It’s Dad’s fault I hate piano!

I used to love playing the piano, but I’m losing my passion for it. Is my dad’s criticism to blame, or am I just looking for an excuse?

It sounds like he has your best interests at heart, says our elder. But you need to talk to him.

Dear EWC

I’m sixteen, and I think my dad is ruining my love for the piano. I have been playing piano since I was nine and it was the first and only thing I ever felt passionate about, but I fear that my dad is slowly ruining that for me. My dad grew up playing the clarinet in a church band. He knows a lot about music theory and practical playing, so he always has advice on how I can improve my playing; although I appreciate that he wants my performances to be the best they can be, his words always make me feel like it is time to quit. My dad has been giving me advice like this since I started learning how to play all those years ago, though they’ve only started affecting me negatively this past year.

The comment that tipped me off enough to send a submission here was when he said that I would never be able to play a certain piece because I never learned how to play it slowly. He said (I paraphrase), “You don’t have a single song in your eight years of repertoire that you can play with no mistakes. You have ignored my advice forever, and then wonder why you can’t play anything”. That’s what had me thinking, why do I even play the piano? Do I really love it as much as I say I do? I have never bothered to learn a piece properly, I have not put in the time to play with proper posture (I get severe pains in my wrists because of that), and my hands sweat so much that I can barely call it playing. With that in mind, I wonder, is it really my dad who is ruining my love for piano, or am I just looking for a person to blame and reason to quit? Recently, my piano teacher had to let me go because I got to a high level that she believed I needed a more skilled teacher, and I have found one who is really nice, and very skilled; which brings me to my next point. Am I trying to give up because I feel like I am letting my old teacher down by not living up to my new teacher’s expectations? I am just really lost.

William replies

We get many letters, and we generally pick the ones that “speak” to us. In other words, ones we can identify with in some way, and hopefully, provide more meaningful advice. I want to digress for a bit. Bear with me. Your letter jumped out at me because my father did something similar to me 50-60 years ago. It wasn’t piano, it was a guitar, and I was not taking lessons to the degree you are. However, I really wanted to play one, and he told me there was no musical talent in the family and that I’d never play any musical instrument. Back in those days, we didn’t have a lot of money or spare time, and I think he felt I ought to be working or learning a “practical” skill as opposed to trying to play music. For 50 years this held me back. In the past two-to-three years, I have learned to play a bit, so after a lifetime of thinking I couldn’t, I proved him wrong! He’s not around to hear me, but I have the satisfaction of enjoying something I was told I could never do. For this reason, I picked your letter. I understand your situation. Enough about me. Let’s address your problem.

I can’t tell if your reluctance to continue is due to your own trepidation about moving to a more advanced level. I tend to think not because you exceeded the expectations of a professional (your current teacher.) You seem to have an ability that’s beyond your years. We all should be so lucky! Reading your letter, I sense a passion and love for the piano. While I can’t read minds or psychoanalyze people, that’s what your letter suggests to me. Yes, you might be subconsciously concerned that you won’t measure up to the expectations of the more advanced level teacher. Again, I can’t read your mind, but I don’t think this is the case.

I think your dad wants the best for you. He has a long history of playing in a “professional” setting and decades of experience. I’m sure he’s very good at what he does. As parents, we want the best for our children, and one technique is to be overly critical. We feel that by pointing out the negatives, we’ll get our kids to concentrate on them and hopefully correct the problem. To use an analogy, let’s say you get 90 percent on a math exam, but missed a few questions that involve trig. As a parent, I could pat you on the back and say, “Great! You almost got 100. Keep up the good work.” Or, I could say something like, “You did well, but you really suck at trigonometry. You’ve got to clean up that aspect, or you’ll never be a good math student.” Two methods — positive reinforcement or concentrate on the parts that need improvement. Which is better? Who knows? I now prefer the positive reinforcement technique, but I have to admit I sometimes used the other way when I was dealing with my now adult kids. My parents were definitely “concentrate on the parts that need improvement” people!

If I had to guess, I’d say that’s what your dad is doing. He’s happy with what you do right and feels that needs no attention. Instead, your dad is concentrating on the mistakes. I think he wants you to be the best piano player possible, and by being critical, he feels that will make you try harder to get every piece perfect. Experience has taught me that can backfire. In my view, that’s what is happening now. You feel that you can never be good enough; that you are putting all your effort into something that will be criticized; and you are at the point of thinking ‘why bother?’ Maybe these are subconscious thoughts, but they could be the reason why you feel you won’t live up to your new teacher’s expectations.
I have to add that I don’t know why you are playing the piano. This is relevant because if it’s merely for entertainment, or to play at church and amateur get-togethers as a hobby, it doesn’t have to be perfect. If you plan on having a career in music, then “perfection” is more important. Maybe your dad is thinking about you getting a successful, professional job. I don’t know his motivation for pushing for perfection.

Regardless of his reasons, I think it’s his criticism that’s holding you back and hurting your confidence. Down deep you know you are good at what you do, but when someone you love and respect tells you otherwise, it can take its toll. Again I have to stress that I’m not a mind reader, but I think, based on your words, that you ought to press on with your piano lessons with the advanced instructor. You’re very good and, as they say, the student has surpassed the teacher!

Now, the hard part. How to convey this to your dad? Remember, he does have your best interests at heart. He’s almost certainly not of the mindset that you are not a good piano player. He likely is concentrating on the negative because he knows the parts you do well do not need improvement. What I feel he doesn’t understand is that by taking this approach, he might be causing more problems than he’s solving. Somehow you have to convey this to him. I don’t know your dad or your relationship with him. I don’t know if you are afraid to tell him this for fear it will seem disrespectful. Regardless of this, unless he becomes aware of how you feel, everyone will lose. You will abandon your passion for music, and he’ll lose the satisfaction that his daughter “followed in his footsteps.” Frankly, 50 years ago, I didn’t have the nerve to tell my dad he wasn’t giving me a chance to pursue my passion. It was a different time, with different personalities, and I didn’t have the ability you have. In life, we pick our battles, and a kid playing the guitar in the 1960s as a hobby can’t be compared to your situation today.
I can’t tell you how to approach him. You know what works and what doesn’t because he’s your dad. I think you have to try. Maybe he’s completely unaware of how you feel, and if you tell him, he’ll understand. I think you should give it your best shot.

Letter #: 446358
Category: Family

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