The argument against music lessons for children

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.

50 replies
  1. Linda
    Linda says:

    You’re not doing anything wrong. But eventually your influence will wane maybe one day he will teach cello.

  2. Starr
    Starr says:

    When my eldest said she wanted to play violin, I had no idea what I was getting into! I am a pianist, and my mother did absolutely nothing beyond drop me off at lessons–this violin thing, which we’ve been doing for almost two years, has been a much bigger time investment. She’s pretty good, though, and all those damn bowing exercises are paying off. I’ve encouraged my other kids to take up the kazoo…

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I agree with the basic statement here, which is that if children are learning to play an instrument they need the help of their parents with maintaining practice discipline, but I see some exaggerations beyond that.

    First, it seems like Joshua Bell would argue that it is unnecessary to practice six hours a day for a decade in order to become a soloist. From the link:

    Q. “How many hours per day did you practice as a kid and how many hours do you practice now?”
    A. “…I know some kids or people practiced 8 hours a day. I would die if I did that! I mean I physically wouldn’t be able to do that. I don’t think I could survive that but I learned to make the most of my time and be efficient. So I would practice 1 or 2 hours a day…”

    I’m happy to take his word for it. Practicing six hours a day makes nobody into Joshua Bell, not even Joshua Bell.

    Second, it is by no means certain that a person must begin playing at the age of four or five in order to become a professional-quality musician.

    It’s true that most virtuosos in history began so early, but (as you point out) most virtuosos also come from musical families, and most such families don’t see the point in waiting because music is already there. Kids tend to participate in the business of their families. Also, there are so many strings players who started young because most other instruments simply can’t be played by four and five year olds. No professional oboeist or trumpeter started at four.

    On the other hand, the vast majority of children who start string lessons at four or five will not play an instrument at all as adults; they’ll abandon it somewhere along the way. The typical beginner Suzuki class has more kids who will hate violin as adults than who will love violin. The vast majority of students who begin at four or five will never touch an instrument again past their teen years.

    It is also the case that orchestras contain plenty of strings players who did not start playing until seven, nine, ten (the age public schools typically start having lessons). There are even professional classical string players who did not start playing until much later. Terje Moe Hansen started at 19, and entered the Oslo Academy of Music three months later. He is now a virtuoso, professor, etc.

    It is just a myth that you need to start playing an instrument at four or five. That might be right for some kids, but others would probably benefit from waiting a few years to avoid some of the familial trauma caused by practice arguments and better develop some inherent drive. I am close to someone who took up clarinet at 11 and was playing with a professional orchestra at 13. Six hours a day of motivated practice from 11 to 13 easily beats six years of arguing daily with your mom and sawing resentfully through Suzuki books.

    Third, the fact that you fight with your kids about music lessons is something about how your family communicates. It’s not about all kids or families or all music practice. I do not have to fight with my son about practice, and I rarely have in the six years he’s been practicing. I have certainly never broken a bow. Sometimes I have to insist he play a passage again, because he keeps swallowing a half-beat, sometimes I have to remind him to use the metronome, sometimes I have to point out the day is getting late. But music is about his enjoyment and his goals, and all he needs is a little help staying on course.

    I find eleven to be a very fun age because my son’s abilities and enthusiasms are growing. He practices strings for about an hour and a half a day, and piano and singing another two or three on top of that. He has some vocal auditions in June, and he’s having fun wrestling with Sondheim. It’s nice to have a house full of beautiful music.

    In terms of cultures and their appreciation for classical musicianship, it’s clear to me from my own experiences that it is true that Asians are heavily represented among young string students. I sometimes wonder why. I would have enjoyed links that didn’t just dead-end at books on Amazon. In our conservatory, the second most common ethnicity is Russian. We are neither, and sometimes have to correct the assumption we must be Jewish.

    If there’s one piece of advice I would give to other parents who would like to encourage their children to be musicians it is to give up on sports.

    Sports for kids have become so quasi-professionalized these days that the time commitment required for mere participation is preposterously onerous. Around here you typically have to sign up and pay the fee before they even tell you which days your team will practice. And it’s set out beforehand that participation in competitions is required; if you have other things to do on Saturdays or Sundays, forget about it. This is for seven year olds. Sports have become the opposite of play.

    • Eloise Hellyer
      Eloise Hellyer says:

      Hooray! Someone finally brought up the problem of sports for kids – something NO ONE talks about. Everyone is worried about making their kids practice for 30 minutes a day, but no one thinks about the possible psychological and physical harm organized sports can do. Also, more than one sports coach has recommended to my young students that they give up the violin (yes, I am a violin teacher) so they can pay more attention to their sport and attend more work-outs!!! This is something I have NEVER done (suggesting a student give up another activity) – even with my more talented students who were obviously heading for a professional career. Many of my ex-students have gone on to professional careers (I teach them up to Kreutzer, more or less) and NONE of them practiced hours a day when they were little. My “best” ones, maybe an hour at most and NOT at my behest. My attitude that while the violin is the most marvelous thing in the world, there are lots of other marvelous things out there, too, and children should try as many of them as possible. As for Suzuki kids hating the violin when they grow up, a lot depends on the teacher and the parents. Many of my ex-students still play for the fun of it (and they were horrible practicers) and the ones who gave it up altogether still recognize the value of their music education, with very few exceptions. I also raised (and taught) my own two very talented daughters, both of whom have a MA in violin performance, (one is a pro and the other does something completely different but still plays) who never practiced more than an hour a day until well into adolescence (14 or 15). The professional hated the violin when she was little but one day woke up and decided she loved it and started practicing on her own 6 hours a day. I tried to stop her and convince her to attend a regular college, to no avail. So thank heavens I insisted she practice when she was little. Someone in another comment said the “best” teachers aren’t interested in older beginners. I would question what they mean by a “best” teacher. If they mean teachers who produce results at all costs, that is not my definition. Music is for everyone, no matter what age. Ambitious teachers are causing more damage than any parent “forcing” a child to practice. I put forcing in quotes, because compelling a child to practice is frowned on, but compelling him to do his homework, do his chores, have good table manners, go to religious catechism, etc., is seen as perfectly ok. A half hour daily of instrumental practice isn’t going to kill anyone or make them hate music, IF the teacher, and thus the parents, have the right motivation: to help a child learn to express himself musically on whatever level he is capable of without thinking of a possible career. That will come on its own – being a musician is a calling. That call sometimes doesn’t come until a student is much older so being prepared for it means starting younger than 15 normally and having been strongly “encouraged” to practice that half hour a day (obviously a lot less for the tiny ones). I should also mention that my general definition of a “best” teacher does not include professional school and conservatory teachers whose job is to turn out professionals and usually have older students who are highly motivated and self-directed.

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I’d like to see a list of string players who got jobs with orchestras after starting after, say, six years old. Maybe that would open things up for other kids. I think the system right now is set up to overlook almost all but the most special kids who start later than everyone else; the best teachers generally are not interested in them.

    Music is a system just like everything else. You need connections to get jobs, and you need mentors to get connections. And there are rules you have to play by. Just like homeschooling, if you bypass the rules of the system, you probably bypass the benefits of the system, so you have to be prepared for that.

    Maybe. I’m not totally sure. I’m not a musician myself. But in general I think the whole music world would benefit from kids starting later and not needing parents to force practice. Maybe. Not that I’m acting on that….


    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I took a look at the ages the BSO strings players say they started at. About half of them say. Here are the results:
      Bass: earliest 9, latest 20 (had played trumpet since 11)
      Cello: earliest 3, latest 16 (had played violin since 8)
      Viola: earliest 4, latest 13 (violin since 7)
      Second Violin: earliest 6, latest 9
      First Violin: earliest 3, latest 9

      If you get out of strings, as I mentioned, the ages tend to get later. Andris Nelsons, the conductor, only began playing his instrument, the trumpet, at 12. Of course, he sang and played piano too. His musical family didn’t push it on him, and he turned out fine.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      I think what you (PT) describe is a much truer scenario for most people, meaning those who are not extremely-gifted-prodigy-outliers. I started playing violin at age 9 in the public school system, and relative to the other kids at school, was very good. I regularly played in competitive and honor orchestras, but did not enter a truly pre-professional, Suzuki-based school until late middle school, which the head teacher regularly told me was “far too late” to really make anything of my skill in a professional way.

      Because of my late entry, I had to take lessons from one of the secondary teachers at the school, rather than the (more famous and well-connected) lead teacher, and had great mentors, but not the best mentors, etc. Probably not a surprise that I never really pursued a career in classical music, but I did minor in violin at (not Julliard) college and play in the (Midwest state school) collegiate orchestra. I also still like to play now, even though I did everything possible when I was a kid to avoid practicing.

      Practice on a string instrument is both difficult and tedious, and needs to be consistent to solidify concepts and show any improvement. I can’t imagine it being something that anyone would ever put themselves through on a self-directed basis before at least teenage years, at which point it’s much too late to hope to develop professional-level skills. All of that to say, anecdotally, if your son continues to want to be a professional cellist, I think you’re stuck reinforcing the practice time rules for now. (Also, I suspect the early-side bassist numbers posted by Bostonian are more logistical than anything, and I would guess that some of those late-starting violas are actually earlier-starting violinists who switched.)

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        Access to the best teachers works in a variety of ways. Sawing endless Suzuki twinkles at three isn’t the only way. Look up the bio of Sheila Fiekowsky to read about how a girl who picks up violin at 9 in public school can appear as a soloist with a major orchestra at 16 and go on to a good career. It happens.

        It is good to remember that if we are talking about the sort of people who are capable of becoming professional classical musicians, we are not talking about most people, and arguments about what most people or most kids could do are of limited relevance.

        Many professional bassists started elsewhere in music, keyboards, brass, singing… It is extremely unusual to start bass very young, for obvious reasons. But violin wouldn’t be much more help than any other instrument. It is probably also true that more players who start late start on bass, because they are big enough and the need is there.

        I am intrigued by the mention of a pre-professional Suzuki program. In these parts, Suzuki is just for little kids, and older kids in conservatory prep use European methods.

        • Rayne
          Rayne says:

          Bass is wholly it’s own thing. My husband is a bass player. He started on piano, clarinet, & trombone. In middle school he picked up the guitar and in high school the electric bass. He minored in bass performance without having played an upright before arriving at college. Only one bassist arrived with upright experience (which was Greg Garrison, the bassist for Leftover Salmon). Several of the folks he studied with went on to have decent music careers. I can’t think of another instrument where you can show up having never touched and make it your major or minor. I know freshman year was very difficult for all of them to learn how to bow, but they did it.

          • CMBG
            CMBG says:

            Organ. A friend never touched an organ before college; she was planning to concentrate on her longtime instruments, violin and piano. But she fell in love with organ and made it and choral music her career.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I don’t think yelling at kids, calling them names, and throwing things in a fit of rage is conducive to building healthy relationships. I don’t think it’s something that our kids will look back on with fondness. But I would be a straight up liar if I came here and said I had never done something similar.

    The heart of the matter for me is that as homeschoolers our kids have way more time each day to improve in areas that they excel at, to master something, and as parents we don’t get the same response from our kids that other people receive. Like mentors, teachers, and coaches. And *that* is what is frustrating.

    When my daughter is in acting class, or in theater rehearsals, she takes direction well and everyone loves her. She is a naturally talented actress. Yet, I have to help her at home with auditions and monologues. I want to feel like I am a good teacher or a good coach, but when I ask for the fifth time for a little more spunk or to emphasize a certain word in the sentence to really give it something special, and I get nothing…it IS frustrating. It’s frustrating because I know if she was doing a private session with an acting coach they would have figured it out by now, and they would be having fun. With me, it’s just hard work. It’s repetitive. It’s boring. But my child doesn’t have the foresight or experience yet to know that hard work pays off. The teachers and coaches get to inspire and do all the fun stuff to bring out the best, but I’m stuck with the part that gets her foot in the door to a callback or to booking an audition. That part isn’t fun. It’s rehearsing monologues until they are memorized. It’s then diving in and doing character development and creating a scene from it. It’s reminding her to slow down at certain parts and look at the reader when speaking. It’s just as frustrating for her as it is for me. I’m her parent, not her coach. So it’s like this conflict of interest, and I have to work so incredibly hard to not cross that line into rage and name calling or being overly critical. I also can’t just walk away and let her fail, this is what she wants to do! She doesn’t have the experience to know what to do all on her own yet, but she does get to see all that hard work pay off. She realizes that I’m not doing any of this to get her upset.

    What I do now when I feel the frustration start to rise, I take a break. I walk away, I tell her we will pick it up again later, and I go into another room and do something for myself like reading or some breath-work. It’s been working.

    I don’t want to be one of those parents that says to their kids later in life “I did the best I could”. Because that is just a lie to try to excuse mistakes that were made, I can always do better.

  6. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    What? You know I respect your knowledge bit seriously…. Ethan picked up the violin in December. He is playing on stage with the church music team, holding it properly and not squacking. He is on year 3 of piano in 2 years and plays complicated music by ear. I think if I found a high up teacher they would take him because he oozes talent. He is also teaching himself the oregon. So here’s the deal, I told him I could care less about his music. He is not going to make decent money at it and it needs to be a secondary job. ( I am happy if he proves me wrong). So, I have no desire to fight with him. If he doesn’t practice then I’m not driving him. He practices 2 hours about per day and I don’t say a word. When I notice the time go down I ask him and normally it’s because he needs to be challenged more at lessons. If they want to play why are you fighting with them? Isn’t this the time to teach self direction? If they want this then they will have the drive to do it? The one thing I noticed with Ethan was I had to make the rule electronics can’t come on until later in the day, other wise he doesn’t do any thing all day. :)

  7. My Boys' Teacher
    My Boys' Teacher says:

    I have some thoughts I want to put out there without taking too long about it. So, please forgive me for not filling in the blanks. I’ve been reading you long enough to know you can fill them in yourself.

    1. In Malcom Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” he suggests that 10,000 hours of practice is what makes a professional musician. Joshua Bell likely got in his 10,000 hours despite sneaking off to play video games and he had the ingredient of talent. I disagree with Gladwell. I think it takes talent plus 10k hours. The end of this article sums it up nicely:

    2. After finding out I homeschool most people say to me, “I could never do that because I can’t teach my kid anything without fighting and they don’t listen to me.” I call “teaching my kid something without fighting and getting them to listen to me” PARENTING. Many parents who send their children to school avoid learning how to effectively work (on anything) with their child. I didn’t know how to do it right away either. Because you unschool you, wisely, avoid “making” your child learn most of the time. We don’t want to butt heads when we don’t have to.

    3. However, a child can be old enough to have a vague idea of who they want to be in a year but not old enough to balance “what I want to do right now” with “who I want to be.” “What I want to do right now” is important and it’s engaging and you learn a lot. But, you also want to do things that help you get to “who I want to be.” You have a child who knows what he wants to be in ten years, but that doesn’t translate into “wanting to play the cello right now for this many minutes.” You know as the parent that to achieve his long-term goal you need to help him manage his practice daily or he won’t be able to compete. He needs to do hard work and play to win. That is why you are finding yourself unable to “unschool” the violin.

    4. The same thing happened to me when my children started violin at 3 and 5. I absolutely had moments in which I fantasized about smacking them with their bow. This was the time in which I learned to be my child’s teacher and perhaps even their parent. I kept changing how I practiced with them over and over until the battles went away. The answer, frustratingly, was completely different for each child. But, I learned how to teach my child (almost) anything effectively. I understand how they work now and I understand what motivates them. With all of your personality-type work I’m sure you can apply that somehow to the practicing to get it to work. You already tried the “breaking the bow” method and it probably didn’t get you the learning result you wanted. So, keep changing things until you find what works. I have not figured out how to motivate my kids not to fight with each other all day. I’m working on it.

    5. Rich people do not train their kids to be professional musicians because it is a guaranteed way to likely NOT be rich and to be associating with primarily other people who are not rich. Playing LaCrosse, however, might serve up some excellent business contacts someday.

    6. I think all kids should learn how to work hard and that everyone should learn how to motivate and teach their child. Some families learn to do it through homeschooling, some through public school homework, some through music, some through sports, and the list is never-ending. Sadly, some families declare anything they can’t seem to find a way to get their child to do “too much conflict” and “not worth it” and their child misses out on having a parent they can learn from and may never learn how to work hard.

  8. Sarah Pierzchala
    Sarah Pierzchala says:

    Ha, this is so true!

    We “strongly encouraged” my eldest to study piano for about 7 years, and then classical guitar for two before he rebelled and quit. Now he is teaching himself the harmonica because he wants to drop out of society and ride the rails as a hobo.

    Not much of a future in that, but as long as he’s following his dream…:)

  9. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    ” 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.”

    I always wonder what is the equivalent for Mexicans and other Latinos.

    So often I am shocked by how health and happiness comes to my life regardless of how much money I am making.

    And I am even more shocked at how often I forget it and go back to fretting about making a kickass solid career. It’s probably something to do with self worth more than anything else. Nowadays I’ve got a firmer grasp on my self-esteem and self-worth. But it’s probably a reflex left over from so many years being under that oppressive drive. It shaped everything.

    Also, all the years living in poverty and trying to get out of it so badly. It just shaped how I view as valuable or not valuable to invest my time in. But I am now happy and I feel rich. I have things that I only thought a solid financial life would be able to afford. And I feel in ways that I thought only financial security would bring.

    I don’t know what is the way that Latinos obsess for their kids to break out into the next strata. One thing, for sure, I’ve noticed, is that living in community takes you very far. And a lot happier. And practicing strings is lonely.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      So your family isn’t complicated, that must be nice!

      Speaking for my own family, we are each complicated and perplexing to the point that normal almost looks boring to me.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Just pointing out that many families live complicated lives. I have three very different kids, two of them with high needs. Nothing comes easy for us. So it is easier for someone like myself to identify with other parents who have complicated lives than with those who don’t have any problems. If that makes me egotistical, then so be it.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Shannon, where we live we are surrounded by Amish families. The families are very uncomplicated. Very straightforward. The reason for this, though, is that they give up a lot of individuality. The individuals in the family give up their specific needs for the good of the family (i.e. there are no basketball games that disrupt dinnertime because everyone does the same thing together.) And each family gives up a lot of self-determination to conform to the community.

          The community is strong and our neighbors are nice and the families seem to be no more or less happy than people who are not Amish.

          But, the cost of a very simple family life is the loss of individuality. The more you try to fulfill each individuals’ needs in a family the more complicated the family becomes. Living amidst the Amish has made it very clear to me that there is a linear effect between increase in simplicity and decrease in individuality.


          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            The only time things are simple in my life is when I am at home alone, which is to say that my life is rarely simple.

            That is interesting that you find a correlation between simplicity and less individuality. I find a correlation between creative minds and complicated lives, so maybe that is just saying the same thing!

      • Jennifer
        Jennifer says:

        I said kids aren’t THIS complicated. I never claimed to have no problems. My family is weird and difficult but certainly not THIS complicated. It’s just life. If a kids wants to be successful and is willing to do the work then he will be successful. As parents we can guide and advise but we can never force success.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Does your son know how to practice? Has his teacher given him tips to be more effective? You may be interested in reading this blog post ( ) by American violinist Arnold Steinhardt on his blog – ‘In the Key of Strawberry’ – titled Practice,Practice. It may give you some ideas or lead to better questions for the instructor.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Good link, Mark. This: “Sonya complained to my mother that her errant son was playing the same passages over and over at full speed without ever correcting inconsistencies or downright mistakes,” is the bugbear of childhood music practice. It took my son a long time (and, yes, a few arguments) to break this habit. It’s fascinating to hear that Steinhardt was well into his teens before he got past it. Practicing well – and not doing this – is probably why Bell could advance so well with only a couple of hours a day.

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      Thank you Mark W. I am printing this one and taking it to piano lessons this week! It is timely, timely, timely for us.

      We have been discussing schedule too, like what is the best time of day, or time of year even (summer versus school year) to practice.

  11. jessica
    jessica says:

    Correct me if I’m mistaken, but Is it possible for your son to get feedback on his cello work from more than one great teacher? Can he post videos of his practices and create a feedback loop from other players and or teachers? I would think the picture would become clearer l, as well as his true ambition level, if there were more outside involvement from the community. I understand the hard work at home, but something seems amiss…perhaps it’s the conveyed level of anxiety and drudgery.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      He has tons of teachers. That is not a problem. He takes ten music lessons a week. Not kidding. This is also not unusual for kids on track to be professional musicians — orchestra, chamber music, theory, piano, performance technique, etc.


  12. Elisa
    Elisa says:

    You’ve touched on something crucial, jessica. Ambition. One needs at least as much ambition as talent to succeed at something so very competitive and difficult. Just being talented isn’t enough. Doesn’t such reluctance to practice independently hint at an imbalance between the two? Are you supposing ambition will grow with maturity?

    • Shannon
      Shannon says:

      No. Most kids don’t want to practice independently but they are happy after a successful practice. If it’s ALWAYS a battle, I’d agree

  13. Shannon
    Shannon says:

    I consider guitar a string and jimmy Hendrix started late. But he’s only the best ever. Of course there are advantages to starting early but I agree with the other poster. If someone from a talented family starts early how can you say they needed to start early? But if your kids are practicing over an hour a day why complain? It’s really a humble brag! I think over an hour is too much for young kids but that’s just me. They need time to decompress too.

  14. Passing in
    Passing in says:

    Kachaturian began at age 18. So yes early start helpful but I’d not say essential. And let’s be honest here. We are ALL hopeful for our kids but can everyone on this board have extremely talented kids. And of all of us, what percentage will really make it in their chosen field? Can we want our kids to be HAPPY?

  15. mh
    mh says:

    We’ve been traveling and our music time has dropped to zero.

    One son usually practices piano 60-90 minutes per day because I pay him. Without practicing this week, he is cheerful and contented. I catch him humming his piece and the tricky parts, happy.

    One son practices piano and organ, combined, three-plus hours a day. I don’t pay him, but I reward him with screen time. Without practice this week, he is moody and hard to get along with. He’s naturally intense on a good day. Without practice, he’s disagreeable and devoid of charm.

    There is no room in the car for a piano. I’ve been calling churches to see whether anyone will let strangers come play in their building during the day.

    I don’t know the ideal solution for motivating a child to play, obviously. One I pay; one I have to set a timer so he’ll stop playing or if I have to make a phone call.

    Maybe he’s moody because he’s not getting the screen time. Maybe he’s moody because we’re away from home. Maybe he’s moody because he’s manstruating. Impossible to know.

    It would be nice if the little darlings came with instruction manuals and reset buttons.

    One commenter had the idea of letting them get set up for video, collecting comments and feedback from other students or the instructor during the week. That’s a brilliant idea. At times it seems the kids only listen to me if I’m a) whispering bad news into the phone or b) being seductive and flirty after they go to bed. They sure don’t want to hear they are off the beat or playing too loud for a mezzo-forte from me.

    Best to all. Glad we homeschool. We’ve traveled eleven weeks this (school) year. Ready for normal life again.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love that you pay him! I am increasingly convinced that we should pay kids to do whatever we want them to do that they don’t want to do. It’s exactly how adult life works.


      • mh
        mh says:

        It is how adult life works. In this case, he is saving money to a) travel to Europe to visit a family friend and b) buy a pickup truck when he turns 16. I pay him so I don’t have to boss him, wheedle him, cajole him, or make demands.

        I don’t pay him to do the things he loves to do – I pay him to do the things I want him to do that he finds disagreeable. I never have to pay him to go tinker with electronics in the garage. I don’t pay him to read a halfdozen technical manuals on how to build sci-fi models.

        But for things he considers “work,” that are important to his parents, I’m open minded. Work or don’t work. You can earn as much money as you like. Everything is a trade off. You decide.

  16. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I started violin at 10 in public school. I begged my parents to let me start earlier but they didn’t have the resources to find a teacher nor did they have the money to pay one. I muddled through most of my school career in the back of the section and was content. I never really had to practice. Then I decided to audition for my college orchestra for scholarship money and my college orchestra director talked me into becoming a string education major. It wasn’t until I was already 18 that I really learned how to practice and started to actually get good at my instrument. Having to learn how to teach someone else to play made a huge difference in the way I thought about my instrument and music. I don’t know if I have the personality to ever be a professional symphonic member, but I love to play and love helping others find their joy. Now I am teaching my own kids to play. I tried starting them early like at 3 but neither of them really took to it. But that never bothered me because I knew they could catch up later if they were motivated. It’s about purposeful practice not just kill and drill. My daughter started piano in first grade and took about three years of lessons and then picked up the violin again and has been progressing very quickly. She’s gotten so tall now she’s 12 that I started her on viola mostly because she’s over reaching notes on the violin now and also I know she can get more scholarship money for viola some day. My son who is 8 has started and stopped cello several times but I am hoping it will click with him soon. I don’t force practice ever. I encourage it always, but never force it. It was more difficult when we did public school of course, but now that my daughter is home with me, we can strategize her practice time and I’ve taught her to sit down and make a plan each day before she starts. How is she going to warm up? What scales should she play? ( hint what key is her other stuff in) what is she good at? What needs work? How is she going to approach the stuff she can’t get through? What elude would help drill this technique? Ect….then she records herself on her iPad and plays it back and anylizes and corrects but also lists stuff she is good at so she doesn’t get discouraged. We pace practice and stop when she gets frustrated then go back later and do it again. Sometimes she asks for my help, but mostly she has learned to do it on her own. I know not every kid is like this and it took a lot of work to get this far. But this is what works for us. Her goal is to play for enjoyment first. She would like to make region orchestra and possibly All State in high school (in Texas homeschoolers can still audition for state run music competitions) and she would like to use music in her orcupational therapy career later in life. But she dances sings and is an award winning martial artist too, so music is not her only passion or the the source of her future income. Although she could teach on the side if she wanted. As long as she gets that the key to good practice is problem solving just like anything else in life. When life throws you a curveball, what do you do with it? If you can’t hit that note, why? If your fingers don’t sit right in that position what can do about it? How do you make your bow do that? Ask the right questions, Search until you find the answers and do it until you can do it correctly in your sleep. The really hard part is mastering your emotions so you can channeling them through your fingers and making the right tiny finessing movements with the bow. My daughter thinks her dance and martial arts training help her violin/viola skills. I think she may be right. But the mental and emotional skills are important too. So I try to set a good example by not getting too emotional about practice but stay as logical as I can.

  17. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    I think the problem with instruments can be the tyrannical emphasis on “perfectionism”. (See Amy Chua.)

    I don’t understand why parents want their kids to go too deep in music any more than the parents who want their kids playing lacrosse 6 days a week.

    “Extremely well-rounded” is my overall goal.

    BTW, we have been experimenting with my son taking the ABRSM piano exams….and it’s absolutely killing his previous affection for the instrument.

  18. Joe
    Joe says:

    Sorry, what is the point of this post? Yeah, getting kids to practice, do homework, etc. is hard (whether the kid is average, gifted, or lacks a left hemisphere). This post seems so self serving; that is, boasting that your kids play an instrument – who cares.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Well, you don’t, apparently Joe. Just enough to seagull in here, ready fire aim, and fly off.

      But I do. I usually don’t agree with PT about much, but she lives an examined life. There are those of us who think it’s worth the time to think about what we’re doing. We think it enriches us to contemplate our choices and our struggles, and to share this contemplation with others. To others this may look like neurosis. To us, it looks like life.

  19. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Thanks for writing this. My daughter has asked for violin lessons (after a failed experience with piano when she refused to practice). She’s not that musical, so for her it would likely just be for the broader experience. She’s 8. Based on this article, I’m thinking that maybe pushing violin off until age 10-11 might make more sense–if she is still interested at that time. I don’t want music to be a battle, especially not in this case. (Her 10 year old brother is musical, plays piano, and practice isn’t a struggle as long as we limit video game time–otherwise he would only do that; but removed as an option, he’ll play piano).

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Hi Wendy. One thing to think about is that there are a great variety of reasons and purposes for which one may want to learn to play violin. The conservatory prep –> conservatory –> professional classical musician route isn’t the only thing in the world for a violinist to do. Eight is already on the late side to start playing violin if you wish to go that route, and 10-11 is likely a bit too late for that route (if she’s really into classical music, start with a different instrument at that point).

      But is that what you want? What she wants? It doesn’t seem to me that it is. Your daughter could very well start playing at 10ish along with her school cohort and have the experience of playing in an orchestra by high school. Is that all she wants? If it really catches fire for her, she could even have a professional career, just probably not as a classical violinist. It’s a lousy career anyway unless it’s the only thing you ever want to do. Plenty of people go broke at it.

      Where you live is going to have a huge impact on what her choices are in the first place. My son is in conservatory prep (though at this point he foresees a scientific career and a musical hobby), but it’s easy because it’s close: my son can take the subway there by himself and get there in half an hour. PT has to drive (or I think she pays a driver) a really long way to spend half the week far away from home so her kid can have the kind of prep classes he will need. Is that something that’s available to you where you live?

      How else do people use violins where you live? Is there an active bluegrass community? Irish? Klezmer? What does your daughter like best, classical music, pop music, traditional music? Can she learn to play the kind of music she likes to listen to? Engagement is key.

      What would she be willing to work for? They call it “playing” music, but it’s not just playing. It’s a submerged iceberg of hard work, so when it comes to the performance you seem like you’re playing.

      I hope you find what works best for your family, Wendy.

  20. Jk
    Jk says:

    I’m with Joe. Everyone here endlessly brags and relays how their kids practice ten hours a day and are awesome but in the meantime music is an awful field and clearly this is about status which is why it’s so popular among upwardly mobile immigrants.

    • mh
      mh says:


      Or you could see it as a way kids want to express themselves, and parents going out of their way to make that happen.

      When I was a kid, I was desperate to learn Latin. And I’m not even Roman! I really wanted to learn to ski, and yet I’m not a good enough skier to be on the Olympic team. In your opinion, is it a waste of time for people to learn things that are not utilitarian? I know how to fish, but I’ve never had to support my family with my daily catch.

      My kids have learned more than music from learning to play an instrument.

      You’ve probably noticed how different people have different interests and abilities. Homeschooling is freedom to let those differences take shape.

      That’s reason 73,414 why I like homeschooling.

  21. TheElephantInTheRoom
    TheElephantInTheRoom says:

    I was lucky enough to go to a performing arts high school and major in violin. My parents made me and I hated it, but now I enjoy playing and I’m glad I have this skill under my belt.I started when I was four and though I would say that I’m accomplished,I just don’t have the passion for it.

    A guy I knew at my school, who was a little older and majoring in creative writing, suddenly decided his sophomore year that he wanted to play cello. Everyone in my orchestra had started earlier and didn’t have much faith that he could catch up in skill level and be able to play with us by the time he graduated.

    This kid played all day everyday in the hallway which had wonderful acoustics. He wouldn’t go to class, just sit there and practice. You could see his eyes burning with passion every time he played. (Mozart in the Jungle anyone)?

    Our school actually didn’t mind this. As long as we were practicing our craft, it was excusable to miss class…most times and if the arts teacher was on your side.

    Eventually he got good enough to play in the orchestra. I follow him on Facebook and he is touring the world playing cello.

    He really wanted to play and he had the drive to do it. That’s all it takes with a teacher that really wants you too succeed. In his case, a professional cellist in the city orchestra.

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