Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Time to quit

Here's a letter I wrote to Noah's piano teacher last weekend. It explains where we were at and what we did. Noah read most of what I wrote over my shoulder and felt okay about it.

After much discussion over many weeks, and a few long heart-to-hearts this weekend, we've decided that Noah will not be continuing with piano lessons. As you know, he's really struggled for the past year or two. Not musically as much as emotionally.

His perfectionism is at the root of the problem. I had hoped that piano would be an arena in which he would be forced to work through some of his perfectionism. Alas, it seems he's mostly entrenched himself in a kind of 'perfection paralysis'. He has Erin out there as a model and because of his musical perceptiveness he knows exactly how far he has to reach to attain the level of competence he's striving for. And his mechanism of coping with the vast gap between where he's at and where he wants to be is to put off doing the hard work that reminds him of all the learning that lies ahead, and then have huge sobbing meltdowns over the fact that he doesn't feel prepared for his lesson, or isn't 'ready' to practice with my help, or whatever.

I have tried so many, many approaches to help him and myself deal with this. Leaving him alone, helping him practice, insisting on a certain task list, leaving him to noodle around, letting him coast, coddling him through, problem-solving together, playing the heavy. Nothing seems to be able to jiggle him loose. He's miserable at the piano so often that I'd do almost anything to help put an end to it. I've suggested a break from piano many times. In the past he's seen this as punitive (if you don't practice, your mom will take away your lessons!) or as an acknowledgement of failure (you're not progressing, so you might as well quit) and so he has resisted
the idea. I've suggested that maybe a change of teachers would give him a fresh spin. He's refused to consider this. And so we've continued on. He's made some progress on the instrument, but has continued to struggle emotionally.

This summer he had a thrilling Suzuki viola institute experience and followed it the next week with the VSSM week with T___ G___. He really liked her, a lot, but felt just as "yucky" about piano at the end of the week as he had at the beginning. He commented that he often felt totally psyched about viola, but never ever felt that way about piano.

And then at the end of September he managed to quickly learn a couple of more advanced piano pieces and felt a nice sense of competence from that experience. He didn't get a sense of joy and accomplishment, but he was reassured that he was capable. I think that these two experiences have allowed him to see that (a) the piano is not giving him joy the way the viola does and (b) he's not a failure at the piano. Those two things have made him feel okay about leaving piano. His sense of relief was almost palpable, actually.

So that's where we're at, and why. We've come up with some ideas for tackling the perfectionism in other arenas -- it's certainly a pervasive character trait -- and I think he's feeling quite okay about himself.

We'll come at our usual lesson time this week unless I hear otherwise from you. I want to make sure that he and you have a sense of closure and that he is comfortable and not feeling ashamed. I know he is worried that you will be disappointed in him or that your feelings will be hurt and it would be helpful if you could reassure him on that count. I guess we can then work out what would be best for you in scheduling Erin's lesson.

As the above letter attests, it was difficult to get him to the point of accepting "quitting" as an option. I had to take the initiative in raising the possibility and helping him look seriously at it. I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing. But a couple of days later, it's seems clear that it's a good move. He's happier. He's more passionate about his viola. He's sat down a few times at the piano just to play for fun, something he hadn't done much of in a long time.

His teacher was wonderful when we went to talk to her before Erin's lesson. She made him feel happy and comfortable with his decision. She told him that the door is always open, and that things may get rusty but never forgotten, but that he's absolutely made the right decision for now at least. She talked about her (now grown) boys, all three of whom studied piano, only one of whom didn't quit. "And," she said "I love all three of them. The piano worked for one of the but not the others. They're all still wonderful, intelligent, compassionate young men."

She gave him a little gift, just a party-favour-like thingie that she had on hand, and he was quite smitten by the fact that she made this gesture.

About an hour later, out of the blue, he said "I think I might want piano lessons again someday. Maybe next fall. That's not too far away." Whether he was just feeling a bit wistful or actually meant it doesn't matter... time will tell, and for now he's happier.

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