too hard at/spent too much on (something) to quit”, I’m curious how you will help your child know that it’s time to move on from something.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Thanks for sharing a nice story.

    I hope your son discovers what really motivates him to play the violin and that he continues to play … past his teens.

  6. MCS
    MCS says:

    This is a perfectly timed post. I have been fighting with my son about piano for years. I originally had decided on a “no quitting” policy. My plan: he is good – he will play.

    This year, he has gotten so difficult – even literally refusing to go to his lesson — despite the consequences. I decided enough is enough. I told him he CANNOT take piano. And, he can pay me for the lesson he missed because he refused to go.

    Imagine my surprise when he said he did not want to quit! Now, since I am really fine if he quits, the tables are turned. (I cannot take the fighting anymore, and he is going to take up another instrument in school, anyway.)

    If he doesn’t practice, I’ll just tell him he cannot have lessons if he doesn’t practice. (And, I’ll mean it.) Deep down, he loves playing, and so I’ll just hope it works out for him to realize he loves it more when it is totally his choice.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love this story. I think that when learning music is at it’s best it’s learning about oneself. So I guess quitting or not quitting is part of that process.

      I also noticed it’s so hard for me to imagine, after forcing the kid to practice for so many years, that we would give it up, because I, too, have worked really hard at it. (Forcing practice is not easy!) And then I start to feel like the parents who force math and social studies and whatever because they did it and they don’t want to feel like their time was wasted. The music stuff is very hard to navigate.

      I breath a sign of relief at the end of your story, that you have a solution. It gives me hope in my own stories that need solutions.


      • marta
        marta says:

        “And then i start to feel like the parents who force maths or social studies…”
        Exactly – what is the difference? That you do it with your kid outside of a school building? That you chose that your 3 year old son had to learn how to play the violin? And that he was not quitting, even if he wanted to? That he is not quitting because he realized he can make money out of playing the violin?

        Where’s the big unschooling philosophy then?

        I’m sorry, I keep reading you blog because the subject is interesting and you write in an interesting way. But sometimes – oftentimes- it is just righteous BS.


  7. Lisa Cooley
    Lisa Cooley says:

    Thanks for this! I’m a Suzuki mom and Suzuki teacher. It’s great when kids realize that their love of playing has snuck in when they weren’t looking.

  8. Dori Staehle
    Dori Staehle says:

    An unschooler friend of mine and I both had our kids in Suzuki piano. My daughter loved to practice and play. My friend’s son did not.

    One day, I went hiking with the reluctant piano player and he confided in me that he wanted to quit piano but his Mom wouldn’t let him. I had seen him play and he and my daughter often teamed up and played duos and trios in competitions. I come from a long line of musicians so I told him I knew what the problem was. “What?”, he asked. “You’re too good to quit,” I replied. “If you were really awful, it would be a different story.” He laughed and shook his head. He stayed with piano. ;)

  9. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    An artist told my would-be artist daughter, if you can imagine another way to live your life, without being an artist, that would make you happy, DO THAT OTHER THING. Choose that other career. Don’t be an artist unless you have no choice.

    Funny enough, this negative advice fired up my daughter’s motivation to persevere in her art practice.

    A few years later, my youngest daughter, a dancer around age 19, was feeling discouraged. I relayed the story to her and suggested that the same might be true for performing artists.

    My dancer just listened, and nodded. I wondered what was going through her head. I wondered if she would, in fact, quit dancing (although it had ALWAYS been her wanting to do it, none of us had thought up the idea!). But a few hours later I heard her retelling the advice to a group of fellow dancers who’d been goofing off during a rehearsal. She followed up the negative advice with the words, “I want to dance. I don’t know about you guys, but this is what I want.”

    So, in two out of two cases, this advice that really seems to boil down to “you should probably quit” ended up crystallizing in my daughters’ minds that they did NOT want to quit.

  10. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    Of my seven children, two initiated learning an instrument (piano and guitar) and neither needed any prompting to continue or practice. They were both around 9-10 years old ironically. Now, I have my last child who asked to play violin. He folded like a deck of cards when the going got tough. I struggle because I see he has talent. I’ve let him make the choice. Now he wants to play trumpet. I’m figuring how to move forward. He was also 10 when he asked to play.

  11. Di
    Di says:

    Bring him to the Dane County Farmers Market to play. I always pay the musicians, and I always pay the kids even more!

  12. Dana
    Dana says:

    I think quitting was just exercising independence where he felt he didn’t have any power for so long. As soon as he realized his freedom, he realized it wasn’t about violin, but about your power struggle around it.

  13. Nightingale Chen
    Nightingale Chen says:

    What if you say “ok” and they really quit? Even if they will definitely regret it years later, but they want to stop working because they are too lazy to practice!! Isn’t that risky to say ok?
    HS kids are very busy, but they shouldn’t quit either!!

  14. Paddy
    Paddy says:

    Thank you for this story Penelope. I stumbled on your post while Googling “teaching children violin” (our first baby is on the way).

    I am a passionate violin player and at the minute tend to lean towards traditional Irish music. And I look forward to instilling a strong love of music in my children (though they will attend classical lessons).

    I found your article to be inspirational!

    I am an avid reader of various blogs and must say this has got to be the most beautiful post I have ever read.

    I am sure our experience will come in handy for me in the future :)

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    […] My oldest son is not in love with his instrument. He largely has played it because I make him. But when I finally told him he could quit, he chose not to. Why? Because he likes that he worked so hard at something and now he’s good […]

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