Ted talks bitterly about being made to play the clarinet as a kid. For three years during his teens, his parents required him to spend an hour after dinner every night practicing. It was a daily argument. His parents wanted him to be in the marching band (an idea that gave him the shakes). They fought him when he thought maybe jazz was more his thing. They wanted him to love his instrument. Instead, he learned to hate it.

My friend Angela was forced to take up the violin when she was 12. She quickly figured out that her parents had no idea what a beginning violin student should sound like. During her mandatory hour of “practice”, she would close her bedroom door, lay the violin on her bed and pull the bow back and forth across the strings while reading her favorite novels. The screeching that resulted reassured her parents that she was putting in the time but convinced them that maybe the violin wasn’t for her. Much to her relief, they stopped the lessons.

The parents of both of these people were well-intended. They believed that playing an instrument would give their kid some kind of advantage. They saw it as their responsibility to provide the opportunity to have lessons and to insist on regular practicing.

They weren’t wrong to want music in their kids’ lives. There are, in fact, many good reasons to give kids lessons on an instrument.

  • Music can help regulate mood. It can give a child or teen a way to be creative, to de-stress and to feel in control of something when the world feels so out of control.
  • Making music and listening to it develops the part of the brain that is involved with language and reasoning. Neuro-research shows that children who make music have a larger growth of neural activity than children who don’t.
  • It’s not by accident that so many mathematicians, engineers and architects are also musicians. There is evidence that learning an instrument helps in the development of spatial-temporal skills. These are the skills that are central to visualizing how parts fit together and solving problems that have many steps.
  • Making music is a way to make friends and to boost self-esteem. Some kids who have trouble fitting in socially find acceptance and admiration if they play or sing well.
  • Musical competence is an especially important alternative for kids who are not natural athletes in schools where sports are the primary out-of-school activities. Like sports, music teaches teamwork, discipline and the value of making progress toward a goal.
  • Best of all, playing an instrument is a skill that can be enjoyed and shared over a lifetime.

So why does giving a child music lessons often go so wrong? Both Ted’s and Angela’s parents’

hearts were in the right place. But they, like many parents, failed to understand that providing lessons would not make their kids into musicians if practicing was a chore instead of a pleasure.

Music educators are clear: Kids’ success in music depends on parental involvement. Ideally, music lessons are something we do with our kids, not to them.

Here are 6 common mistakes parents make that make kids less likely to stick with an instrument:

  1. They don’t make music the soundtrack of family life. Families that produce musicians often make music a regular and important part of every day. The radio goes on with lively music when the family gets up. Family members sing during trips to the store or while carpooling. They boogie together while doing chores. During dinner and homework time, calming classical music is played in the background. Kids who grow up with many kinds of music as a daily accompaniment to their activities absorb its pleasures and its language.
  2. In a case of “do what I say, not what I do”, they make their kids take lessons without making music themselves. Kids are copycats. When a parent takes lessons and/or spends a half hour or more a day happily working on mastering an instrument, the children see it as simply part of growing up. When making music gives the adults pleasure, kids learn that doing so is pleasurable.
  3. Wait too long to start kids on instruments. Little ones can be encouraged to bang on a pot with spoons, to jingle some bells or to hammer on a xylophone. It’s not noise. The child is learning about beat and about cause and effect. As she grows, more complicated ways to make music can be added. Kids as young as 3 can try out the piano or violin or drums. If you don’t believe it, check out Youtube videos of preschoolers who outplay adults.
  4. Practice time happens when the parent thinks of it, not at a regular time. Practicing is a discipline. It’s more likely to happen when it is consistently built into the daily routine. Kids learn to value the activities that parents show them are important enough to structure into their day.
  5. They send kids off to practice alone. Unless the child is inherently motivated, being sent off to their bedroom to practice can feel like banishment to Siberia. Kids are more likely to enjoy their instrument when parents play music with them at least part of the practice time.
  6. They are too critical. Mastering an instrument takes time. Playing an instrument does not. Children respond to parental interest and encouragement. When parents admire the effort and reward the times that it starts to come together, the kids are more likely to stick with it.

Kids who have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument benefit in many, many important ways. Whether lessons are initiated by parents or by a school program or by the kids themselves, children are much more likely to be enthusiastic about them if those lessons are supported at home by parent participation. When music is a family value, kids learn to value it. Whether they do become musicians or simply appreciators of music, the benefits of a childhood experience of making music will stick with them throughout their lives.