Should Parents Force Their Children to Take Piano Lessons?

Over the 15 years I was a piano teacher, I heard this question "Should I force my child to take piano lessons?" from parents on a regular basis. Unfortunately there's not a one-size-fits-all answer. What's right for one family may not be for another.

But let me share my thoughts on the issue.

"How would you feel if someone forced you to do something you didn't like?"

This is a common reason why some parents may feel that forcing children to take piano lessons is never the right thing to do.

But I think there is a problem — and inconsistency — with this mindset.

We already 'force' our children to learn math. We 'force' them to wear a coat when it's cold outside. We 'force' them to eat healthy food instead of junk food all day long.

Many children don't like math, or wearing coats, or eating healthy food. Yet we 'force' them to do those things.

So where are the people that say parents are wrong to force their children to learn math, or wear a coat in cold weather, or each healthy food instead of junk?

Is music education necessary?

Learning music used to be just as important a part of a child's education as reading and mathematics. There wasn't a debate about it. For a child to be fully educated, he knew how to read music and (often) how to play an instrument.

But this has changed. Today people generally believe that only those children with natural musical talent or a strong internal desire to learn music need to have a solid music education.

I disagree.

I believe a music education is an integral part of a quality education, just like reading, writing, and arithmetic. And because of its very nature, piano happens to be one of the best ways for a child to gain that music education. Basic theory, chord and scale concepts, and music reading are so much easier to learn and understand on the piano.

Piano lessons, for many, isn't the end of the road. It's just the beginning. Piano lessons are the foundation for the study of almost any other instrument in existence.

Do I force my own children to take piano lessons?

Yes, I do. And no, I don't. Confusing, huh? Let me explain.

Yes, I 'force' my children because learning how to read music and understand basic concepts of theory is a non-negotiable part of my children's education. My children understand this.

When they take piano lessons (from me), they understand that I'm not expecting them to become concert pianists. They're not dreading some long-distant future where they're 17 years old and still sitting through piano lessons. They understand the purpose of the lessons, and they can see the goal. And that goal is close enough that it's easily met if they just work at it.

On the other hand, no, I don't 'force' them to continue piano lessons for years on end. That means once they can sightread music (rhythm, pitch in both staves, notation, etc.), once they understand chords and scales, and once they can play and understand pentascales, scales, and chords, they aren't required to continue taking lessons.

At that point they have an excellent grounding in music that they can apply to any other instrument of their choice.

Is it ever appropriate to use 'force'?

My short answer is yes, it is sometimes appropriate to continue to 'force' children to take lessons, even after they've attained basic proficiency in music reading.

Does your child enjoy playing the piano? Notice I didn't say: "Does your child never complain about practicing?" That's not the same question at all.

If your children enjoy playing the piano, then they should probably continue taking lessons.

How can you tell if they truly enjoy it? Children who enjoy piano will frequently sit at the piano to play things other than their weekly assignments.

Don't get me wrong, those same children may still complain incessantly about practicing. But if they sit and play other things on the piano on their own, that's when you know that they have a heart for the instrument. And that's the only time, in my opinion, when it might be appropriate to use 'force' to make them continue lessons.

Is it ever okay to let children quit piano lessons?

Once they've reached basic proficiency, if your children only sit at the piano to work on their weekly assignments, then I'd allow them to quit lessons.

After all, by forcing them to continue, what would we be doing for them?

Are they going to be concert pianists as adults? Or are they going to learn to hate all things musical because they were forced to continue on an instrument that they had no real love for?

Sure, there's a chance children might develop a love for the piano after years and years of lessons, but odds are they're more likely to develop an intense dislike for the instrument. You simply have to weigh the odds.

Can children who quit piano lessons ever learn how to play well?

Yes. Yes. And yes. I'm a prime example.

I started lessons at age 5 and I was a habitual quitter. I'd take lessons for a year or so, then I'd complain to my mother that I wanted to quit. And she (thankfully) let me.

But in those off times, I was constantly playing on the piano. My sister and I would sit down at the piano, I'd play, and we'd sing together. Or I'd find some piano music (which was readily available around our house) and start playing around on it, trying to learn it.

After a while, I'd go back to my mom begging for lessons again so that I could 'get better at the piano.'

And the cycle would continue. I'd take for a year or two, and then quit again. But always during those off times I'd be constantly playing around on the piano.

Although I didn't take lessons after age 13 (except for one semester in college), I was getting better and better at playing. I was without a teacher, but I was constantly 'practicing' on my own. Put simply, I was motivated.

I ended up paying my way through college by playing piano for the college's traveling group; I married a music minister, so I've been the resident pianist at most of the churches we've worked at; and I taught piano lessons for 15 years.

And I was a quitter.

That's not to say that every child who quits piano will end up like me. But just because a child quits piano doesn't mean that it's the end. If they have a true love for the piano, it's not the end of the world. They'll continue playing. Just watch for those cues that might indicate that piano lessons may be appropriate again.

Consider your own motivations for piano lessons.

Why do you want your children to learn piano? Because you quit lessons as a child and wish you hadn't? Because you want your child to be a concert pianist? Or because you want to give them a strong musical education?

Consider your motivations. Double check that the end justifies the means. And communicate those motivations to your children.

But whatever you do, don't make it a power struggle. If you do, any natural love for the piano your children may have might be masked by their frustration over being 'forced' to take lessons.

Once you have considered all of the above you may have your answer to "Should I force my child to take piano lesson". I hope this has helped both you and your child.

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Comments

  1. says

    Love this post Joy! From someone who was "forced" for a few years, I ended up taking 11 years of piano lessons and I'm still playing for church today. When I graduated from high school, I considered a piano performance major in college, but then I decided that I didn't want to devote that much time to practicing.

    I totally agree that learning the basics of music and piano are an integral part of education. Learning to play the piano is on Ridley's to-do list as soon as he learns to read. :)

    Playing the piano is my therapy.

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  2. says

    I was forced to take piano lessons for 8 years – but I still can't really play the piano. I did, however, learn to appreciate good piano playing, and as you point out, I did learn the basics of Music Theory.
    We don't have a piano – and they are too expensive to buy just for the purpose of a general introduction to music, so I have had my kids learn guitar instead – using my old guitar. The first 2 enjoyed it and we bought them nice guitars for gifts. 2 are yet to learn. I do agree it is important to expose kids to music as best as we can as parents. I also have mine do Music Ace.

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    Joy Reply:

    @Meryl, Yes, the purchase price of a piano is sometimes prohibitive.

    For many of my beginning students I often recommend picking up a used piano through Craigslist (usually for $300-500). If the child didn't continue lessons, that same piano could easily be sold to recoup the entire purchase price, and often with a profit. That made the whole deal less risky.

    I've even had students get pianos for free simply by asking around.

    The piano I grew up on was borrowed from our church, and it wasn't tuned once in the entire time I learned on it! And yet I still learned just fine. :)

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  3. says

    Excellent article. I also took for two years as a child, one year in high school and one year in college (free lessons after proficiency test). The key is to KEEP PLAYING. I started teaching in my home many years ago and just love it. I also play for special events as well. I also agree that the basics of music and piano are an integral part of education. There are so many skills that the mind learns while stretching it playing the piano.

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  4. says

    Excellent article! I have played piano since I was 5 and was never forced to learn. I majored in voice & piano in college on full scholarships as well. Now as a Mom to 4 kids, I do "force" them to learn music (not necessarily an instrument yet) but I require them to learn musical basics in their homeschooling. Like you said, these skills can be carried over in a variety of ways even if they never play an instrument. If they want to play an instrument, then we would allow them to do that also but they would not be able to quit just because it gets hard either. I enjoyed your article!

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  5. says

    Thank you so much for this post. I have one who hates it and one who loves it. I have really waffled on letting one quit. But I have hopes that she will return to it someday. She is only 9. I really appreciated hearing all sides!

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  6. says

    Great post! My sisters and I were "forced" to take piano lessens in elementary school. I was the only one who didn't "hate" it. (Still hated practicing!) We moved and I started playing flute in band in 7th grade and we didn't take lessons after that. Now I wish my parents had forced me to take lessons through high school. Incidentally, I'm the only one of the 3 of us still involved in music.

    I have taught each of my boys piano for a year or two starting in about 1st grade. My oldest had some talent for it but didn't love it. But because of his piano background he excelled when he started saxophone in 5th grade. My 11 yr old hated piano, but is now a percussionist and loves the bells and marimba-go figure! (He cracks me up now when he plays bell parts on the piano with his 2 index fingers!) My youngest is the one who loves the piano – he plays all the time! After teaching him myself for a year and a half, he started lessons with someone who actually knows what she's doing!

    I think it's great for children to take piano lessons. But then when they have a basic understanding of music, let them pick an instrument they are interested in.

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  7. says

    Thank you so much for this post Joy! I took piano for years (without quitting or even really desiring to quit) and I can still play well. ( I can read music and play from music. I've never had a great ear and I'm not good at filling-in.) So when my oldest son wanted to learn how to play piano, the obvious decision was for me to teach him. That worked well for a while, but not being an experienced piano teacher, I don't think I pushed him hard enough on reading music. To make a long story short (or maybe just not quite as long) we started butting heads over piano. And since I was already having to butt heads with him on all our other school work, piano was what I let slide.

    Recently though he has started playing on both the piano and keyboard: composing and playing by ear. I've wondered if it might be a good time to resume piano lessons. (This time with someone else teaching him.) I think a short stint of piano lessons would help him to improve his skills. Your story has encouraged me that by stopping the lessons I haven't totally ruined his chances of ever learning to play the piano.

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  8. says

    Thank you so much for this post. My daughter was that way – first it was Girl Scouts, then it was ballet, and then piano. Each year she wanted something different, but I wouldn't allow her to quit piano. I told her that she didn't need to quit something just because it got hard. She has now been playing for 6 years and doing quite well. My son is in his 2nd year of playing. I wish I was pushed to play more than I did as a child, but I can pick out notes of basic piano. It is such a delight to hear both of my children playing. My daughter has learned the old fashioned way and my son is using via the Simply Music way.

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  9. says

    Great post. I never learned to play any instrument except for the brief period one was introduced in public school. I want my children to appreciate music and understand how to read notes and theory and everything. I found a great piano program (there are no affordable piano teachers near me) that we are using to learn how to play the piano and both kids like it (not sure I would say love) but they are playing real songs and learning tempo and everything. I don't force it but they know they have piano lessons 3 times a week for 20 minutes. It is working for us. My goal isn't to make them classical pianist (unless they want too). We are using a hand me down key board for now no room for a real piano in our home.

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  10. says

    Thank you for this post Joy. I have a piano and it just sits in my living room. I struggled with this question of having my boys learn piano or not. They don't show any interest but one of my sons does like to play on it (he is 10 yrs old) and make up songs. This post answered many questions I had about what to do. It was very timely.

    Blessings to you! I enjoy your blog very much!
    Joanna :)

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  11. says

    Thank you for this post. Like you, I think that music is an essential. I took organ lessons as a child. I was also involved in choirs and vocal ensembles. I definitely want our children to have a solid understanding of music. We don't own a piano. I would like one, but there is absolutely no room in our house for it. We let our children choose their instruments, though.

    Our daughter began two years ago with the violin. We told her up front that it was a difficult instrument to learn, but if she worked at it for three years (to master the basics), she could then quit or move to another instrument. We have had difficulties with practicing. Then we discovered that she really enjoys playing for an audience. We have worked to develop more performance opportunities and that has helped tremendously with the practices. I suppose it is just a matter of finding what motivates each individual.

    Our son desires to learn the guitar, but he is not quite ready for the rigor of lessons. For now, we play around with it and expose him to plenty of quality music. We will probably start him on lessons next year. I'm hoping to join him to improve my own skills :0)

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  12. says

    thank you for this post. I am completely convicted. We have a piano. I took lessons for a few years as a child and can plunk out some basics. I have always wanted to get back to it, and my 9 year old has also expressed an interest in lessons. However, with the business of life, it has remained on the back burner. Your post inspires me to move it to a priority. As a homeschooler, I wouldn't neglect her 3 R's of education and I need to approach music education in the same way. Thank you!!

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  13. says

    Thank you so much for this post! I stopped taking lessons in 7th grade, but I really wish I would've been forced to continue. I learned how to play with chords in college and it has definitely been a source of enjoyment for me over the years.

    Question… when looking for a piano teacher for our children, what are the things we need to look for?….The questions we need to ask? Is there a certain method or way of teaching that is best?

    If I had to choose I would much prefer my kids to know more theory/chords/playing by ear than to be able to make the highest scores at sonatina festivals (probably one of the reasons I quit when I did!) :)

    What do you suggest?

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  14. says

    Thanks for this article – we have a piano and I haven't been diligent to get someone for lessons. The boy had lessons when he was 5yrs – but complained his fingers hurt – so I stopped. Now he's almost 8 (wow – my son is almost 8) and I have been super lazy wondering if it's just the typical homeschool thing I'm sorta guilted into doing and "force" the boy to do.

    But this post makes me reconsider – thank you!!
    Stef

    p.s. – checked out your site from Sarah Mae praising you on twitter today.

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  15. says

    Thank you for this post Joy. I have a piano and it just sits in my living room. I struggled with this question of having my boys learn piano or not. They don't show any interest but one of my sons does like to play on it (he is 10 yrs old) and make up songs. This post answered many questions I had about what to do. It was very timely. Blessings to you! I enjoy your blog very much! Joanna :)

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  16. says

    Thank you for your article. My son has taken piano lessons for 9 years and my husband and I really agonized over letting him quit. He's very gifted but it isn't the love for him that it once was (and he's very busy with high school classes). Your words of wisdom have given me the assurance that he's got enough music instruction behind him that he could continue later in life if he chooses.

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  17. Ray says

    I've been forced to study Piano for 13 years but I dont have the heart to play. I can play, I just don't like to play. Now I never play anymore. It broke my parents heart, they wish that I could play piano well and show people how good it was. Forcing something to children will only change what outside, never inside. You can Box a water melon and shape it to a cube, but the seeds wont change to a cube.

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  18. Aurie says

    Good stuff. I think the greatest factor in a child's musical education is the parents' attitude towards it. When my brother and I were young, my parents – neither of whom play instruments or read music – kept a piano in the house, constantly played good Christian and classical music (both genres strong on form and tonal quality), and sang inexhaustibly at home and at church.

    My brother and I each took piano lessons in 3rd or 4th grade, but neither of us continued more than a year – he, because of a major personality conflict with his teacher, and I, because we moved. I continued to plunk my little heart out with gusto. Eventually, my brother began to play my pieces by ear (because Lord knows I gave him enough chances to hear them), and after five or six years I was playing both by note and by ear. Today, miraculously, we are both skilled church pianists; I am now teaching piano lessons myself.

    Piano lessons are a huge advantage – but the musical spirit in the home is what really drives kids to music!

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  19. Peter says

    I have to disagree with you on this area:

    "we 'force' them to wear a coat when it's cold outside. We 'force' them to eat healthy food instead of junk food all day long"

    Wearing a coat and eating healthy foods are done for their health. Playing the piano is for their intellectual development. These two are not the same thing so you cannot compare them. Even so, doing something for child's health has it's limits. You cannot perform a preventative mastectomy on a daughter just to lower her risk of breast cancer. Yes, it's done for her well-being especially if breast cancer runs in the family, but that's off limits. So just because you can do something, does not mean that you can do another thing.

    Even math is different from piano, because math is something very essential in the social-intellectual world. You can get by without learning the piano, but you definitely cannot get by without learning Math. Piano is part of the musical realm that appeals to our sense of hearing, and music should be something that is there for people to enjoy, not be forced to do.

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    Joy Reply:

    Interesting point of view. My question though would be, do you hold that same opinion for forcing children to play the harp, hammered dulcimer, guitar, violin, etc? Are all instruments fair game? Or does the piano hold a special position as the only instrument we should force our children to learn?

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  20. Sarah says

    What you say is so true. I was forced year after year to take guitar lessons as a child, my parents even used to hit me if I didnt practice. Of course I ended up hating the instrument. The sad thing is I believe I could have become a musician if I had not been so put off in my early years.

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  21. Elle says

    My son is 9 and sadly does not want to do anything though we have him in Cubs and swimming lessons. He has no motivation. I put him in piano lessons this year because based on his ability at a typing tutor, I just knew he had a mind to hand ability I wanted to explore further. He does so well at his piano lessons and sometimes grudgingly admits the lesson was good. They have been getting harder and he's back to begging to quit.
    We bought an old piano off of Craigslist (for $500) a month ago and he was so darn excited..even moreso than me. AND!!! it came with a couple of instruction books that he couldn't wait to open up and actually play from. He was so proud to show his dad and I what he had learned so far.
    Because he has a habit of quitting the moment things get tough, I think I will always have a struggle to keep him in piano lessons. I think forever more he will have a love hate relationship with it. I tell him though that it is good for his mind (he has symptoms of ADHD) and that it is as important that he learn the piano fundamentals (and frankly do something with his 'off-time' other than video games) as learn the stuff at school where he really struggles. I have him in lessons to cover as many of the bases as I can for his future.

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  22. Julie Joanne says

    Sarah – I totally sympathise with you, as I was sent to the headmistress at junior school for trying to leave a guitar group I'd joined. I liked the instrument itself, but hated having to sing with it, in my screechy, nauseating, high-pitched child's voice. I was finally allowed to give it up when I went to secondary school, and did not pick up another instrument for a long, long time. Your parents should NOT have hit you for refusing to practise.

    Peter is right – the key is to spark a desire to make music within the individual, rather than try to impose it. Ray is right, too; piano is NOT an essential skill for life, and you cannot change the way you are.

    There are many instruments you can learn in adulthood; I mastered harmonica, tin whistle, melodica and 3 recorders when I was well past my teens. I hope and pray that you can learn to make your own music again, and enjoy it.

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  23. Toby says

    I always said that my music teaching career would've really worked if I had been given piano, like my sister, but I started the treble clef new and piano as I transferred colleges to pursue this as a career at 20. I did freelance as a Bass Trombonist then tenor trombonist sometimes singer in different styles in NYC for awhile. Now its my kids' chance and they have studied 3 years piano, ages 9 and 7. Distracted by other activities and not high in motivation, they have not made it into special programs or schools. Today I am duetting with daughter in church for Father's day, and they both impressed at school talent show the other day, so they are pretty good at playing. Their mom has read and adhered to your article like super glue. I, having been a 14 year music teacher on different levels all certified and what not want them to continue, but want to switch to a high need instrument they might like to give them a foot into a musical school and Saturday program, perhaps on scholarship. They are not going to take the spots for dedicated pianists as it is, so why not get into there where they are needed? However, I have not been able to convince mom of this, and time is slipping by. Perhaps only you in a response can shed light on my plan, and how it does not mean the end of piano, but the beginning of bigger better participation by using other instrument to get feet in the door, where piano will still have a role for the future. Thanks Joy!

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  24. Linda says

    Is it right for a music teacher to require a child to perform in a class recital? I know I quit piano lessons when I was a child just because I didn't want to perform in front of people. Can a teacher (school and/or private lessons) require this as part of learning or can a child opt out?

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  25. Tomoko says

    I really appreciate this post. I took piano from age 3-13. I was happy when my mom finally let me quit. I didn't give much thought to piano after I quit until I became a mother. I bought a piano when my daughter turned 3, and started to teach her. Once it became difficult for me to make her practice, I took her to a local piano teacher. She loved it and she loves it even more at age 15. She has gotten so good at it that she plays piano to unwind or to relax, she says. My son is a different story. I had to force him to play and practice. I have been forcing him for the last 5 years. He won't practice unless he was forced to. He tells me he wants to quit off and on, but sometimes, I catch him practicing longer when he likes the song. He is an athlete not a pianist. After reading your post, I think I might let him quit the lessons when he starts high school :) Thank you, I found the answer I was looking for in your post.

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