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Learning Curves

Things have not been going all that well in Zoe’s cello lessons.  She’s only had a couple of months worth, and I wasn’t so sure even before we started that she was ready.   And in the first few lessons all my suspicions were borne out - she was all over the place, poking around her teacher’s studio and playing with toys and asking irrelevant questions instead of focusing.  I was embarrassed and infuriated. 

After the excitement of the first week wore off, she never picked her cello up to practice it at home.  I would ask her to practice and she would put it off, and then not do it at all.  Clearly Zoe did not want to play the cello. 

I realized only recently that it’s completely my fault.  How on earth did it take me this long? 

I know how music lessons work.  I teach as many as 25 lessons a week, and I’ve been doing it for years.  Students come in for a period of time and pay attention and learn, and we can be friendly but they have to act respectfully.  They go home and work on the things we’ve talked about, and return to show me their progress. Daily practice on their own is when the magic happens.  Lesson time is when I suggest more, better work to do.  It seems totally obvious.

But none of my students is four years old. 

Why would I expect her to know this?

She doesn’t know anything else, not automatically, not instinctively.  Zoe has outstanding table manners, if I may brag, but she didn’t two years ago.  She says Thank You very reliably when complimented or given a gift, but I’ve only recently stopped nudging her to do so.  There’s no reason in the world that she should just intuit the way to behave in a music lesson, or the way to patiently practice and get just a little bit better every day at an arbitrary skill.  She has to be taught not only about the cello but about the process. 

So now we practice together.  We practice lesson etiquette and cello techniques. We pretend that I am the teacher instead of the mommy, and we try to practice showing the teacher all of her skills in an efficient amount of time.  I stress that she won’t get any new assignments or activities if she can’t do the ones she’s been given.  We remind each other about the excellent posture and bow grip she’s been taught.

And sure enough, we are having better lessons now and making more progress.  It turns out that Zoe loves the cello, or at least loves learning it.  She just needed to be taught how.

The learning curve for a music parent parallels the curve for a new student, it turns out.  It gives me much more empathy for all the nice people who bring their kids to me week after week - I've never seen this side of the equation from where I stand.  Incidentally, I also keep forgetting to pay her lovely teacher at her lessons.  I have to apologize after the fact and pay double the following time.  Perhaps I'll get better at this as I go along, if I practice and focus...


  1. Very interesting. I think you have hit on so etching really important : children need to be taught the mechanics of how to learn a skill from a teacher. The way we teach lessons is really geared to teaching children over the age of four. Perhaps the way the Suzuki method of teaching really is effective is in the rituals exchanged during the lesson, many if which are not particularly musical.

  2. Growing up, practicing music for me meant the end of whatever worthless (but entertaining) rot I was engaged in and being banished to the most boring room in the house, the dusty living room where the piano lived, to serve out my daily sentence. I learned to resent my instruments, my teachers, my mom, and life in general.

    I wish my parents had been able to help me engage with my practice and, just possibly, to find ways to mitigate the drudgery, celebrate the growth, and overall just get some joy out of it. Zoe is lucky her mom knows something of these things.

  3. I started piano with my oldest. It's not going well, either. He practices once every two months. I don't want to make him. There's a reason I don't play piano anymore. Not quite sure what to do with this except help him do it when he wants to. He will not be a concert pianist, but even being able to read music is a good skill to have. So, that's my goal for now.


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