Latest Chart: Practice…is it worth it?

January 18, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

A new year often means a chance for renewal. Last fall, Ten’s relationship with her cello had come to a point where she was ready to break it off for good. I caught sight of her Christmas list, and one of the items she’d wished for—written in large block letters—was “Quit cello.”

When she began the instrument, she felt ambivalent about it. She’d started with guitar lessons and enjoyed them. Along the way we talked about her picking up a second instrument, and she asked if she could play the drums.

We said no.

I know, I know. We’re terrible parents. We didn’t want all that loud…noise in the house. We didn’t want to be subjected to snares and toms. Because we knew if Ten picked any type of drums, it would be the set that needed sticks and would require harsh strikes to make any kinds of recognizable rhythms. No bongos for this child, oh, no. Nothing that would ask for the subtlety found in direct contact with the hands.

Ten, we knew, would want to make some noise. We’d all have to endure the noise with her. So we said no.

I’ve always loved the cello, however, and because Twelve started on the violin we thought it might be nice if her little sister played a complementary instrument. After some discussion, we talked to Ten about starting cello lessons. She shrugged and said okay.

Not the highest heights of enthusiasm, I’ll admit, but she didn’t balk at it either.

At times she’s enjoyed the cello. Then at other times, she’s complained about it. This past fall, Ten declared outright that she wanted to quit. The worst part was that her arguments for doing so were cogent and well thought-out.

“You guys spend a lot of money to rent the cello and on lessons,” she said one evening. “It’s a waste of money for you, so if I quit you won’t be wasting all that money anymore.”

I think I managed to catch my jaw before it dropped open at the mature way she presented this to me.

“Also, I don’t enjoy it at all,” she went on. “I don’t like the music. I don’t like the lessons. I don’t like the studio class. I don’t enjoy practicing. It’s all boring.”

I could understand, in part, the frustration she might have felt with practicing. No one likes to practice or do practice-like exercises when it comes to working on a skill. We’d rather get right to the fun stuff.

“If you practice your scales and everything else that Mr. S. asks you to practice,” I replied, “then you can work on more complicated pieces and more interesting songs.”

She just shook her head in exasperation, her expression telling me that I just didn’t get it, that as a parent I shouldn’t focus so much on…well, parenting.

I didn’t understand at the time where her frustration came from. In some ways, I still don’t. But I wonder if I might have picked up on a clue here or there.

In addition to private lessons, all of Mr. S.’s students participate in studio classes. Once a week students meet in groups assigned by him and study music together. Last year Ten got a lot out of her studio class. This year, however, Mr. S. did a little bit of shuffling of the classes, and Ten ended up in a group of kids with widely varying skill levels. They also had widely varying attention spans, creating distractions in class, talking when they should be paying attention, and in general getting on Ten’s last nerve.

The deeper we got into fall, the more Ten began to complain. The more she wanted to quit. The more her father and I dug in our heels.

While there is definitely something to be said for a child having the opportunity to express his or her own opinion, my husband made the compelling argument that there’s also something to be said for sticking with an activity even if it doesn’t always seem fun or engaging. Nothing in this world is fun or engaging every single second of the day. Even those of us who have the good fortune to pursue various passions or life dreams have to trudge along at some points. Like practicing scales.

Ten’s determination, along with her calm presentation of her differing opinion, impressed me. If I have to be perfectly honest, it also unsettled me a bit. She seemed so self-assured, so convinced that she needed to leave the cello behind. She acknowledged with a tiny dose of regret the amount of time and effort she’d put into it these last few years, but she had no problem letting that time and effort become a casualty for the greater good of dropping the instrument altogether.

I also didn’t relish the idea of her growing up and groaning in loud protest whenever she recounted all the hours we made her practice, all the performances she had to endure. We all have those stories, right, of our parents, of those things they made us do that we understood, in a philosophical sense, were technically good for us but that we hated all the same.

One night my husband and my younger child had their showdown, which wasn’t so much a showdown as it was an exchange. Ten told her father why she wanted to quit. He said he understood that she wasn’t enjoying the cello at the moment, but she’d have to continue with it anyway.

Afterward, I played good cop as Ten complained that her daddy didn’t listen. Now she had something new to complain about in addition to the cello. I had to listen to complaints about both.

I did, in point of fact, feel a little caught in the middle, but there was no doubting that my husband and I would present a united front. Whether in talking with him to Ten or discussing it afterward when she and I were alone, I recounted the points her father made. Granted, I did it in the more “mom” way—with lots of sympathetic nods and a few hugs.

Toward the end of the fall semester, I asked Mr. S. if Ten could move up to the next level of the studio class and he agreed. Ten had the chops to keep up with the older kids, and he had no problem in letting her do so. We confirmed at her last lesson before Christmas break, and she said goodbye to her cello with glee before we left for South Carolina to visit family.

During the two-day drive to the east coast and even during the trip there, Ten would roll her eyes at the mention of the cello. She shook her head. But the vehemence she’d felt before we left had ebbed. By the time we got back to Illinois, she’d begun entering the zone of ambivalence once again.

Last Friday Ten had her first cello lesson of the new year. When I asked Mr. S. about summer workshops, she waited for him to leave the room then got down on her knees and begged me not to sign her up for anything. But this week, Ten attended her first studio class with the new group. She came home much happier and chatting about how much she appreciated the maturity level of the other kids.

“They take it more seriously,” she told me that night as I went to tuck her in.

I’ve decided to take a different tack with her for now. If she’s interacting with the cello—going into or leaving a lesson or practicing—then I’ll talk to her about it for a few minutes. This afternoon during her time with Mr. S., the two played a short piece together and it made my heart smile to hear them. They sounded wonderful, and when we got into the car afterward I complimented Ten on it.

“Thank you,” she said simply.

No snarky comments about how playing well with Mr. S. didn’t mean she would stick with the instrument. No groans from the back seat about how she really didn’t want to be there. Nothing that indicated she loathes the instrument anymore (and, yes, she actually did use that word at one point back in the fall.) I let the matter drop then, going on to other things.

Maybe at some point her ambivalence will turn into a liking and then a love for the instrument. Are we terrible parents for making her stick with it? Maybe.

We’re trying to teach her about persistence and patience. Ten is incredibly bright, but she likes to flit from activity to activity like a butterfly. We hope that she’ll learn to land on one thing long enough to draw deep from it and enjoy the benefits of its nourishment. That takes time. It takes perseverance.

And, yes, it takes practice.

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