When I was in the third grade, I totally wanted to play the drums. But back in the 1970s, girls were not encouraged to play percussion instruments. Nay, the “banging” instruments” were reserved for the boys. I was, however, presented with a shiny flute and told that if I was ever good enough that, one day, I would be able to play the piccolo. Whoop dee doo.
Years went by, and while I may have played well enough, I just never felt anything for the flute. In fact, at one point, our house was robbed and I actually prayed that the thieves had taken my flute. They did not. In middle school, on band days, I used to look back at the strawberry-blond haired drummer, Kevin Eastman, with a kind of longing and wish I was the one doing the boom-tap, boom-boom tap thing. (I used to look back there so much, I think I sent Kevin the message that I liked him more than a little bit. But I digress.)
My parents basically made me stick with the flute until I entered high school, at which point I was allowed to drop it.
Fast-forward thirty some odd years. My son has been taking private piano lessons for just over a year now. He loves the piano. I mean, I think he loves it. I have never had to ask him to practice; he just goes and does it on his own every day, and I assume we would have epic wars if he didn’t like to play because I really want him to play an instrument.
This year, boy had the opportunity to try another instrument through school. He was given three choices. Like me, he ended up with his last choice: violin. Unlike me, he rarely practiced. And while he diligently made it to orchestra and lessons, truth be told, he didn’t care if he ran out of rosin. He didn’t care if he was in the last seat (and he was), and he didn’t really care if my car accidentally ran over his violin (which almost happened once). I wasn’t surprised about his attitude. He was assigned an instrument for which he had very little feeling from the get go. And I allowed him to slack with his violin because he had the piano. By April, after one orchestra concert and another on-deck, he decided he was “totally done” with the violin and, frankly, I couldn’t wait to return the standard-sized rental along with its hour-glass shaped case.
In May, my husband and I attended our son’s piano recital, which was held in a beautiful, intimate room at a nearby college. The children played their pieces, one after the other, on a gorgeous Steinway up on a stage in a room with perfect acoustics.
Before the concert started, the piano instructor, Ms. Esther Wadsworth stood and addressed the audience, welcomed everyone, and then read a piece of writing composed by one of her students, Nick Conley, who would soon be graduating from high school and, I assume, would not be continuing his piano studies with her. I am not certain if Nick wrote this piece as his college essay or just as a kind of thank you note for Ms. Wadsworth, but his words struck me. He wrote:
I cannot imagine my life without piano. But this was not always the case. I was only six years old when my mother forced me (literally) to take piano lessons. I was not having fun with Piano and desperately pleaded with my parents to let me quit. The negotiations did not go as I had planned and was told I had to finish at least my first year. My piano organization held an annual recital for all of the students to perform. I was to play first. After my cue, I approached the highly glossed Steinway and seated myself. I honestly don’t remember playing anything; it all seemed like a haze.
As the recital continued, the pianists got better and better. The final musicians played Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Billy Joel, Shubert and Elton John with ease, making the piano come alive. By the end of the recital, I had lost all eagerness to quit and was filled instead with a lust to learn more. And so I did not quit piano and stayed with the grueling theory work and played songs that I did not enjoy. Now at the age of seventeen, I am ironically the last chair in that same recital. Piano has become my outlet, and I use it to channel my emotions into melodies instead of bad habits. If I am lucky enough, maybe I can prove to some kid sitting in the first few rows that all the hours of energy and dedication are worth it.
So after the violin was gone, and after hearing Nick’s essay, and after hearing the students perform in the recital, I wondered: Should I have made my child stick with the violin? Isn’t one instrument enough? And what if one day he says he wants to quit piano? Or (gasp) fencing? How do you know when it’s time to let an activity go? When (if ever) do you override your child’s desires and force them to stick with an activity?