The importance of learning to play the piano

May 2, 2016

The importance of learning to play the piano.

What has learning to play the piano got to do with a child’s healthy psychological development? The short answer is ‘everything’. The struggle, the practice, enduring the frustrations, the eventual joy of mastering something that was previously thought of as too difficult, is a life-long lesson. It’s the kind of experience that builds confidence, character and a certain resilience. As your child gets older successfully managing frustrations, academic or social is a very important part of healthy child development. Conversely if your child cannot manage these frustrations then things can get complicated.

The Stanford marshmellow test was carried out in 1960s by Walter Mischel of Stanford University and it is one of the most famous psychological studies in self control. The study was aimed at finding out at what age children were able to delay gratification. The nursery age children were told that if they could wait fifteen minutes before consuming the marshmellow that had been placed in front of them they could have a second one. About one third grabbed it immediately and about one third waited the full quarter of an hour. They undertook follow up studies in 1988 and 1990 , the results were astonishing. He found that those who had been able to defer gratification had done significantly better in life across the board from academic achievements to relationships.

With a bit of imagination it is fairly obvious to see that a child’s ability to be able to delay gratifying needs is a key factor in being able to lead a fulfilling life both at work and in relationships. In a modern world saturated with instant gratifications it is easy to see how learning to play the piano ( or any other activity that involves frustrations for that matter) is an increasingly important developmental challenge.

The first and most obvious question that comes to mind once we grasp this, is at what age can they start to learn to play the piano? Putting to one side the precociously talented child, the answer is that it depends on whether the child has some or all of the skills needed to make a reasonable fist of it. Quite apart from their skills, or lack of them, it is critical that they have a real sense of what it is they are engaged in. In other words, whether it is has any meaning for them. If it doesn’t, then it is too early for them to start. The point here is that if it doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning for them then the activity merely becomes an act of obedience.

‘My mummy likes me to play the piano so I do’. This has nothing to do with the child but is all about the child delievering what the parents require of them.

If as parents we judge this wrongly and expect too much of a child at too young an age, they will internalize the experience of repeated failure and thus have failed to live up to their parents expectations. This may affect self esteem in the future and inhibit their capacity to undertake future challenges.

It is important to bear in mind that a very young child’s efforts, interest and motivation are not, at this stage, primarily driven by their love of the activity. This is wishful thinking on the part of parents. The child’s primary drive at this point is the extent to which it pleases his/ her parents to have a little Rachmaninov/Chopin in their midst, and in turn how much he/she is rewarded with love and approval. Read any biography of the teenage tennis prodigies and you will get a clear sense what of I mean.

Another factor worth keeping an eye on is whether the child’s interest is linked to high levels of internal anxiety or not. All children have worries and anxiety at some point in their life. It is only normal but, sometimes, these worries cause them a good deal of distress. One of the few ways open to the child of mastering these internal worries is to attempt to master an external activity. Mastery of the external task creates an illusion that the internal worry has been overcome. This is the basis of obsessional behavior in older children but also can be seen in the play of very young children. Much to our bemusement and frustration, toddlers often like to play the same game over and over again. The problem is that mastering an external activity only creates the illusion of having triumphed over the internal anxiety. It does not resolve it.

This neatly leads us into the controversial territory of so called ‘tiger mothering’.

What I have just written is fundamentally different from and even diametrically opposite to the ideas proposed by the advocates of ‘tiger parenting’. Making your child practice the piano, or anything else for that matter, for excessively long periods is their mantra. This is not in the least bit healthy.

It is worth asking a few pointed questions about such a regime.

Why would a parent want to subject a child to such a strict regime?

What kind of child would accept such a regime?

What kind of person might emerge from such an experience? Who would the child be doing it for?

It is worth remembering that the real and meaningful passions in our life we tend to discover for ourselves. Rarely do the ones prescribed to us by our parents or teachers become the loves of our lives.

So, back to the regime, are the tiger mother’s children practicing because they want to and take pleasure from it, or because they want to please (or appease) their parents? The answer to these questions is central to our understanding of what we might want for our children in the future.

To my mind what you get from such experiences is obedience, servitude and plenty of ‘achievement’ but very little meaning, wonderment, curiosity, imagination or independent thinking.

The problem with the regime - if your child survives it, that is - is that their achievements are in the service of others and are not a result of any sense of self-discovery or self-initiation.

The price the so called ‘successful’ child pays for a lifetime of dancing to someone else’s tune is a certain sense of emptiness allied to a lack of curiosity and, often, a chronic inability to initiate their own lives.

By all means make them persevere until the end of their practice but avoid marathon sessions at all cost.



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