Should your kids play an instrument?

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.




22 replies
  1. Jason
    Jason says:

    Ironically, your argument in favor of learning music over math is one of the better arguments on the internet for learning math. Most people consider math to be a purely practical subject, important for balancing checkbooks and calculating gratuities. I am happy to see you present it for what it is: a way of structuring your brain to see the world differently. Just like music or language.

    If you haven’t read Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament”, you should:

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Nice post.

    However, I don’t agree with #3. Music instead of math or a second language. I believe it can be music and math or a second language.
    I recently learned after watching the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic games that musician Brian May ( ) has a PhD in astrophysics. His Wikipedia page says “He left Hampton Grammar School with ten GCE Ordinary Levels and three Advanced Levels in Physics, Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. He studied Mathematics and Physics at Imperial College London, graduating with B.Sc. degree with honours”. and “In October 2007, more than 30 years after he started his research, he completed his PhD thesis in astrophysics, …” I think he’s just one of many examples that could be cited.

    So, in summary, I don’t think it needs to be an either-or proposition. It can be both for some people.

  3. Lisa S
    Lisa S says:

    I’m going through the drama of having my kids learn an instrument because I know what the discipline can bring down the road–the joy of playing alongside other musicians. It’s similar to the joy of playing a team sport, minus the injuries and sitting the bench.

  4. Violeta
    Violeta says:

    “…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.”

    Brilliant. Thank you!

  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Couldn’t you argue that going to school is an act of endurance? I mean, not much of it is useful except the ability to withstand it and the occasional snag on one’s inherent interests.

    I did music lessons with the kids, but the nagging was tiring me out. We *do* math because they’re at that age when the basics are being laid down (elementary). I don’t fret about how long it takes my daughter to memorize the multiplication tables nor that my son has to re-do problems for hurrying. They’re learning stuff that’s necessary AND endurance.

    I read The Dip, and what I took away is that you’re to find the thing you want/love so much that, even when it’s failing and messy and seems to be hopeless, you’ll keep going because it’s a Must Do for You.

    My kids didn’t “must” about music. I paid out a lot for very little. It was not a Dip I could endure.

  6. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    My mom always dreamed of having piano lessons when she was a kid, but she never got them. So I got to take piano lessons, even though I didn’t really want to. She never made me practice, though, and now I very much wish she had. And now I’ve decided that despite the fact that any children I have will certainly grow up bilingual (my husband’s Saudi), I’ve decided they will have piano lessons, too. And set practice times. Visiting China and spending six weeks in an elementary school there and seeing how pretty much every child takes piano lessons and is, at age seven, beyond where I was at age eleven has reinforced this. Schoolchildren in China also know how to self-regulate like no one else; in the classroom, they are all business, while in their breaks between classes, they are running in the hallways, kicking, screaming, chasing…pretty much everything that American kids get in trouble for in school. It’s a fascinating thing to watch.

    I fear I am destined to be a tiger mom. And even though you hate that book, Penelope, I can’t help but think that you are a little bit, too. :) And I’m sorry that your posts seem to inspire the ranter in me…

  7. Gregory
    Gregory says:

    But there is an extreme oversupply of classically trained musicians, partly fuelled by parental competitiveness.

    I’ve read research that found that the desire in teenage years to be a performance artist is a predictor for future low income and unhappiness. This was compared with the teenage desire to be wealthy, which was linked to future wealth and somewhat linked to happiness.

    I’m annoyed because I can’t find where I read this research. So it is basically like the research doesn’t exist.

    But anyway, my objection to teaching a child a musical instrument is that it might spark a lifelong passion.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      There is an extreme over supply of kids who have been trained to write. And most people who really want to be novelists are, at some point, depressed. So should we stop learning to write? No. We learn skills for many different reasons, and professional life rewards grit and perseverence and a well-written email.


  8. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Former Suzuki kid here. Most of my fellow violinists who were really good and didn’t become professional musicians, ended up with a career that involved difficult mathematics. Many of us got our Masters or PhDs in math, computer science, engineering, or physics. And I have been told that there are studies linking musical ability to mathematical ability, but I believe the link is that musicians know that (a) keep practicing and you’ll get it eventually and (b) solving really difficult challenges is uniquely rewarding.

    My current worry is what age to start my children with Suzuki, and whether we should go with cello or violin. I started piano at 6, violin at 9, but my parents started my little brother at 3. My husband, who played saxophone in high school band, thinks this is insane.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Here’s a good way to decide what age you start your kid: You don’t really get a jump start in the kid’s progress if you start at three. The kids are so incredibly slow at learning at age three – especially boys — that in the long run, all kids equalize whether they start at three, four, five.

      So the decision really is are you excited to practice every day. If you want music practice in your life when the kid is three, then start at three. If you want to put it off a year — because daily practice really does change everything — then do that.

      I started my first son at 3 because I was so excited to be teaching him an instrument. I started my second son at 4 1/2 because I was so exhausted from daily fights about practice and dragging the violin all over New York City, I just couldn’t imagine doing a second instrument. My second son had to beg me to start him before I took the leap.


      • CJ
        CJ says:

        My son begged to play violin, begged and begged and begged some more starting at the age of three. I was LMAO when you said that about wine and cake, because I (I don’t hate many things in the world- cancer, unnecessary meanness, etc.) but I HATE to draw, I am lousy at it, and he asked me to draw many thousands of string instruments on paper, the bathtub wall, the sidewalk in chalk…and it took a lot of wine to get me past my forced artisrty period. So I went to the local symphony director in a southern California performance art center at the time and asked if I could survey the musicians as to when I should start my son. I was so surprised, yet happy they almost unanimously agreed on 8. A couple said maybe 6 or 7, but that 8 was the “perfect” time. Their explanations included things such as the dexterity in the hands and fingers being in sink with the mind and comprehension of the musical language. They suggested I start on piano early and then move to strings. We did that and he is 8 now and he starts this fall. I have no idea if this will be perfect timing or if we missed out waiting a couple years, but I know he is really excited to embrace it now and I overhear him tell his younger sister that he has read a lot about the importance of practice online. Ayhow, my Q is: does the Suziki way require the kids to be super young?

  9. Laura
    Laura says:

    Wonderful post, Penelope! I really am going to buy that Suzuki cd.

    I also was forced to take piano as a child as my mom could not. I was horrible at it. I was however a very good singer. I think you have to balance between pushing your child to do something hard and also paying attention to what their strengths are. I wasted a lot of time doing something that I was aware I wasn’t good at. And as soon as I got to be of age, switched over to doing youth opera and other voice music. Although I am glad I was taught to read music. It came in very handy for singing.

  10. Rachel D.
    Rachel D. says:

    For me it was piano. I did not want to practice. Learning to practice when you don’t want to practice is such a useful ability. You can become great at something while growing your love for it along the way. Isn’t that what life is all about?

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      I learned how much I preferred drawing while avoiding practicing piano.

      I would start up a drawing as a diversion and work on it for hours.

      I would sit and plunk through the song selection once or twice and think, “There–done.”

  11. EMJ
    EMJ says:

    Another skill you can learn from music is social: the importance of recovering quickly from error. One of the key pieces of performance etiquette is learning how not to freak out when something goes wrong, because freaking out will make things worse for everybody, especially the audience. Another key piece of etiquette is learning to say “thank you” when audience members congratulate you on a good performance, even if you thought your performance was terrible. These lessons apply to a lot of other things in life.

  12. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Former Suzuki student and current cellist here. I agree that disciplined practice paves the way for self-regulation later. And it strikes me that, because you’re emphasizing this with your boys now, they’ll be better able to self-limit their screen time later. Maybe the music is an antidote to the mind-numbing experience of too much screen time.

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