© Ronnie Kaufman/CORBIS
© Ronnie Kaufman/CORBIS

Music learning: how to motivate your child in his/her transition to adolescence?

Supporting your children without suffocating them can be a high-risk exercise, especially during the transition towards adolescence. These very confused years can change all the aspects of your child's life, including their relationship with music... Here are some strategies you can try.

“I don’t understand”, says the mother of a pre-teen musician. “His conservatory professors are happy with his progress, he takes part in chamber music sessions and regularly performs at end of year concerts. On the other hand, at home, making him work is a real nightmare, he bursts into tears when I ask him to grab his cello on weekends, and he tells me that this is the last year he will be studying music, anyway…”.

If you are the parent of a pre-teen like her, you'll probably find yourself face-to-face with this situation: is your child reluctant when it comes to practising their musical instrument? Have they been threatening to stop playing their instrument for some time? And on top of that, let us guess, his arguments are hard to question: too much work to do after school, the pressure of auditions, and let’s not forget: “No one at school plays music for old people anymore…”.

The YouTube generation will surely pay attention to you if you show them some videos to support your arguments. Start with the coolest classical violinist ever, Nemanja Radulovic…

While in primary school your boy wonder used to accept his or her weekly lessons and doing their homework at home without question, during adolescence nothing goes right. Besides, you cannot fight a war on every front, since school results and good communication at home have the priority… Nevertheless, roll up your sleeves: you must have patience and apply long-term strategies so that they won’t ever say: “You see, mum/dad, if you'd been a little tougher on me a few years ago, I'd certainly have continued to play…”

The first good news is that you’re not alone, and this is even supported by statistics. In France, in fact, 70% of musicians start playing an instrument before the age of 15, according to this study from the Ministry of Culture. On the other hand, when musicians start at a young age, they often abandon music learning during adolescence. In 1997, of the 40 percent of children who could play an instrument, only 18% continued after adolescence, and in 2008 this percentage was 32%, decreasing by 8 percentage points. According to the same statistics, in all generations more than half of elderly musicians (53%) stopped between the ages of 15 and 24, and one in five of them abandoned music before they reached the age of 15.

But at the same time, it is only a transition: when you practice an instrument from an early age - as highlighted by the same study - after the first steps into adulthood, amateur musicians - in most cases - remain faithful to their instrument for a long time and “they will stick to their instrument for the rest of their life more than amateurs in other artistic sectors”, for example, more than amateur dancers.

  • Elisa, Lucie and Juliette (L.E.J.) are three rising YouTube stars from France. All three studied "classical stuff": they are two singers and a cellist, and today they write and perform their own songs. They often stress the enormous benefit of receiving a classical education, since it allowed them to have a solid basis and to work better as performers.

Now, all you have to do is...

Now that you are reassured, it is time for the strategy to apply at home. As explained by Amy Nathan, author of The Music Parents' Survival Guide:

“Accompanying a musician child is like walking a tightrope. Supporting your children without suffocating them can be a high-risk exercise, especially during the transition towards adolescence. These often very confused years can change all the aspects of the child's life, including their relationship with music. Those children who used to enjoy it can show decreased motivation and therefore less commitment, some of them even want to give up”.

Raising motivation, that is the parent’s mission. Despite the different music education systems across countries, the problem of motivation in adolescence is universal. Amy Nathan proposes many strategies, starting by “pressing the pause button, in order to forget about expectations for a moment. With the help of your child’s professor, you can thus assess the situation to understand the root of the problem and consider a fresh start”. These are some of the strategies, and each chapter is based on the arguments probably raised by your child; if they still haven't, wait for it!

“I’m tired of your stupid music for old people”

Now that's a classic. Whatever happens, they will say something like that sooner or later. Amy Nathan gives the example of a mother who, in complicity with the professor, starts looking for sheet music that her children might enjoy. Therefore, if Mozart's Sonata is boring and old, she proposes to play a “cooler” piece, for example Adele’s "Someone like you". At home, her children keep practising until they learn the piece; you might consider expanding the repertoire.

Don't skimp on resources: show (here's the evidence to support it) that 2Cellos' version of Highway to Hell requires a lot of scales and arpeggios.

“I’m tired of playing the violin like my sister”

It’s true, teenagers need to establish themselves. This is why when in the same family someone is making significant progress, the oldest child can experience the pressure of competition. Amy Nathan gives the example of the oldest of two violinists who replaced his violin with the viola, which allowed him to both re-discover the instrument and to differentiate himself from his little sister, who had also become a very good violinist. On the other hand, encouraging collective music practice - by playing, for example, four-handed pieces in the case of pianists - could be a good strategy to alternate and to find a new balance.

“I’m tired of music for old people, part 2”

During adolescence, we would like to both differentiate ourselves within our group and not stand out too much, at the same time. If our child's schoolmates are playing rugby or football whereas he's spending his afternoons with illustrious deceased people such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, we understand that he (or she) may need a connection point with his/her generation. When a too uniform repertoire causes your child to suffer boredom, one way around this problem is to expand it, as we said. Nathan provides the example of a young pianist who had started to practice with a classical professor, but who was more oriented towards improvisation. During his adolescence, he started to play both classical music and jazz, with a different professor. He became the coolest kid in his school, and he also rediscovered his passion for improvisation.

In France, computer music is a big success: in 2008, while "only" 46% of young people declared they could play an instrument (they were 60% in 1997), 16% of the same age group (15-19 years) said they were good at computer music.

“I’m tired of my professor complaining because I haven’t practised”

They usually say this because, the older they get, the more they have to do at home. Music professors are usually aware of the academic requirements of their pupils. But if things don't work out and your child has too much to do, we should even consider a pause. Amy Nathan suggests trying music practice groups in schools; in France, the conservatory's orchestra or choir can allow your child to maintain contact with music, since collective practice is generally a great way to cheer up your child; the social and intergenerational aspects are particularly appreciated, especially during the period of adolescence.

Alternatively, as suggested by Amy Nathan, try to space out your child's classes a little, (which is somehow difficult if we’re talking about a conservatory, but it is possible in community-based institutions) depending on the schedule of your young musician, focusing on when they are available, with a certain frequency, of course. Usually, after a while, teenagers find their own rhythm at school, and they become more open to extracurricular activities: it is only then that you can consider a steadier pace...

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