The Parents’ Perspective: What if Talent Outweighs Passion?

A recent fan comment inspired this next installment in The Parents’ Perspective. A few weeks ago, Jenni asked us:

“How do you handle a child who is very gifted musically but hates it? My 13 year old son hates to practice and has no real desire or motivation to excel, but has a talent and I hate to see it wasted. Any suggestions would be helpful and appreciated. I believe it will help him and others in so many ways.”

We put the question to our panel of parents and here’s what they said:

My daughter does not have the desire to play perfectly (we call her “Miss good enough”) so she would never make it as a musician. We have nagged her enough to get her to a level where she can play with others, which is what she enjoys. I think by age 13 it will be very difficult to force a child to practice, especially if they do not already have a level of facility on the instrument. Pushing too hard at that age will just turn them off completely.

-Jasmine Moghissi (mother of Dominic Favia, trumpet, Show 215)

Barbara Nakazawa, mother of Show 092 cellist Josh, suggests:

Have your child enroll in a chamber music class. It’s true that band and orchestra are fun and social, but with chamber music you have to really know your individual part and listen to the other players. Sometimes it’s important to let go of telling your child to practice but find ways to know that they are learning and growing musically. They will not want to let the group down and will prepare their part. It is most important to let them find pleasure and magic in music. Chamber music is that magic.

Katherine Tobey (pianist Cynthia, Show 098) encourages integrating music into other parts of family life:

Try to bring him to live concerts and/or his peer’s recitals in order to continue interest in his proper instrument studies. In my opinion, a 13 year old is in the process of going through physiological/physical/emotional/social changes. Parents need to be extremely patient, observant, and nurturing of the child’s musical interest.

Naomi Aldort (cellist Oliver Aldort, Show 126) cautions against forcing a child into something they may not want to do:

It is best not to manipulate a child to do what he does not want to do. The result is usually that he hates it even more. He may be not practicing because of feeling pressured and not feeling that it is his own project.

I suggest two possibilities. One is to look in a different musical direction, like another instrument or teacher. Maybe no lessons for a while, so he can fall in love with music on his own…Alternatively, you could let go and stop his lessons because as long as it is a struggle, he will be driven away from it. Letting it go will not “waste his talent.” On the contrary, it will give him the  opportunity to tap into it on his own volition.

Another approach could include recruiting help outside the immediate family. Sean Robbins’ (slack key guitarist on Show 210) mom Vicky wrote:

Let other adults in the child’s life know the situation and have them encourage the child as well. Sometimes ideas coming from someone other than a parent make more of an impression! Especially for a 13 year old. As always though, continue to feed and inspire a passion for music. After all, what would the world be like without it?!

Sarah Odhner, mother of violinist Ben from Show 158, shared her family’s experience with this type of problem:

When one of our sons was sixteen he gravitated to non-musical activities and really did not want to practice viola. Nagging teens quickly turns toxic, so my husband and I decided to put him on a “six week plan”. We outlined a minimal amount of practicing that we expected and told him that we would not be giving him any reminders to practice. I quietly noted his approximate practice times each week and asked him to do the same. At the end of the six weeks he had not fulfilled the minimum requirement and he dropped the instrument. He still loves music and is set to complete a doctorate in chemistry within the next few months.

Ultimately pursuing music has to be a person’s own life-choice. It demands tremendous strength of character and the ability to perform in front of others under many circumstances. Not every talented person wants to do this.

And sometimes it just comes down to the language of the heart:

My two very different musically gifted children have taught me that if the child feels the emotional expression then playing and practicing that instrument will be about learning and perfecting the language of the heart. Playing will have more meaning than practicing just to be good. The best musicians, children and adults, are the one whose heads, hearts, and bodies are all connected in the musical expression with their instrument. What my children did with their musical talent and abilities was not about ME, it was about me understanding them, accepting them, providing support for them, and, their own musical journeys. No musical talent is ever wasted, it may just not take the form we want it to take for the child, and I as a parent, had to be okay with that.

-Judy Merritt, mother of double bassist Edward from Show 100

What do you think? How far is too far when it comes to pushing kids into music?