A few weeks ago, I took my 17-year-old daughter, Ariana, an accomplished viola player, to the East Coast to audition at top-tier music conservatories. Auditions are, of course, important: the college you go to affects your whole life. At the first audition, waiting for her turn, I asked Ariana if she was nervous. “No, mommy, I’m so excited to play for them!” She was happy, like Cinderella going to the ball.
It seemed to me the end of a long road and the beginning of a new one. When Ariana and her brother Zak were little, I suddenly became a single mom. I thought I could never send them to college without scholarships. So I trained them in something that, as a symphonic violinist, I knew well: music. I started with Zak on violin at 6 and Ariana at 5 (he switched to viola as a teenager). During those hard times, I sometimes sacrificed paying my utility bills to buy his instruments and pay for his lessons.
The first piece of Ariana’s first college audition was a dramatic sonata by Brahms. I practically put my ear to the door. It seemed to me that she was expressing all the life experiences that had brought her to this point; wonderful experiences like playdates and sleepovers with good friends, horseback riding, and playing in jazz and rock’n’roll bands. And there were also echoes of difficult experiences, such as the divorce of her parents, a move to the other side of the country and school problems in adolescence.
When he left the room, I could see by his face that he had made it. The teacher, who was acting as judge, followed her to the door, congratulated me, and said that she would love to teach him.
I’ve been thinking about that experience a lot, because a lot of people have asked me about the ‘tiger mother’ essay. You’ve probably read the article, by law professor Amy Chua, in the Wall Street Journal (January 8, 2011), titled ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’. Chua describes her approach to parenting, which she calls the “tiger” style, and compares it to the “western” style. Her children were never allowed to sleep away from home or play together. They were required to be the valedictorians of their classes and to play only the piano or violin for hours every day. Chua tells an anecdote about her 7-year-old daughter Lulu’s difficulty with a particular piano piece. Lulu gave up and put down the piano. Her mother forced her back. “Punches, punches and kicks” followed. Chua insulted and threatened her daughter and did not let her go to the bathroom. After many hours, without eating, Lulu finally played the piece correctly.
My Answer: Chua could have achieved the same results without any of the negativity.
I know this because now I am not only the father of three very musical children, but I also run a music school with hundreds of young clients. We prepare students early on so that they can become good enough to get into Juilliard or any top-tier music program. Yeah that is the direction they choose. So, in our ambition for our kids, I’m a lot like Chua, who tried to get her daughter into Juilliard’s pre-college program.
But aside from admiring Juilliard, my experience helping kids grow and thrive in music to reach the highest levels couldn’t be more different than Chua’s.
ANGER IS EASY
Letting himself get mad at his sons during practice, Chua takes the easy way out. The violin is the most difficult instrument a child can play. Watching their children make mistakes, a parent’s anger can go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Sometimes I just want to jump into my daughter’s little body and do it for her! Add to that the financial sacrifice – it’s no wonder parents go crazy.
I tell parents they are not alone in these feelings and offer tools to reduce frustration and help the child thrive. My positive rewards system includes lots of praise and giveaways, from bouncy stickers and ‘silly band’ bracelets, to cute Japanese erasers and plastic busts of great composers. We also offer dozens of ideas to help make the practice fun, or at least tolerable.
LONELY CONTAINMENT VS. PLAYING WITH FRIENDS
Chua puts a lot of emphasis on getting her kids to practice for many hours, not just an hour or two, but 3 hours a day or more of solo practice, just with mom. That would be 21 hours a week (plus any lessons they attend). I’m like Chua, in terms of my insistence that my kids practice every day and put in a lot of time each week. Some parents think I’m exaggerating. I added up the hours my 9-year-old daughter Jenna spends with her music and cello; It turns out almost 20 hours a week. But that’s not solo practice. Jenna is in two of my music school’s orchestras; and she plays in three quartets, with girls her age. On top of that, she has four cello lessons a week, a piano lesson, and a music theory class. I try to get her to practice on her own for an extra hour a day. (All of this isn’t as expensive or time-consuming as it sounds because, of course, we own the music school, which is Jenna’s second home.)
A more typical student in my program might take 1 or 2 lessons a week; participate in one of our string quartets once a week and perform with one or two of our orchestras weekly. You are also encouraged to practice between 45 and 90 minutes a day, depending on level and age. That can average 1 hour a day, about 12 hours a week, compared to 21 hours for the Chua children.
It is important to put time into practice. In the elementary through high school years, it is true that the children who practice the most hours will have the most advanced technique and will gain the first chairs. But when they get out into the real world and start auditioning for conservatories, top orchestras, and competitions, the winners will be the musicians who are not only technically proficient, but who are also able to interpret a piece of music in a way that is unique to them. , with a high level of musicianship that can only come from varied life experiences, including non-musical experiences like play dates, sleepovers, and friendships.
Jenna is getting quality time, instead of just “doing time.” A significant percentage of her 21 hours, and our more typical students’ 12 hours, she spends in groups with her peers. It is in group play that students develop their musicianship and other critical skills such as listening, conducting, and rhythm. It is also in group play that the child develops a sense of belonging that pushes him up in music. They join a wonderful club with friendships, fun, snacks, trips to theme park music festivals, medals, pins, trophies, and most of all, trips! Membership inspires them to practice, which reduces parental frustration.
Which brings up another reason why the ‘tiger’ approach is counterproductive. Being a professional musician is a social career. Being successful is all about making connections and friends. If there’s a good job, and there are two players to choose from, it’s the one who gets along with everyone who gets the job.
Chua shows up to isolate her daughters. She describes her insistence that her child should be number one in almost any situation, school and music as ‘Chinese’. My perspective: In music, as in life, aspiring to be number one is a losing proposition. There will always be someone who plays better. Children must learn to cooperate to be successful.
MISTAKES ARE A QUESTION OF RIO
After ten years of running a music school, we have learned that some parents must be separated from the student during classes. I’ll teach a child how important it is to relax the upper body, and then the parent will step in, or even push the child: “And don’t forget to push your arm in!” – which pretty much brings us back to square one with the child’s stress. Authoritarian parents inhibit student progress.
Chua demands perfection from her daughters. I tell my students (and their parents) that it’s okay to make mistakes. Something I say a lot in class and orchestra is: “I’m so happy you played badly, now we can all learn!” My own children have made many mistakes, big ones. Like that time Ariana forgot to string her bow before a fancy recital! On another occasion, she—she left the mute on her violin for the entire performance! I bet she’ll never do that again. We laughed then, and still laugh about it.
When my own kids fail, when they don’t get the first chair, I don’t take it personally. I know they will do better next time. They don’t need me to rub it in.
After years of dealing with hundreds of parents, it’s pretty clear to me that those who behave like Chua have tied their self-esteem too closely to their children’s performance.
STAY WITH IT
In addition to being ambitious, there is another area in which Chua and I are similar: we are both stubborn. If she’s a tiger mom, you can call me a lion mom. I agree with Chua’s attitude that if someone wants her son to become a skilled musician, a father must be very determined, stand his ground, get through the hard parts, and never give up. But parents must also learn to separate from the child and grow their own lives emotionally and spiritually. and parents do not you have to take away a child’s precious childhood.