There’s an old Irish folktale about a mother who wishes for her son to play music. She goes to talk to a druid man, who gives her a choice: he’ll give her son the gift of music if she gives up her soul. If she gives up her body, the druid will take away any desire to play music. The mother chooses to give her soul, and her son becomes a renowned harpist, but when she dies, she spends eternity in purgatorial agony.
I’m sure any parent who has decided to give their child music lessons can readily relate. Gifting a child with music in exchange for soul-deadening limbo? Been there.
For the past four months, Jeffrey has taken piano lessons. We got a recommendation for a highly regarded teacher in the neighborhood with scads of experience, and after about three months of waiting, she was able to find a slot for Jeffrey on Tuesday afternoons.
I made the effort of waking everyone else up half an hour earlier so we can practice before school. There was no small amount of stress surrounding this effort; Jeffrey is bright — very bright — but doesn’t necessarily have the best attention span, and he usually resists doing activities that require a great deal of discipline. He’s also a very emotionally sensitive kid, and sometimes throws himself down into my lap after he makes a mistake at the keyboard.
It probably doesn’t help that I’m bringing my own wound-up-tight ball of concerns to practice; out of my five siblings, I’m the only one who really stuck it out with piano, studying it all the way through high school (and even, very very briefly, toying with the idea of getting a music education degree in college). I resolved early on that I wouldn’t let my kids hissy-fit themselves out of piano lessons the way that my brothers did.
So what do I do with my big whiner of a piano man, Jeffrey?
For a while, it seemed as if lessons were going wonderfully — he had a few attention problems at first, but then we hit a big streak of success. For about six weeks, I’d arrive at the end of Jeff’s lesson to find both teacher and student beaming with pride. “Jeffrey was great today! He wins the prize for Most Improved Attention Span!” Early morning practice sessions were . . . well, not exactly fun, but fun-ish, full of a sense of hard-earned accomplishment. Jeffrey put stickers on a chart to show his practice progress, and we filled up two pages’ worth.
But then something changed. I don’t know if the advent of summer vacation caused it, but two weeks ago I picked up a rather jittery Jeffrey from lessons, and his teacher took me aside.
Perhaps it was time to stop lessons, she suggested. Maybe we should wait a few months, or years, and then begin again. He’s perfectly capable of playing the music; it’s more that he won’t take personal responsibility for it.
This, in no small terms, freaked me out. We had been doing so well, but it followed almost the exact same bell curve that Jeffrey has shown at preschool, in kindergarten, in pretty much every other endeavor he’s undertaken: rough start, some improvement, then he gives up. Or rather — so it seemed to me — his teachers give up.
So we gave it another week’s worth of practice, and my ball of worry wound itself even tighter. I pushed him — perhaps too hard. We talked about following instructions and playing the piano all the time. I knew I was talking about it too much, but somehow it kept blurting out of my mouth. Jeffrey wailed at the keyboard, fussing and whining and sticking his toungue out at me, pushing every single one of my buttons in order to get out of practice. I didn’t give in; one of our practice sessions lasted an hour. Purgatory, indeed.
Needless to say, our most recent lesson is one of the worst he’s ever had. His teacher highly recommended quitting. “If we keep going now, piano will never be fun, never be enjoyable,” she said. “Progress will be slow, like putting on thumbscrews. If we wait six months, or a year, his progress will be twice as fast, and you’ll be getting your money’s worth out of the lessons.”
I don’t know if I can do it.
Would it be better to give him lessons on my own, or should we wait? Do I honestly think he’ll go “twice as fast” when he’s seven or eight? Or will it just be more difficult?
On Wednesday evening, our ward had an ice cream social, and the Primary hosted an informal talent show. Kids spontaneously leapt up to dance, tell jokes, or sing. Jeffrey eagerly hopped on stage, dragging me up to play “Hot Cross Buns” –one of his favorites he’s learned so far — on a little electric keyboard. He was nervous, hands shaking, but seemed more concerned with ordering me around than making mistakes. We played, the audience was enthusiastic.
Jeffrey took a bow.