Ask the Practice Parent: Quitting a Long-term, Expensive Activity

Dear Practice Parent,

I have been playing piano for 10 years. I used to love it, but now I only kind of like it. I’m also actually pretty good at it. I wanted to quit 3 years ago but my mom and dad wouldn’t let me. I agreed to play for one more year but I kept going because my grandparents offered to pay for lessons and I didn’t want to let them down. My lessons cost a lot of money. The piano and tuning are expensive. Traveling for performances costs a lot and my mom drives me everywhere for piano. It seems wrong for me to keep spending all this moneyMMIpiano when I know that I do not want a career in music. I want to quit for good now but my parents are saying I should use piano to get into a good college. How do I convince my parents to let me quit?

You should know that I am approaching this question with the breaking heart of a mother whose daughter recently switched from violin to piano after 7 years of lessons.

Nonetheless, having walked with her through such a huge decision, I believe I understand some of what you are feeling. You have worked hard at something for which you no longer feel a great deal of passion. Now that you’ve reached your teen years (I assume), you would like to direct your energy elsewhere. Or maybe you’d like to have a break from any non-academic activities. Perhaps you’d even like your parents and grandparents to funnel their support into other activities (Or maybe themselves? I bet they could use a cruise about now.) as well. Finally, you are feeling like continuing to play the piano will be a waste of future time and resources since you don’t plan on pursuing music as a career.

I believe I also understand what your parents are feeling. First of all, I am sure they are proud of you for all the hard work and dedication you have put into the piano thus far. They don’t want all those years of money and time to go to waste and so they see quitting as a waste of resources already spent (as opposed to you seeing it as a waste of future resources). They are also hoping that all those resources will go to good use in helping you get scholarships for college and/or to have at least a back-up plan for a career.

They have also invested tremendously in the last 10 years and, honestly, it is difficult for parents to let go of that. When our kids participate in long-term, intensive activities like piano (or sports, etc.), we take on an identity as the parent of a pianist, a parent who shifts our world to offer up that activity. We’re not proud of this and we all go into parenting saying it will never happen, but we do it anyway. Often times, we even have an entire new world built around that activity, filled with regular engagements, long-term friendships, vast knowledge, and hefty (if not always fair) dreams for your future. Finally, we feel tremendous joy when we see our children’s hard work come to fruition in a performance (or game, etc.), even if some of us are mostly just living vicariously through you.

All of that makes it challenging for us to clearly see your needs and not want to bite a wee bit o’ yer head off when you so much as sigh while practicing piano.

On top of all that, even if we are able to recognize your side of the matter, we worry — oh how we worry — that you will come back to us in 10 years and furiously proclaim that we made the wrong choice by letting you quit. We so do not want to be the parent who didn’t push you enough to realize your future, as yet unbeknownst to you, dream.

With that, I think a decision this huge with so many potential ramifications, requires some strategy.

1.  You should be completely open with your parents, but careful with your language. Start by telling them how much you appreciate the sacrifices they have made and the time and resources they have dedicated to you. You might also throw in a few things the piano has taught you. We parents soften a great deal when we know that you have learned from your pursuits.

2.  Ease your way into a transition, rather than a final decision. Instead of jumping in with a declaration that you are sick of playing piano and don’t want a career in music, you might start by letting your parents (and grandparents in your case) know that you need a break.

A break does a few things. First, quitting abruptly tells your parents, “This is a totally impulsive decision, probably brought on by drugs or irresponsible sex or, worse, liking my friends more than you, you stupid jerktoid parents!”

On the other hand, a break tells your parents, “I am in touch with myself and approaching my angst with maturity, having learned from your gentle wisdom.”

See how we interpret things? From a place of deep love and irrational fear.

2.   Set clear parameters for your break.  Decide upon a time limit (a summer/a semester/a school year) and agree that at the end of the time limit, you and your parents will re-visit the discussion.

It’s possible that your parents will have had enough time by then to see that you really are a decent person who hasn’t joined a cult or started robbing banks or joining gangs without the piano (Our minds actually do go there). The time will help to sooth their fears. It’s also possible that the break will offer you some clarity regarding your own direction, that your current ennui really is a result of you being completely DONE. But it is also possible that, in fact, you just needed a break.  You might also find that you enjoy something new as much as you once enjoyed piano.

3.  Promise to explore alternative scholarships. From the moment your mother first peed on that stick and it came back blue (sorry for the visual), your parents have worried about what you will do after high school. Obviously, in your case, your parents expect college and want/need you to get some scholarships. If college is it, it’s reasonable to look for scholarships in this day and age when college costs more than the houses in which some of our kids are raised. Tell your parents you will search for as many scholarships that apply to you and also consider pumping up your transcripts and scholarship-readiness if necessary. Keep in mind that it’s possible that even without becoming a music major or planning a career in music, you could still qualify for some music scholarships. I received numerous scholarships for my work in children’s theatre even though I had no intention of making that my career.

4.  Since you still like/not love piano, it might help your parents to hear you play around informally on the piano here and there. They will worry less about having wasted money all those years. Though your parents might not show it, it is likely that they really do understand the value in music outside of scholarships and careers (If they don’t, show them this.). Demonstrate to them that all those years of time and money and effort spent have helped create the person you are now and the adult you will become — no matter what you decide to do regarding the piano.

5.  When the break is over, if you still do not want to continue piano (or another instrument), let them know how much piano has affected your life (stick to the positive) and how much you will always cherish it. Tell them that, though you will no longer play formally, it is a gift you will hold onto for life.

We’re not like you teens — we like a little B.S. when the situation calls for it — so feel free to pile it on. Be positive when you tell people in front of your parents why you quit. One “Gawd! Because it was kiiiillllling me!” is enough to send your parents to a deep,dark parental place, where they sit on the proverbial cold, dirty bathroom floor, curled up in the fetal position, replaying their multiple parenting failures into the wine coolers of their youth, until you slip a cup of drug-free urine and an acceptance letter from Harvard under the door.

Good luck!