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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, an accomplished violinist, to an audition at a top music conservatory on the East Coast. Admissions, of course, affect where you go to college. your whole life. At the first audition, I asked Ariana if she was nervous while waiting for her turn. “No mom, I’m so excited to play for them!” She was as happy as Cinderella going to the ball.
It felt like the end of a long road and the beginning of a new one. When Ariana and her brother Zach were little, I suddenly became a single mom. I believed I would never be able to send them to college without a scholarship. So I brought them up in music that I knew well as a symphonic violinist. I started playing the violin when Zach was 6 and Ariana when she was 5 (she switched to violin in her teenage years). During those difficult times, I sometimes sacrificed my service fees to buy their equipment and pay for their lessons.
Ariana’s first college audition piece was a Brahms sonata. I almost put my ear to the door. It seemed to me that he represented all the life experiences that had brought him to this point; great experiences like dating, sleepovers, horseback riding, playing in jazz and rock’n’roll bands with good friends. It also resonated with difficult experiences such as his parents’ divorce, a cross-country move, and teenage school problems.
I could tell by the look on his face when he left the room. The refereeing teacher followed him out the door and congratulated me and told me he was happy to teach him.
A lot of people have asked me about the tiger mother script, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience. You may have read the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 8, 2011) article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Better” by law professor Amy Chua. Chua describes her “tiger” parenting style and contrasts it with “western” parenting. His children were never allowed to sleep or play. They were the best in class and were required to play only piano or violin every day. Chua recounted an anecdote about how her 7-year-old daughter, Lulu, struggled to play the piano. Lulu gave up and left the piano. His mother forced him back. “Punching, punching and kicking” ensued. Chua insulted and threatened her daughter and did not allow her to use the toilet. After many hours – and no dinner – Lulu finally played the piece correctly.
My response: Chua could have achieved the same result without any negativity.
I know this because not only am I now the parent of three music-loving children, but I also run a music school with hundreds of young clients. We prepare students from the ground up to be good enough to get into Juilliard or any top music program. if This is their chosen direction. So in terms of our passion for our children, I am very similar to Chua, who tried to get her daughter into Juilliard’s preschool program.
But aside from my admiration for Juilliard, my experience helping kids develop and take music to the highest level couldn’t be more different than Chua’s.
EASY TO GET ANGER
Chua took the easy way out when she got angry with her kids during practice. The most difficult instrument a child can play is the violin. A parent’s anger goes from 0-100 in seconds when they see their kids mess up. Sometimes I want to jump inside my daughter’s little body and do it for her! Add to that the financial sacrifice, and it’s no wonder parents go ballistic.
I let parents know that they are not alone in these feelings, and offer tools to help reduce frustration and support children’s development. My positive reward system includes lots of praise and gifts like snuff stickers, “stupid band” bracelets, cute Japanese erasers, and plastic figurines of great composers. And we’ve got a dozen ideas to help make exercise fun, or at least tolerable.
LONELINESS VS. “PLAYING” WITH FRIENDS
Chua makes sure that her children exercise not just for one or two hours, but for three or more hours a day alone and with their mother. This will be 21 hours per week (regardless of what course you take). I am like Chua in insisting that my kids exercise every day and have plenty of time each week. Some parents think I’m over it. I added the time my 9-year-old daughter, Jenna, spends on music and violin – it’s almost 20 hours a week. But this is not an independent exercise. Jenna is in two orchestras at my music school; She also plays in three quartets with girls her own age. In addition, there are four violin, one piano, and one music theory lessons per week. I try to give him 1 extra hour of independent exercise a day. (Of course, since we own a music school that is Jenna’s second home, it doesn’t seem all that expensive or time-consuming.)
A more typical student in my program might take 1 or 2 classes per week; Join our string quartet once a week and play with an orchestra or two every week. It is also recommended to exercise 45-90 minutes a day depending on the level and age. It takes an average of 1 hour a day and about 12 hours a week, compared to 21 hours for Chua’s children.
It is important to be realistic about the timing. It is true that the children who study the most hours from elementary school to high school end up with the most advanced technique and get the first chair. But when they go out into the real world and start auditioning for conservatories, high-level orchestras, and competitions, the winners are the players who not only have the technical skills, but also the ability to translate musical compositions. Theirs is a unique approach to high-level musicianship that can only come from a variety of life experiences, such as play dates, sleepovers, friendships, and non-musical experiences.
Jenna is getting quality time rather than just “making time”. A significant part of his 21 hours, 12 hours of our regular students, is spent in groups with his peers. Students develop musical skills and develop other important skills such as listening, control, rhythm, and more through group play. Also, when playing in a group, the child gets a sense of his own and pulls himself up with music. They join a wonderful club of friendship, fun, snacks, trips to theme park music festivals, medals, pins, trophies, and most of all, travel! Membership gives them motivation to practice – less frustration for parents.
This brings up another reason why the “tiger” method is ineffective. Being a professional musician is a social profession. Success is about making connections and making friends. If there is a good job and there are two players to choose from, he will ally with everyone and get the job.
Chua seems to be isolating his daughters. He described his insistence that his child should be first in almost any situation, be it school or music, as a “Chinese person”. My take: In music, as in life, trying to be number one is bound to fail. There will always be someone who plays better. Children must learn cooperation to succeed.
ERROR IS LAUGHING
After ten years of running a music school, we have realized that some parents need to be separated from their students during lessons. I will teach the child how important it is to rest the upper body, and then the parent will call or even poke the child – “Don’t forget to put your hands in!” – This brings us back to the tension of the child. Parents hinder 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 in orchestras is, “You played it wrong, I’m so glad, now we can all learn!” My kids made a big mistake – a big mistake. Just like when Ariana forgot to tighten her bow before a fancy recital! On another occasion, he left muted music on his violin. You bet he would never do that again. We laughed then and we still do.
I don’t take it personally when my kids fail, when they don’t get the first chair. I know they will do better next time. They don’t need to rub me.
After dealing with hundreds of parents over the years, it seems very clear to me that people who behave like Chua have tied their self-worth too tightly to their child’s performance.
KEEP HIM ON ME
Along with being ambitious, Chua and I have another thing in common: We are stubborn. If she is a tiger mother, I am a lion mother. I agree with Chua’s attitude that if one wants their child to become a skilled musician, parents must be single-minded, stick to it, push through the tough times, and never give up. But parents must learn to separate themselves from their children and develop their lives emotionally and spiritually. And so do parents no Children’s precious childhood should be taken away.
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