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Thoughts on the Tiger Mom debate

To say that Amy Chua has touched a nerve with parents is an understatement akin to saying that Franz Liszt had an influence on piano performance and teaching. Since the publication of her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in January, and the subsequent Wall Street Journal article "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," a firestorm of discussion and debate on parenting has broken out across the United States. This debate has played out in major media outlets of every stripe, from the cover of Time to The Colbert Report. The dialogue is not only taking place among journalists—it has also been hotly debated by teachers, parents, and students in the blogs and message boards of countless websites. Go to Google and type in the words "Battle Hymn." You'll find that the first automatic fill-in is "of the Tiger Mother." "Of the Republic" is now second to Chua's book in the search engine hierarchy.

I believe that no matter what "side" of the parenting debate you fall on (and I think there are many sides), the discussion that is being generated is healthy. It is acutely applicable to music study, and thus of particular interest to Clavier Companion. We are quite pleased to present three essays on the topic. Each author is an accomplished pianist and piano teacher, and each author presents a unique point of view. I didn't give the authors any direction for these columns, other than to write what they think. I hoped that they would present a range of ideas on this complex topic, and I wasn't disappointed. As always, I invite you, the reader, to contribute your own thoughts by writing to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 —Pete Jutras

Dear Mom

by Ann Schein 

My piano students know that I ask a million questions in order to stimulate their minds and imaginations! At this moment, my own mind and imagination have been deeply stirred after reading an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal in January, an article that was excerpted from a new book by Dr. Amy Chua, law professor at Yale and author of two highly acclaimed best sellers. The titles of Chua's other books are blockbusters: World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, and Day Of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fail

Definitely out of my area. 

The title of Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has a more familiar ring, but it is already mildly irritating. Has she not helped herself to a large portion of our iconic American hymn title, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a spiritual anthem sung on somber and hallowed occasions? It was the title of the excerpted article, however, that jumped off the page. Sweeping forward— where angels fear to tread—its headline, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," attacks her readers head-on! With this outrageous claim, our intrepid Tiger Mom has just taken on all other mothers of the world! (She meekly retreats in an ensuing interview, saying, "The word 'superior' was not my idea!") 

A second article appeared just days later in the Ideas Market blog of the WSJ, and something in it caught my eye: a letter from the older daughter, Sophia, to her Mom. 

"Tiger Mom," she writes, "You have been criticized a lot since you published your memoir... One problem is that some people don't get your humor. They think you're serious about all this, and they assume Lulu and I are oppressed by our evil mother. This is so not true. Every Thursday, you take off our chains and let us play math games in the basement...No outsider can know what our family is really like." 

Oh, Sophia, we do know, because your Mom has chosen to write a book about you that has reached celebrity status. Sophia and Lulu, you are now famous. 

On the front jacket, I read, "This is a story about a mother, two daughters and two dogs." After this benign sentence came a zinger. "It's about a bitter clash of cultures." What has that to do with a family and two dogs, I wondered? Then I turned to the back cover and read, "Chinese parenting—at least if you are trying to do it in America, where the odds are all against you—is a never ending uphill battle, requiring a 24/7 time commitment, resilience and guile!" (Emphasis mine.) My shackles firmly up now, I devoured the book cover to cover. In the course of its 229 pages and roughly thirty-four chapters, Chua's breathtaking put-downs of "Western" values, education, and culture came fast and furiously! 

She loses no time in criticizing "rich Westerners" (are these Americans?) who spoil their children, and she is disgusted by the "weak-willed Moms" whose musical progenies are content with just one hour of practice, and in some cases, just a mere half-hour, after which they receive lavish gifts, even Legos! (Where in the world did she encounter these people?) We then read about her own bribery of a gift of a new dog for her youngest daughter, Lulu, if she would just play a perfect cadenza in her Viotti Violin Concerto! 

While awaiting her own daughter's audition at Juilliard, Chua makes note of all the "grim mothers" pacing back and forth waiting for their offspring to finish their lessons. "Can they really love music?" she sighs. (At least those Moms stay outside the lesson studios, in contrast to her own "Helicopter-Mom" presence inside!) Commenting on Manhattan's "terrifying" culture of excess privilege, complete with sign-ups for SATs available on entrance to Nursery School (this may have some validity), Chua anxiously awaits her own daughter's acceptance into one of these exclusive institutions. 

No Chinese mother could ever stomach an A-minus, Chua assures her readers. Western moms would praise their children to the skies on receiving such a grade! She extols the ancient Chinese virtue of mothers suffering in silence while pushing their children to gut-wrenching loads of work, and she adds that for Chinese moms, Happiness Is Not An Option! (She then complains at the top of her lungs about her own agonies of mothering in a best selling book!) "I am losing my youth!" she wails. 

Going even further, Chua tells her readers how she caused some guests to leave a dinner party in tears after she told them about hurling withering epithets at her daughters, calling them "garbage" when they disobeyed her, in order to inspire them to more respectful behavior. "This would never destroy their self-esteem," she boasts to the shocked dinner guests. (Who can ever forget this "garbage" story?) Westerners, she lectures, are too concerned about their children's psyches and tiptoe around their little darlings' fragile egos with fear and trembling. Chua admits that she spies on her children to keep them in line, and uses pure guile to get them to practice their musical instruments until they drop, while dictating the "correct" interpretation to them phrase by phrase, bowing by bowing. (Is she actually qualified for this job?) Come hell or high water, her children are not going to fail! She cannot fail! No Chinese mother can fail! They are Superior! "I Know!" she shouts, "I've done it!"When her daughters insist that they are not Chinese anymore, they are Americans (good for them!), Chua cries out in frustration, "But you are Chinese!!" 

Hopelessly spoiled by the "Western values" she criticizes, while simultaneously deploring the "decadence and indulgence" in Western society, Chua turns her charming humor back onto herself and regales us with a story of her own "wretched excess" when her fourteen-year-old daughter, Sophia, wins first prize in a piano competition. Rewarded with a performance in Carnegie Hall itself, Mom loses her senses and books the family into the luxurious St. Regis New York for the occasion, reserving the even more famously grand party space, the Fontainebleau Room, for the after-concert reception. We also hear about her husband's near nervous breakdown when he receives the bill for this extravaganza for family, friends, and a crowd of ravenous teenagers! 

Dear Sophia, we are sure that you truly did play a beautiful recital, and that you richly deserved such a joyous celebration. And Lulu, we are moved by your incredible strength and spirit in convincing your Mom that there was another way to your happiness and fulfillment than playing the violin, and that you can both tell your mom that you are "Americans" now! We do know without a doubt that you have a tremendously gifted, and yes, Superior Mom, who loves and cares for you with her whole being. And we love that your Dad makes you pancakes and takes you to Yankee games! (Your Dad, for me, is the hands-down hero of your Mom's book!) 

America is our melting pot, and we worry that somehow, somewhere, your mother has missed a lot of the best things about our country—success stories that are sadly absent from her book. We want to be sure that you know about the hundreds of fine music schools, music camps, youth orchestras, and fabulous music festivals that are thriving across this land, with so many talented students just like the two of you coming year after year to study with selfless instructors who are passing on to young talents the greatest inspirations and traditions of Western classical music. Happiness is engraved in our American DNA, and it is deep in the souls of the greatest musicians of the world. 

Hopefully, your Mom will soon write her next best seller—and present you with your third dog!

To be or not to be top

by Fenia I-Fen Chang 

It was a cold Sunday in January when the Dallas Music Teachers Association held its Symphonic Festival piano competition. Icy conditions on most of the roads made it very difficult to drive from home to the competition site. Many parents chose to stay home and skip the competition. However, almost all of the Asian parents made it there. As usual, all of the winners had Asian last names! 

When people asked me about the differences between Chinese parents and Western parents, I always like to tell this story: In my neighborhood there is an activity center and a math school sitting on opposite sides of the same street. On any given Sunday, you will see a lot of traffic as parents take their kids to different classes or activities. Most of the cars turning into the parking lot of the activity center are driven by American parents dropping off their kids for basketball, swim lessons, or simply to play. The cars turning to the math school contain Asian families, most of them Chinese. 

Dr. Amy Chua's article in The Wall Street Journal about the superiority of the Chinese parenting style has drawn a lot of criticism on the internet, but as a Chinese mother and a music teacher myself, the article touched some of my daily debate—what is the best for my kids? 

I agree with Chua about the parenting philosophy of most Chinese parents. (As Chua, I am also using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. These parents could be Korean, Indian, or from any other ethnic group that subscribes to the strict parenting rule.) Most Chinese parents do have a goal in mind to produce children who display academic excellence, musical achievement, and professional success. And, as Chua pointed out, most Western parents worry that pushing kids too hard academically will hurt their children's self esteem. 

This difference is evident in music study. Although parents of all ethnic groups would like to have their children learn to play instruments, most Westerners would rather enroll their children in group lessons to simply have fun, rather than find a really good teacher to train their children to display musical mastery. On the contrary, most Chinese parents would think that having fun at a group music class is a waste of time and money.

If you ask a typical Chinese parent to take a Myers-Briggs personality test, most of them will probably have these characteristics (taken from the ESTJ personality type as described at www.personalitypage. com): 

"...they take parenting responsibilities seriously,... They like to be in charge, and may be very controlling of their children. They do not have much tolerance for inefficiency or messiness. They dislike to see their mistakes repeated.... They will have little patience with the unstructured, "go with the flow" attitude of their perceiving children." 

This is not, as Dr. Chua stated, because Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. This might be the thinking of my grandparents' generation. The strict and academic-successdriven Chinese parenting philosophy, in my view, has more to do with the Chinese culture. The imperial examination system solidifies the thinking that only academic excellence will give you success in life. Chinese parents don't believe in great carpenters or successful salesmen—they want their children to be professors, doctors, or lawyers. Academic achievement is at the core of a child's upbringing in most Chinese families. It is no coincidence that Chinese parents produce so many whiz kids and musical prodigies. 

As a music teacher, I am in agreement with Dr. Chua that kids need to be pushed. Given the choice, children will always choose play over practice. As parents, we need to make sure that they spend enough time working on perfecting their knowledge and skills, be it in an academic field or in music. I also believe we need to challenge kids to get over the difficult parts of their study. As Chua pointed out in the article, "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 Western parents tend to give up... Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence...Once a child stars to excel at something, he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun." 

Nobody wants to hurt a child's feelings. However, if parents are too anxious about their children's self-esteem, praising children's mediocre performances instead of challenging them, they will likely miss opportunities to unveil the children's potential. 

Having said that, I don't think it is necessary to exhaust all tools to motivate your children, including calling them names and using negative words to describe them. One thing I notice in my teaching career, be it private teaching or at the college level, is that there are different degrees of intelligence among different people. For students who are not that smart or naturally talented, a harsh challenge might ruin their confidence. As a music educator, you will need to adapt to the talents you have, to know there are limits to how far you can go, that you cannot just keep pushing everybody. Dr. Chua is lucky to have two very smart girls who can meet a demanding mother's endless challenges. Applied to other children, these techniques might produce rebellious teenagers or cause nervous breakdowns. 

It is generally believed that Western parents will try to respect their children's individuality, support their choices, encourage them to be what they want to be, and provide positive reinforcement. There is nothing wrong with positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. However, don't mistake that for accepting mediocrity and being a pushover parent. There may be some super geniuses or extremely talented children who will inspire themselves to greater things without any outside influence. But a lot of these achievers were pushed to be successful by their parents as well. Most of us are just ordinary people who will choose to take it easy if given the choice between working hard and having fun. This is especially true in regard to learning piano or other musical instruments. It is a very complicated process of the brain processing the score and telling both hands to do different things simultaneously. Even the smartest brain will need a lot of practice to master the skill. You will only have fun if you can get past the hard parts. For most kids, you need strict parents to push you past those hard parts. 

I believe all decent parents want what is best for their children, and they want their children to be at the top, if possible. Most Chinese parents believe that to get to the top, the best way to prepare your children is to let them have a higher goal for themselves, to let them realize their potential, and to arm them with skills, work ethics, and confidence. It may not always get them to the top. But it will certainly give them a good chance to be successful in this highly competitive society. 

Not everyone is winking 

by Bruce Berr 

This is the second opportunity I've had to publicly share my views on the Amy Chua article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." Some of what follows is from my essay, "A Colorful Life" which appeared on the last page of the April 2011 issue of American Music Teacher, but I have room here to elaborate. 

I don't agree with Chua's educational philosophy as stated in The Wall Street Journal article, (I have not read her book from which that article was excerpted), but I am thankful it appeared because it has ignited discussion about many current educational issues, making possible a public discourse that has needed to take place for a long time. 

In the last ten years in my independent piano studio in an upper-middle class Chicago suburb, have I seen a decline in discipline and rates of achievement? Yes, to a degree. Have more families over-scheduled their children with extra-curricular activities such that their chances of achieving excellence in any one area are greatly diminished? Yes, definitely. Have I encountered more parents who seem to coddle their underachieving children and make excuses for them? Yes, definitely. Have many (but not all) of my best students been from Asian families? Yes. 

And yet I still disagree with Chua's approach? Most definitely! It's obvious to me that none of the Chinese parents in my studio treat their children as Chua does—not even close. Instead what I see are parents who are willing and able to do what some others in the studio are not. More on this later. 

I believe that many American educators are grappling with a society that increasingly seems to be losing its focus in terms of how hard work, dedication, external reward, and meaningful, pleasurable accomplishment fit together. There is an interview on YouTube with the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, in which he comments on his teaching experience. Although I don't share the tone and degree of negativity in that clip, I do agree with his broad view: "Most of my students are not willing to work to live up to [their potential] . . .We live in a country that seems to be in a massive state of delusion— where the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that. And it actually works as long as everybody is winking at the same time."

Are we all winking? Perhaps collectively, but Chua's approach is no cure. It offers extreme "solutions" to complex situations that require nuance and fine differentiations. Trying to solve grey problems with black or white solutions might seem to work, but down the road new problems arise that are imprints of the old ones, just turned inside-out. For instance, when a beginner lacks innate discipline in piano study (which is naturally true for most), draconian methods that ignore the unique personality of each person can be utilized "successfully" to produce intensive practice. The result may be impressive in that students learn how to play progressively advanced pieces, but at what price? Do they also learn how to be creative in this way? To be good listeners to music? To love what they're doing? To understand what they are playing? 

During the thirteen years that I was a fulltime university professor, the majority of our most physically accomplished students were Asian, and they did work very hard. However, as competent as they were as players, almost all (even those raised here) struggled mightily with the creative aspects of being a pianist: projecting the structure of music beyond the score markings; communicating emotional depth; being able to play by ear or improvise, let alone compose. When presented with early intermediate piano literature to learn on their own for pedagogy class, many could not make musical sense of the score without instruction or hearing a recording. Early intermediate! Was this demographic weakness cultural in origin? Was it the result of an austere learning approach that championed precision over romance, material over spiritual? Was it just a coincidence? I don't pretend to know the answer, but I do know that Chua's article does not even hint at these important aspects of musical adeptness. 

So I don't agree with the discipline-above-everything approach of Chua, nor do I agree with the parents I've seen firsthand who, for various reasons, avoid fostering a healthy work ethic and pursuit of excellence in their children. However, I am inspired and encouraged by the families in my studio—Chinese and others—who do skillfully, lovingly juggle the needs and wants of their children, helping them grow into creative, decision-making adults. My description of them from the AMT article:

[They] impart to their children through their words and behavior that hard work and fun are not mutually exclusive, rather the greatest pleasure comes from both intertwined; make firm unilateral decisions when necessary but do so kindly; persistently frame music study as a privilege and responsibility that requires commensurate effort over time; limit their children's outside activities so they can enjoy doing excellent work (not perfect), but still allow the child choices; are involved in their young children's home practice from a practical standpoint (helping with structure and even content, regardless of their own music background) and an emotional one by showing sincere interest and providing moral support during bumpy times; set an example of commitment by rarely missing or being late to lessons, and being on top of scheduling lessons, attending recitals, and paying tuition; reinforce the joy of music by listening to art music in their homes, and bringing their children to concerts of all kinds, not just those by pop stars; model that recreation and a social life are natural, desirable facets of a healthy person's life; communicate that piano study is part of an education that is not just about procuring a career, but helping a person grow into themself, thus learning how to live a life rich in many ways. 

This was all said best by a Chinese mother in my studio, Ms. "W," when I interviewed her for the Winter 2004 issue of Keyboard Companion: "You have to balance everything. You already know how you would like your kids to be in the future. Everything I do is based on this vision. I want their life to be very colorful for them: to know music, to enjoy sports, and to be good students. I don't need to push them really hard to do this, but I feel I have to prepare them." Seven years later, her children are still all of that, plus they are happy, levelheaded, beautiful people. 

You can hear parts of the interview with Ms. "W" on the Clavier Companion website: Interview1.html. 

After the AMT essay appeared, I replied to someone who disagreed with the perspective, "I think we both agree on one thing: the survival of the art music we love requires a discipline that seems to be showing up less and less in American homes.We all need to do what we can to reverse this unfortunate trend." We do not have control over the values and standards our students are exposed to in their homes. But we do have control over what happens in our studios, and what and how we communicate with students and parents, all of which makes a difference in their lives. What are we each trying to create in our studios? Skilled players? Creative musicians? Music lovers? Better learners of any subject matter? Self-confident people? Strong character? Some combination of these? Students are people who have not yet grown into who they are, even at college. They are unknown, evolving entities. Therefore, it seems to me that the more we treat our students as people first, musicians second, and players third, the more likely we are to help them grow into well-balanced, healthy people and learners, and the less likely we are to do harm. As their skills deepen, talents emerge, and preferences crystallize, adjustments can be made. By then, they are willing partners in the process, showing diligence borne of passion, curiosity, and a heartfelt desire to accomplish a goal. 

There are some who think that the more Lang Langs we try to produce, the better. Instead I believe that each person realistically achieves maximum musical resonance at a different "pitch." Discovering that pitch takes time for everyone—student, parents, teacher—and it requires intentionality to allow that "string" to vibrate freely of its own accord, guided by foresight and empathy. 

1 Copyright © 2011 Music Teachers National Association. Used by Permission.

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