Nothing is fun until you're good at it

I am often asked whether band is fun, usually by a parent who is thinking about enrolling their child in the class. "I want to enroll my child, but is it fun?" I do my best to explain that playing a musical instrument is fun, but it requires work. I talk about the virtuous circle: the more you practice, the better you get and the better you get, the more you want to practice.

I also hear a variation on that question. This variation usually comes in the form of a statement made by a parent whose child is dropping band in the middle of the year. "But we thought it was going to be fun."

To my mind, putting "fun" before "work" is putting the cart before the horse.

Amy Chua published a book in 2011 called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It was controversial at the time, some readers accusing her of being too hard on her children, among other criticisms. Yet while rereading the book recently, I came across the following paragraph, which I will quote in full. I have changed the word "Chinese" in the original to "wise" and "Western" to "some" because I believe Chua's insights apply to any child, no matter where their parents come from.

"What [wise] parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is critical to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where [some] parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the [wise] strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching, or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easy for the parent to get the child to work even more."

I'd like to be able to say that learning a musical instrument is fun and requires very little effort, but, to paraphrase the computer scientist Nathan Myhrvold, "That's not how it works here on planet Earth."

But then again, I suspect we all really understand that we wouldn't want it to be any other way. Imagine a world where the most important achievements happen without effort, where climbing uphill was like skipping downhill. It may sound tempting, but I don't think that would be a good place to live.