Our "Gamble" with Piano

Our "Gamble" with Piano

The stakes were high a couple of years ago: would our daughter continue playing? 

Well, music still fills our house and with near-zero strife!

When her teacher asked if I would share our secret with the parents of her other students, my husband and I had a private chuckle. Because it wasn't easy, and those parents might not like what we have to say.

a little background

Claudia, now 11, started playing when she was eight. She has some natural talent and her teacher just ran with it. Our daughter was encouraged to jump in with real pieces, marking them up with crayons and shapes to understand their structure and beauty.

Eventually, Claudia was willing to try the formal testing that is so common in Hong Kong and doggedly prepared scales, arpeggios and three pieces for the Grade 5 ABRSM exam.

On the big day, I smiled at her going into the soundproof room. Half an hour later, I felt her crumple into my arms choking down sobs. What had gone wrong?! I had to quell my panic and, outside on the noisy street, Active Listen.

It turned out that, early on during Claudia's shaky sight-reading, the white-haired, steely blue-eyed examiner had mumbled an unintelligible order. Withering under his steady stare, she did not assertively ask him to repeat himself. After he abruptly moved on to the next agenda item, Claudia remained rattled and was quite sure she had failed.

That evening she started saying she was going to quit. We let that lie for a while but she stuck to her guns even after a few weeks.

In our huddle, so to speak, my husband and I asked ourselves the P.E.T. go-to question: Who owns the problem?

it's a values thing

At that point, our daughter wasn’t traumatized any more. Claudia was making a rational (as she saw it) decision to give up piano, especially if it involved terrifying exams. Stopping was not a problem at all for her; she would find a million other ways to while away her hours.

So it was under our Line of Acceptance and we had a problem. But was it a Conflict of Needs or a Collision of Values? 

Once you know where you are in the Behavior Window, you can plan your approach to the issue.

Once you know where you are in the Behavior Window, you can plan your approach to the issue.

P.E.T. guides us through a series of elucidating questions; if we can pass the "concrete and tangible" test (or the relevance test), we have a Conflict of Needs situation that is amenable to Method III Problem-Solving. (Note: "Failing" is not cause for alarm but just means we have to use different strategies.)

My husband and I were honest with our answers:

1. Just the opposite -- We would save a lot of $$ and time spent carting Claudia to and from the lessons. As for our expensive piano, it had been purely our choice to buy at that price point; why should she be pressured about a sunk cost? 

2. This was our best argument -- But we love listening to you play! (Nine years of lessons did not bring me anywhere close.) An argument that we would be prevented from getting our money's worth from our Bechstein would be spurious. We could get this need met in ways other than the one solution that SHE keep playing: I could take up lessons again, say, or we could sell it. 

3. Negative.

4. Refer to #2.

As for the relevance test, Claudia accepted the fact that we felt strongly about this; not every child would though. A kid might reasonably ask, "What's it to you? How does whether I play piano actually impact you in meeting your needs?" Whether your child will hear you out can depend on whether open communication, mutuality and flexibility characterize your relationship with him:

Parents obviously will have more influence on their children if their methods of influence do not produce rebellion or reactive behavior. Nonpower methods of influence make it much more likely that children might seriously consider their parents’ ideas or their feelings and as a result modify their own behavior in the direction desired by the parent.
— Dr. Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 216

So, you COULD try to spin it as a Conflict of Needs -- and if your child is willing to do a Method III Problem Solve then, by all means, go ahead -- but it's not super convincing. 

It's pretty much a Values Collision.

so what are our options? 

We decided mainly to Consult and Modify.

Effective Consultancy

Dr. Gordon lays out the three steps:

  1. Get hired (your child feels listened to and is now willing to listen to you)
  2. Come armed with compelling facts, figures, life stories or other experiences
  3. Leave responsibility with the "client"

We prepared! Our opening shpiel went something like this:

“Ever since the exam, you’ve been really sure that you don’t want to play piano any more. That was just such an upsetting incident! It doesn’t even matter what your grade was, you feel you never want to go through that again.” [Active Listening]

Claudia reviewed the horror of that hateful day and we again paid attention and empathized.

Then we moved in with the meat of our presentation:

"And yet, we are so sad about the prospect of you stopping. We know it is your choice and we definitely don’t want to force you to play.

Here’s why we think you should though:

  • You have a real beautiful side to who you are that would be a shame to ignore. To nurture this talent, it helps to start young, when your brain is more pliable.

  • Did you know that about 70% of adults wish they had kept at their instrument?

  • You feel you are busy now but, believe it or not, life will get busier. We love the teacher’s idea that you build up your art and finish all exam taking by the end of 8th grade, before high school starts.

  • Look at your Auntie -- she bought a piano recently and goes to it for escape and solace. That’s a gift you can give yourself. 

  • Once you pass the Grade 8 exam, you will be done and you can put it down as a great personal accomplishment.

  • You might want someday to teach piano as a way to make some money (or all of it).

  • You don’t have to take exams, and if you want to find a teacher who doesn’t push them, we will help you to do that. Your teacher, however, is a real gem. Giving up her instruction would be a big sacrifice in quality."

And then we stopped talking

Pretty much, Claudia made up her mind right away to continue.

My husband, braver than me, said, “And, remember, you can always stop.” (I mean, I know that but did he have to mention it just then?)

Modify Self

The above exchange required some serious work. By asking ourselves, "What's more important: piano or our relationship with our daughter?" we decided we wanted her to be 100% in charge of this decision.

And then, after she committed to continuing, I had to ask myself regularly whether it was my problem whether she practices zero, 5, 15 or 45 minutes a day? The answer was always the same: NO. It was really between her and her teacher.

That freed me from nagging or even reminding her to practice. You cannot imagine how amazing that is! Or . . . can . . . you? When she says on her own, “Oh, I’ve got to practice!” and pulls out her sheet music, the delicious satisfaction I feel is RIDICULOUS.

So that was our "gamble" with the piano. We did not leave it all to chance; our P.E.T. notes on Consulting helped us, in a sense, to weight the dice in our favor.

Was that cheating? Naw . . . everyone benefited from the respectful exchange.

There really is nothing more I love than to listen to Claudia play. Of course, life gets busy and I'm not always there and that’s ok. She doesn’t demand it and it hasn’t been a bargained-for part of the deal (read: reward).

But when our lives align and I can pull up a dining room chair behind her bench to marvel at her music, we both know that we’ve carved out a little bit of heaven.

Note: Let me mention two other Value Collisions. Gone now are my dreams of three cute black belts all lined up and kicking; no one relished karate. 

As for Mandarin, despite loads of Modeling and Consulting, both boys gave up their tutor a few years ago. Yet our younger son recently asked to go back; talk about shock and delight!

As parents, it may be hard to shift to this place where we give it our best shot and then it's out of our hands. We feel locked in battle and "losing" is hard to swallow. But let's zoom out and focus on this comforting fact: by refusing to use power, we are winning a truly important war, a war for a lasting positive relationship with our children.

Thanks for reading! Values Collisions are SOOOOOO hard because we so fervently want our children to benefit from our wisdom. Which ones are the hardest for you and what has worked to help you realign your priorities? Is there anything you find particularly challenging? Would love to hear from you.  

Wishing you peace in parenting,


Credits: Boy & piano (http://www.trbimg.com/img-537bd0cc/turbine/ct-sc-fam-parenthood-piano-jpg-20140520/2048/2048x1384)