An infamous chapter in Keilman family lore came when I was a disgruntled trumpet player in the junior high school band. My parents had forced me to take up an instrument and constantly badgered me to practice, but one day I figured out a way to beat the system.
I shut my bedroom door and played a few songs into an audio recorder, then rewound the tape and played it back at high volume as I read comic books. I did this several times, proud of my cunning, but after about 20 minutes my mom burst into the room with an annoyed look on her face.
“How did you know?” I recall asking.
“You kept making the same mistakes over and over,” she said.
My trumpet-playing days thankfully ended when I moved on from junior high, but I must say I was happy when my daughter recently decided to start viola lessons. They’re part of her elementary school music program, so I want her to do well, but most of all I want her to enjoy music more than I did.
She got off to a promising start, sawing away in the living room, in the yard and in the back seat of my car. But lately she has shown the same disinclination to practice I had. I’ve had to nag her a few times, and the lessons have just begun.
This leaves me in a difficult position. As I well know, it takes plenty of practice to achieve proficiency with any instrument. The notoriously strict Amy Chua, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” put it this way in her book:
“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”
On the other hand, you can’t harass a child into loving something – Chua revealed in her book that after years of browbeating, one of her daughters abandoned high-level violin training – and without that love, I am convinced, true artistry can never be achieved.
So what to do?
Luckily for me, this is a familiar dilemma for music teachers, and they have plenty of experience in dealing with it. Their first piece of advice is to relax.
“It’s important for parents to realize it’s not a race,” said Brayer Teague, chairman of the fine arts department at Downers Grove North High School in suburban Chicago. “Sometimes parents and kids think they should improve faster than is realistic. In a video-game-driven society where kids can get good at things fast, something like a musical instrument takes longer.”
He said consistent but brief rounds of practice, even as short as 10 minutes for young children, will produce good results. For kids who are part of an orchestra or band, parents can appeal to their sense of team spirit.
“You can say, ‘We know this isn’t the most enjoyable aspect of being a musician, but it’s really important for you to practice so you can contribute to the team in a really great way,’ ” Teague said.
Mark Corey, band director at Addison Trail High School in suburban Chicago and president of the Illinois Music Education Association, suggested a little psychological subterfuge.
“Try not to tell your kids to practice, but ask them to play something for you,” he said. “Naturally, they’ll run through it before they come play it for you. Then, suddenly, they’re practicing without you using the ‘practice’ word.”
He said music practice should be interspersed through a child’s homework assignments rather than left for the end, so he or she won’t be worn out when it’s time to pick up the instrument. But no matter what gimmicks parents use, he said, moms and dads should understand that conflict is inevitable: The important thing is to get through it.
“If you can’t control an instrument enough to make expressive music that other people enjoy listening to, it’s a challenge to want to go on,” he said. “To get there, you need a certain skill set. The challenge for the parent is to find a way to get that daily skill building in, just playing enough so they can get to that point where they really do enjoy it.
“Once they find the joy of the instrument, from then on, it’s pretty smooth sailing.”
I never got to that point, but I hope my daughter will. To help her along the way, I’m going to take the teachers’ advice and encourage her to have fun while still employing a touch of the Tiger Mom. Oh, and one last thing:
I’m going to make sure she has no audio recorders in her practice space. I’ve already retired that trick.