It’s the start of the school year, which is when parents invariably ask me where we take music lessons. And if they should let their kid start. And what’s it like. My answer is usually, “Yes, definitely your kid should play an instrument. If you are willing to drive yourself nuts with the practicing.”

Before I tell you how great playing an instrument is, let me tell you that I have broken two violin bows by throwing them across the room. And when my son told his violin teacher, she said, “Oh, it’s not that uncommon. Moms with kids who play instruments do that sometimes.”

I have had to drink half a bottle of wine to face cello practice. I have eaten a whole cake while I was dying of boredom listening to the same song 500 times.

That said, here are the benefits of playing an instrument that keep me going day after day:

1. Self-regulation.
This is a picture of my son doing a lesson in New York, via Skype, because I didn’t want to miss a lesson. When I am wondering why I work so hard to enable the kids to play their instruments, I find myself thinking back, every time, to self-regulation. People who are better at regulating themselves are happier people. Mostly because all the research about how to make ourselves happier requires us to improve our own self-regulation. The Stanford marshmallow experiment confirms this research. Kids were asked to delay the gratification of eating a marshmallow. And it turns out that there’s a tight correlation between not eating the marshmallow and learning a lot; kids who are good at self-regulation learn more in their life. So music is a way to learn self-discipline, really. Whatever else comes from music is great, but it’s extra. I can’t control how talented the kids are or how much they love music, but I can control if they learn the muscle that allows them to not eat the marshmallow until later.

2. Self-esteem.
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 at it. He is noticing, now, that he is special because he can stand up in front of people and play songs they appreciate. He plays fiddle music, which is fun and uncomplicated and people connect to it right away. He has a knack for the rhythms and he makes people bounce their knees. This makes him feel good. He has definitely learned that if you work hard at something you get good at it.
Certainly there are tons of things a kid can work hard at to gain self-esteem. But it’s a supremely difficult skill to learn—to work hard past when it is fun. Seth Godin wrote a whole book on how common it is, even in adults, to set a big goal for themselves and quit when it gets hard. (The Dip. Read it. It’s short and I love this book.)  I’m not sure I would have had the strength, on my own, to push the kids so forcefully at something that is so difficult as a string instrument. Having a Suzuki program is a great support system to give me the ability to show them how to work at something this difficult.

3. Music instead of math or a second language.
When people say that everyone should learn math, they are not talking about addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Because every neurotypical  kid who has parents who can do that math will learn that math somehow by the time they are fifteen. What people are talking about is higher math, like algebra and geometry, that teach different ways to think. But music is a different way to think as well. In the same way: systems, rules, new way to see the world. So when other parents ask me how I can not teach math I say, “How could you not teach music?”

The same is true of a second language. Learning to play an instrument and sight read music is learning a language. The more you know about music the more you can use music to express yourself and understand what other people are saying through music. It’s the same skill as a second language.

Learning an instrument is not for everyone. Practicing every day sucks. But then, so does doing a math workbook every day t0 solve for x. Or sending a kid away to Beijing for a year to become fluent in Chinese. Which brings me back to that book about the Dip, really. That teaching a kid to do something hard is hard for the parent as well. Music is not an exception to that, but if you don’t pick one really difficult thing to teach your kid then you are not teaching the most important thing, which is to keep going when it seems too hard.