You are not good enough or old enough to quit

“Mom, I quit,” Condoleeza yelled.

“You are neither good enough nor old enough to quit,” retorted her mother.

Stanford University professor and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recounted this outburst as part of a speech she gave in 2017 about the power of music education.

Frustrated with the difficulty of learning to play the piano, Rice stood up from her bench one day when she was 10 years old, marched into the kitchen, and yelled at her mother that she’d had enough and was giving up. Her mother wisely held firm against her daughter, telling her to go back to her bench and continue practicing. Rice went back to the piano and continued playing. Later in her speech she remarked that she was “really glad my mother didn’t let me quit at 10.” Although the piano didn’t become her profession, Rice became a very accomplished musician (playing a solo recital for Queen Elizabeth) not to mention a very successful law professor and diplomat.

Let’s imagine for a minute, however, that her mother had given in to her 10-year old daughter and replied, “You’re right, honey, playing the piano is hard. I’ll leave the decision to quit up to you.” Rice may indeed have quit playing because a 10-year old does see into the future and understand the consequences of her actions. But where would she be today? Would she have become a professor at Stanford or the first female African-American Secretary of State? We can’t know for sure, of course, but in her talk Rice drew a direct line from the discipline she learned studying music to her success as a professor and diplomat.

Learning to play a musical instrument requires tremendous discipline, mental toughness, long-term thinking, and daily routine. According to Rice, these are the very qualities that brought her success in other areas of her life. Without the musical training, Rice believes that she may not have made it as far as she did in her academic and professional lives.

The litmus test. The truth is there is no faking it in music. Music performance is a kind of litmus test. Kids regularly get away with shoddy work in school (I’ve done some of that myself in my youth), but with music you cannot fake achievement. There is no last-minute cramming, no padding an essay with fancy words in the hope of sounding vaguely like an expert, no getting by on your smarts, no guessing the right answer. In music, you’ve simply got to do the long-term work, and that requires discipline.

How many people, looking back on their childhoods, are likely to say, “'I’m so glad my parents made me quit playing. I’ve really benefitted from not having a music education.” I daresay there are very few. You will, however, often hear the opposite: “I’m so glad that my parents would not let me quit. There were times when I wanted to quit, but they wouldn’t let me.” Or this sad comment, which I hear regularly from my adult students who are coming back to music. “I wish my parents hadn’t let me quit when I was younger. I’m not exactly sure why I quit. Maybe it was peer pressure or the feeling that someone else was better than me.” Bless those firm parents from years ago. Although their firmness certainly wasn’t appreciated at the time, it was the right thing to do.

Learning a musical instrument will teach you how to work. How to really work. Not how to fake it at the last minute, or sweet talk your way to a good grade, but how to take the countless small steps over a long time that are needed to get someplace that is worth going to.