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A Lion Mom Roars: Two Determined Mothers Aim High for Their Children in Music, But in Different Ways
A few weeks ago, I took my 17-year-old daughter, Ariana, who is an accomplished violist, to the East Coast to audition for top music conservatories. Auditions are important, of course – college is where you live your whole life. At the first audition, while waiting for her turn, I asked Ariana if she was nervous. “No mom, I’m so excited to play with them!” She was as happy as Cinderella going to the ball.
I felt it was the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new one. When Ariana and her brother Zak were little, I suddenly became a single mom. I thought I would never be able to send them to college without a scholarship. So I nurtured them into something I knew well as a symphonic violinist: music. Zak started playing the violin at the age of 6, Ariana at the age of 5 (she switched to the viola when she was a teenager). During those hard times, I sometimes sacrificed paying my utility bills to buy their instruments and pay for their lessons.
At Ariana’s first college audition, the first piece was a dramatic Brahms sonata. I practically glued my ear to the door. It seemed to me that he was expressing all the life experiences that had brought him to this point; wonderful experiences like dating and sleeping with good friends, riding horses, and playing in jazz and rock’n’roll bands. And difficult experiences like his parents’ divorce, a cross-country move, and teenage school troubles resonated.
When he came out of the room, I could see the look on his face that he nailed it. The teacher who served as judge followed him out the door, congratulated him and said he would love to teach him.
I thought a lot about this experience because so many people asked me about the “tiger mother” essay. You’ve probably already read Law Professor Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal (January 8, 2011) titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Chua outlines his approach to parenting, which he calls the “tiger way,” and compares it to the “Western” way. Her children were never allowed to sleep or play. They required them to be the best students in their classes and only play 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 left the piano. His mother forced him back. “punching, beating and kicking” followed. Chua insulted and threatened her daughter and wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom. After many hours – without dinner – Lulu finally played the piece correctly.
My answer: Chua could have achieved the same result without the negatives.
I know this because not only am I the parent of three very musical children, but I also run a music school with hundreds of young clients. From the beginning, we groom students to be good enough to get into Juilliard or any top music program, if they choose this direction. So in our ambitions for our children, I am very similar to Chua, who tried to get her daughter into Juilliard’s pre-college program.
But aside from my admiration for Juilliard, my experiences helping kids grow and develop musically to reach the highest levels couldn’t be more different than Chua’s.
RAGE IS EASY
By letting herself get mad at her kids during practice, Chua is taking the easy way out. The violin is the most difficult instrument for a child to play. A parent’s anger can go from 0 to 100 in seconds when they see their kids messing up. 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 ballistic.
I tell parents that they are not alone in these feelings, and I offer them tools to reduce frustration and help their child’s development. My positive reward system includes lots of praise and gifts, from puffy stickers and “silly band” bracelets to cute Japanese erasers and plastic busts of great composers. We offer dozens of ideas to make exercise fun or at least tolerable.
PRIVATE SERVICE VS. ‘PLAYING’ WITH FRIENDS
Chua puts a lot of emphasis on getting her children to exercise for many hours – not just an hour or two, but 3 hours or more a day alone, just with mom. That would be 21 hours per week (plus what classes they attend). I’m like Chua in that I insist that my kids practice every day and have plenty of time each week. Some parents think I’m over it. I added up the hours my 9-year-old daughter, Jenna, spends with music and her cello – that’s nearly 20 hours a week. But this is not an individual exercise. Jenna plays in two bands at my music school; and plays in three quartets with girls her own age. In addition, he has four cello lessons, one piano lesson and one music theory lesson a week. I’m trying to get him to practice on his own for an extra hour – 1 hour a day. (None of this is nearly 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 per week; participating in one of our string quartets once a week and playing with one or two of our bands a week. They also encourage you to exercise 45-90 minutes a day, depending on your level and age. That could mean an average of 1 hour a day, about 12 hours a week, compared to 21 hours for Chua’s children.
It is important to spend time on practice. From elementary to high school, it is true that the children who practice the most hours have the most advanced technique and get the first chairs. But when they go out into the real world and start auditioning for conservatories, high-level orchestras, and competitions, the winners will be the players who are not only technically proficient, but can also interpret a piece of music. in their own way, with a high level of musical knowledge that can only come from a variety of life experiences – including non-musical experiences like dating, sleepovers and friendships.
Jenna gets quality time instead of just “doing time”. He spends a significant percentage of his 21 hours, and 12 hours for our more typical students, in groups with his peers. Through group play, students develop musicality and other critical skills such as listening, leading, and rhythm. During group play, the child develops a sense of belonging, which pulls him upwards in the music. They join an amazing club with friendships, fun, snacks, trips to theme park music festivals, medals, pins, trophies and most of all, travel! Membership encourages them to practice – reducing parental frustration.
This raises another reason why the “tiger” approach is counterproductive. Being a professional musician is a social career. Success is about making connections and making friends. If there is a good job and there are two players to choose from, the job gets to the one who gets along with everyone.
Chua seems to isolate her daughters. She describes her insistence that her child should come first in almost every situation, be it school or music, as “Chinese”. My take: In music, as in life, aiming for the number one goal is a losing proposition. There will always be someone who plays better. Children must learn to work together to succeed.
MISTAKES ARE LAUGHTER
After ten years of running a music school, we have learned that some parents need to be separated from the student during lessons. I teach the child how important it is to relax the upper body, and then the parent nudges or even nudges the child – “And don’t forget to push your arms in!” – which almost knocked us back with the tension of the child. Domineering parents hinder the development of students.
Chua demands perfection from her daughters. I tell my students (and their parents) not to make mistakes. Something I say a lot in class and in band: “I’m so glad you played badly, now we can all learn!” My own kids have made a lot of mistakes—big ones. Like when Ariana forgot to tighten her bow before a fancy show! Another time he left the mute on his violin for the entire performance! Bet he never does that again. We laughed then and we still laugh about it.
When my own kids fail, if 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 working with hundreds of parents over the years, it is abundantly clear to me that those who behave like Chua tie their self-esteem too closely to their children’s performance.
STICK WITH IT
Besides being ambitious, there is another area where Chua and I are similar: we are both stubborn. If you’re a tiger mom, you can call me a lion mom. I agree with Chua’s attitude that if one wants their child to be a good musician, the parent has to be very single-minded, persevere, go through the hard parts and never give up. But parents must also learn to detach from the child and develop their own lives emotionally and spiritually. And parents do no it must take away a child’s precious childhood.
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