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When students quit

I quit piano twice. During my last year of high school, I left my long-time teacher a handwritten note in an envelope on her desk. In it I detailed the reasons I was "quitting piano." I no longer remember what those reasons were, but I suspect they were related to feeling I had let her down by losing a then-recent contest. I don't remember that she replied, although she may have talked to my father about my decision. After eight years together, including five seven-week summers studying with her at music camp, I simply slipped away.

A Challenge

I changed my mind in college and began a major in music, this time with a different piano teacher. At the end of my sophomore year, I again decided to quit. I planned to switch to an English major. On the May morning when I played what I had decided would be my "last jury," my theory teacher, Max DiJulio, sat as one of the judges. On my way out of the room, he called out to me, "Hey, Barlow! I understand you are abandoning your music major! You can do that, of course, but I want you to read a book first: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. Stone knows what it takes to be an artist. Read it first, then make your decision."

I still have the book today, albeit dog-eared with one section missing. Set in the sixteenth century, the novel tells the story of the struggle of wills between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo over the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo initially refuses the commission, but he is forced to do the job by Julius. Michelangelo later destroys his own work and flees to Carrara. Eventually he resumes the project, which becomes a battle of wills fueled by artistic and temperamental differences between the two men.

While I found the story compelling, it wasn't what made me decide to resume my music major the following semester. It was Mr. DiJulio. He witnessed my struggle, acknowledged it, but didn't try to influence my decision because of any needs of his own. Instead, he challenged me to grow up and to decide for myself whether I wanted to do the work it takes to become an artist or not.

Did I immediately "get" this, turn myself around, and head down an artist's path? Absolutely not. I simply knew somewhere inside myself that music fueled my inner life, and I couldn't abandon it. Mr. DiJulio was wise enough to know, too, that suggesting a novel would also reach the writer in me. I embarked on a double major: Music and English. To this day, I straddle these two worlds.

Sometimes my students quit

Over the years I have had a number of students who quit piano. It happened again two weeks ago. The mother sent me an email, which thanked me for the three years I spent teaching her daughter. She had decided Irene should switch to flute lessons so she could keep up with her place in the junior-high orchestra. " . . . but studying piano has been a great foundation for Irene."

While I am never bothered when a student switches from piano to another instrument, I do get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time someone quits. Recrimination sets in: Did I do enough? Did I miss something important? Am I a bad teacher? Then I shift into angry mode: Well, if they had been willing to pay for a forty-five-minute lesson instead of a thirty-minute one, I could have helped her progress faster, kept her interest better. They paid for three one-hour dance classes a week, so of course she likes to dance. She practices enough to be good at it! Once these two not-very-helpful reactions pass, I sit down and rethink the way I am working with all of my current students, making certain I am on top of my game with them.

Telling the Truth

Then I reflected on my own experience as someone who quit piano. I wrote Irene a note, telling her the truth—I had loved working with her. I asked her to invite me to one of her upcoming middle-school concerts so I could hear her play the flute, and I told her the door was always open if she ever wanted to resume lessons. A few days later, Irene came by my house with her dog, Duffy. She was selling Girl Scout cookies. We enjoyed petting the dog together, and I bought some Samoas. We are good to go.

Irene is twelve, the appropriate age for children to begin asserting their own choices. Students are most likely to quit when they enter junior high, high school, or college. (Younger students most often need support to continue lessons until they are preteens.) When parents of older students come to me in a frenzy, upset that their child wants to quit, I counsel them to give them permission to do so. Is that giving up? I don't think so.

If I as a teacher stay calm (to them at least) and leave the lines of communication and the door to my studio open, I am signaling respect for their growing maturity. If a student quits, never touches the piano again, and happily pursues other interests, they made the right decision. Yet in many cases, they return, like I did. When they do, they study with more intensity and vigor, because the choice is theirs and no one else's.

My student William began studying piano with me when he was ten. It was his father's idea. William is immensely talented and could already play guitar well. In addition, he was already writing and singing his own songs. Even at this young age, he planned to pursue a career in music. But he only played and sang by ear. He couldn't read music. His father was wise to insist he study piano.

Yet our lessons didn't work. William, who is a lovely young man, didn't have the least interest in reading music. He failed to practice whatever I assigned him, made little reading progress no matter what I tried, and for two years we struggled together. His father, who worked as a musician in the advertising business and knows what it takes to make a career in music, was at his wit's end. He frequently lectured William. Once or twice he became annoyed with me. At the age of twelve, William quit piano, although he continued guitar lessons and began recording his songs and gigging at local venues.

When students return

Two years later William's father called me. "William came to me the other day and said, 'Do you remember that piano teacher?' Could you call her again? I need to learn how to read music.'" Happily, we resumed lessons. This time, William was determined. He worked hard and also took the excellent theory courses at his high school. He can now read. It still isn't his favorite way of learning, but he can do it.

One day I arrived to find a new baby grand piano in the family music room. William had found it for free online and had convinced his parents to bring it home. The influence of this lovely instrument inspired William to learn Für Elise. Suddenly he was playing with glorious technique, which has grown exponentially over this, his last year in high school. William will be entering Belmont University School of Music in Nashville this fall. Last summer he was chosen to attend Grammy Camp. His third EP of songs will be released this summer.

No, not all students return. Some are more talented in other areas, and it is wise for them to pursue those interests. But what about those highly-talented students who want to quit and who never return? My colleague David Neely, who was at the time a string teacher at the summer camp I directed, taught me what to do with them.

Deciding for ourselves

One of his students that summer was a phenomenallygifted violinist. At the age of sixteen, she had won several competitions and seemed well on her way to a musical career. Yet she was pouty and difficult, often neglected her practice, and gave David a miserable time. He stayed steady. One day I walked by the aspen-lined area where he was giving her a lesson. "But I hate playing the violin," she was saying. David thought for a long time, and then he said, "Well, it is true that you are exceptionally good at playing the violin, but just because you are, doesn't mean you have to do it. No one has to be an artist just because they are good at it." She began to cry tears of relief.

Permission to quit. We all need it. Only then can we decide for ourselves whether music or any other walk of life is for us or not. Thank you, David. Thank you, Mr. DiJulio.

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