What is the point to piano lessons for kids?

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I live in the Atlanta, a very urban and ultra-competitive place. Atlanta has grown up a lot over the past ten years. When I first got here, it was incredibly shallow because of all the money. Somewhere along the way, the money dried up and now people have become a bit more grounded. I like it a lot better now.

That being said, I still hide from the competitiveness of Atlanta when I can. I live 30 miles outside the city in a rural area. I work in my office which I built several years ago just a few miles away in the same rural area. You could make a case that I work hard at avoiding a lot of things and you would not be that far off. That is not necessarily a virtue but I tend to like a bit of isolation.

If you have children though, there is a lot of competitiveness that comes with that, especially in a place like Atlanta. I have four children so I often can’t avoid things that I wish I could avoid.

Music competitions for children is one of those things.

Most of you would be shocked if you knew how hands-off I am regarding the music of my children. If you think I am working with them every day trying to hone them into fine musicians that will dominate all the music competitions in the area, you would be wrong. The truth is I often go for weeks without ever hearing my children play music.

Do I care about their music development? Yes I do. That is why I am so hands off.

My way should not necessarily be your way. My way is somewhat driven by my own character flaws. I know that if I get too involved in their music, I will make things worse by becoming a tyrant and slave driver. If I start working with them too much, the likelihood is that I will make them hate music entirely. And above all, I never want them to start thinking that they have to win competitions because of who their dad is.

No, you don’t have to handle your children’s music like I do. But when I watch the way many parents are involved in their children’s music, pushing them to practice until they almost fall off the piano and obsessing over competitions, I often want to ask those parents a very simple question: what is the point?

Some might say the point is the development of character traits such as discipline and the ability to perform under pressure. I get that.

But I think parents would agree that the bigger, main point of our children taking music lessons is for them to learn to be good musicians. We want our children to have a useful skill for life. And as Christians, we want our children to use that skill in the service of God.

You probably know about a hundred people who used to take music lessons but don’t play any more and now wish they had not quit. I probably have hundreds of people tell me that saga every year. Those people are not the exception; they are the rule.

Now here is a question for you: how will you know if you are wasting money on music lessons for your children? Because they win competitions? Because they practice hours a day? Of course not. The answer is simple: whether they are still playing in twenty years.

I am bemused as I watch many parents obsess about the wrong things. Speaking as a musician who never won competitions growing up, I can promise you that competitions are not very important in the long term. Speaking as a musician who practiced 27 minutes a day growing up (I was supposed to practice 30 minutes but knew my parents would not notice if I cut three minutes off), I can promise you that whether your child practices four hours today is not very important in the long term either.

One of the many things my parents did right when I was growing up was to take a step back in the area of music and let me learn to love it. Today, I am one of those rare adults who still takes piano lessons. Except for my 20’s, I have been taking piano lessons since I was 8. And I have no plans to quit. Somehow, I stuck it out even though I never won competitions.

(As a quick aside, in college, I came in second in a Sonata contest. There were only two entries in the Sonata contest…)

Winning competitions is not really very important in the big scheme of things and it is certainly not the big goal. Helping your children learn to master and embrace a life skill is the big goal. The competitiveness for the most part just needs to go. It makes things worse.