Piano lessons begin; Tiger Mom trims her whiskers

We began private lessons for my 6-year-old last week. Last year she did Group Piano which was fun (due to the fact that we did them with my girlfriend and her daughter; my friend and I texted and giggled silently through the class – hey, it kept me sane) but when the option came to have private lessons right away instead of going through Group Piano Year 2, I jumped at it like an Olympian gymnast. I’d already had two years of Group Piano with Daughter #1; it was like Groundhog Day doing it all over again.

One of the highlights of Group Piano last year was observing one of the mothers and her son. She was clearly fiercely committed to his being excellent at piano, and he was clearly determined to switch to hockey. She would grab his fingers and force them onto the right notes. He would slouch and fart and wriggle on the bench. She was very tightly wound (indicator: perfect hair) but her son had an untucked look that said, “I’d rather be rolling around in the grass.”  It was a recipe for disaster. They would hit each other! In class! It was extremely entertaining. I don’t know what home life looked like, but they made Group Piano for me.

Needless to say, they were Asian. As was 98% of the class, including me and my friend. OK, 97.5% because I’m only half.

It was particularly interesting to me because I’d read The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (in one day on vacation) and it screwed me up for the entire year. I started the year with two kids in piano. The older one was starting private lessons and the younger one was starting Group Piano. The demographic at the music school we attend is about 98% Asian. All I could think was:

  1. The piano teachers tend to cut the bottom 20% of their students.
  2. The tiger mothers are driving their kids like mules.

Ergo, if I don’t act like a tiger mother my kids are going to be fired!

I talked to everyone who would listen. I asked the piano teacher, the director of the music school, all of my friends (god love them), and my mom. The music teachers said things like, Don’t worry, it all levels out by the time they’re in Grade 7. OK, but what if they get fired before then because even though they’re progressing normally for a 6-year-old, they can’t compete with a kid who’s being browbeaten into performing and has no social life?

Some of the parents at the music school would claim that their kids just practiced on their own, they loved the piano, and they themselves never made them practice, etc. This is just out of the blue; I didn’t even ask. I would watch their kids racing up and down the halls like monkeys with ADD and think, Right, sure.

But maybe Amy Chua and her ilk had something going on here. Let’s face it, it’s a tough, competitive world.

I started standing over my older daughter, who was 7 at the time. I play the piano, so it was frustrating to watch her make mistakes. I’d try to explain that when you make a mistake you have to focus on it, break it down, and go over and over it until you create muscle memory. Maybe that was too much for a 7-year-old. She would balk, I’d get angry, she’d cry and need to hug, I’d be frantic because we’d be running out of time, and my husband would come out of his office and look at me like, What the hell is going on?

All I wanted was for her to learn how to work hard, fix mistakes, and get to the point where she loves the sounds she makes with the piano. Perseverance is one of the most important lessons you can learn in life, right? But I’m not a good teacher. I’m impatient, I say stupid things like What’s hard about this? and I think I expect results too quickly.

It wasn’t good for our relationship. We both dreaded piano practice. But I was spurred on by the knowledge that the competition was fierce. And she was progressing. She found satisfaction in lessons that went well. I tried backing off and found that without my help, she didn’t perform as well in lessons and the teacher would make her repeat songs that she should have finished in one week.

What to do? I talked to one friend, who has two sets of children, one by her first husband and one by her second. She told me that, being Korean, she and her husband worked very hard on the first two kids. Homework, music – they were hard-core. The kids had to be in private schools, they had to be at the top of their classes, they had to excel in language and also in music. But she said that when these two got to university age, they wanted to do it by themselves – and couldn’t. They had become so accustomed to being externally motivated that they were unable to be self-starting. And music? They don’t touch their instruments now.

Her advice: Enjoy your kids. Let them fall on their faces when they’re little, so that they figure it out for themselves when the stakes aren’t so high.

(The irony is that she’s married to a music teacher and their kids are taking intensive music lessons.)

It was comforting advice, and wise. On the one hand, I agree with Amy Chua that our job as parents is to prepare our children for the world. So they need discipline, manners, and a good work ethic. Asian thinking is that confidence comes from mastering something you thought you couldn’t do. I agree with this. I think it’s wrong to praise children for doing…nothing. Self-esteem shouldn’t come from false praise. It should come from actual effort and accomplishment. And when the kids work they need to learn to self-motivate. There’s no point if it’s the parent’s energy being channelled into the child, like a puppeteer with a marionette. When that energy is removed, the puppet sags on its strings. So they need to learn a work ethic and the earlier the better. On the other hand, I believe in balance. Life should be a mix of work and play.

Not according to Amy Chua, though.

Chua’s book disturbed me on so many levels. Is it just me, or is it sort of abusive to stand over a kid and deny them bathroom breaks to make them practice music? She’s clearly a driven person with energy to spare, but what those girls’ lives must have been like I shudder to think. When her older daughter played at Carnegie Hall (in a minor auditorium, which Chua resented), it was clear that the triumph was Chua’s. She’s the one who rented a room in a hotel to host a reception. You can just see her standing there accepting the congratulations. And rightly so; it was her victory, after all.

When her younger daughter, aged 13, hacked off her own hair in protest, didn’t Chua think, Whoa? That’s a serious sign that something’s wrong. She’s lucky they don’t have eating disorders, that they’re not cutting themselves. Well, maybe they are self-destructing; she certainly wouldn’t admit it.

I Googled her book when I got back and found videos of interviews that she’d done when the book came out. She was clearly defensive. Joy Behar in particular was quite hard on her. Chua tried to say that the book was supposed to be funny. Funny? Witty and clever, yes. Funny, not so much. She kept insisting that she wasn’t back-pedalling, but she clearly was back-pedalling in the face of serious criticism. She said, in her defence, that she asked her daughters if they approved of the way they’d been brought up, if they would bring up their kids the same way. She claimed that they said Yes and Yes. That is desperate. I think there’s a little Stockholm Syndrome going on there, what do you think? They’re teenagers, they’re clearly enthralled and totally controlled by their mother. Let’s ask when they’re 40. I bet we’ll hear a different story then.

I was deeply touched and affected by Emily J.’s blog post about being raised by a tiger mother. (It inspired this blog post.) Her story reveals the dark side of ambitious parenting, and her point is that at this extreme, it’s not about the kids, it’s always about the parent, the parent’s ego, the parent’s need for praise and approval. Cases like this go beyond dysfunction, beyond ambition. I think Emily J.’s mother suffered from a kind of pathology and it is to Emily’s credit that she is aware of her mother’s mistakes and is not about to repeat them.

So, what did I do? With all this contradictory influence and evidence churning around in my head, I raced around getting the kids to their lessons, fretted about homework and piano, and eventually got so sick that I popped a rib from coughing. My doctor told me to reduce my activity, and after some consideration I decided to let my older daughter quit piano and we cut down on ballet too, so that I was at the music school twice a week instead of three times. It wasn’t an easy decision; I felt like I was throwing in the towel. Failure! And of course both her piano teacher and her group teacher said that she had talent and should continue. Now they tell me. But our relationship improved and we all lightened up a bit. My younger daughter seemed to be thriving on her group lessons and we didn’t clash over practising so we kept going.

I wish my decision hadn’t been prompted by my own sickness and my doctor’s advice, but my older daughter is now taking martial arts and drawing, and is really excited by that. I ask her once in a while if she’d like to go back to piano but so far, she’s not interested. My younger daughter is doing well with her piano lessons and practices without being told. I do help but I’m not allowed to shout “B! B!”; I’m only allowed to make a sound in my throat when she makes a mistake, and it’s not usually necessary. She self-starts and self-corrects. It’s a relief.

So…even though I think that we do have to put some energy into guiding our kids into learning about the value of hard work, sometimes you can’t force a kid into an activity they’re not interested in investing their own energy into. Yes, it took me over a year to figure this out. The main block was the fact that given the choice, kids would rather play than work; Amy Chua made this point many times. But I don’t think the only options are either slaving away at an instrument with no playmates or fun, or a life wasted on Facebook. The girls seem genuinely involved in their activities and don’t need coercion to work independently at improving their abilities. We’re working on a happy medium here. I’m sure a lot of people are thinking, “Can we have a duh for Lea?”

As I write my daughter is practicing piano – on her own. I’m just going to remind her to curve her fingers.

(It took me over a week to write this post – isn’t the beginning of the year the craziest time?)

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