Over the 15 years I was a piano teacher, I heard this question 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 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.