From a rational economic perspective, my wife and I acted irrationally for years. But the monthly cash outgoes and the daily arguments over practice time and the occasional tears (ours and hers) didn’t end our family’s musical interlude.

It was Carnegie Hall and all it symbolized.

Invited to give a recital at the famed venue this past winter with other students from Connecticut, our daughter didn’t seem quite as jazzed as her parents at the prospect. She appeared increasingly indifferent, if not, at times, despondent. Her song was not going well. Our family’s tenuous peace was increasingly disturbed.

Whose dream was this anyway?

We had tried violin, where her older sister showed some talent. This was a mistake. She could coax no sound out of the flute, other than something that reminded us of our mortality. Classical guitar didn’t fit her, either, especially when she made it clear that she just wanted to jam. She’s a big fan of Slash. Give me three chords and I’ll give you a rock song.

We bought a piano off of Craig’s list, had it tuned, found a generous and supportive teacher.  The first year went well until things got serious. She was now playing real music —actual songs— and she was supposed to practice five days a week. Often in lieu of playing outside with her friends or reading a book, she had to hit the keys.

My wife and I said that we would allow her to make her own decision about piano when she started middle school. And to tell the truth, we had grown tired of badgering, of bribing; sometimes we had to rehearse moderate threats involving desserts and that loathsome bane of the modern parent: screen time. Why wait?

After all, to what end?

Our daughter has not touched the piano in almost three months. The keyboard is shuttered and shows a fine skein of dust. It sulks in the corner, forlorn.

I recently asked our daughter whether she missed playing and she gave me a look that I will have to get used to in the years ahead. But I miss her songs. We could have continued the charade for many more years, I guess, with her mother and I nurturing that little seed of hope that she might go on to something big.

Our hope.

I’m guessing our little family drama plays out all over American communities of privilege, where parents want to give kids whatever edge over other kids who are probably equally suffering the throttle of too much piano, too much soccer, too much lacrosse, too many travel teams, too many lessons, too many tutors, too many expectations. Maybe as they get a little older, too many pills as well.

There’s always an endgame. I want to believe that we gave our daughter piano lessons simply to give her an appreciation and an aptitude for music she wouldn’t otherwise receive. I want to believe our motives were pure. And yet, even though we didn’t talk about it, her mother and I may have had our eye on other horizons.

The jokes go something like this: Want to get into Yale or Stanford? I bet they’d like a concert pianist. Or an exquisite ballerina. Or a tech entrepreneur. I am beginning to think our kids don’t hear it as a joke. I am beginning to think they are deadly serious. Perhaps we ought to ask the children of Silicon Valley.

Perhaps we ought to consult the new Common Core standards in English Language Arts, which we are told are designed to prepare our kids for “success in college, career, and life.” I’ve read the standards, and I’d say the focus is on “career.”

Insofar as the Common Core makes little mention of the relationship between reading and joy or leisure, the standards are perfectly in line with an arthritic definition of “success,” one that highlights material over spiritual, career over contentment.

Childhood as we know it is a fairly recent invention. No one wants to go back to the years when kids were employed in mining and manufacturing, with predictably disastrous results for the children.

That said, it may now be time to start asking ourselves the kinds of questions that reformers and progressives were asking 100 years ago, questions that indict the world we have created for our children today.

What, after all, are children for?

Are children at their best when their focus on success —in school, at sports, even during rare moments of leisure— makes them tiny replicas of their high-achieving parents, who themselves don’t appear all that happy? Do we really want our kids to spend their lives chasing our dreams?

The piano lesson has stayed with me.

William Major is an English professor and lives in West Hartford.

Leave a comment