A parent in my studio recently lent me “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua, otherwise known as That Tiger Mother book. I have been hearing about the book for a while now, and since some of the parents were reading it, I wanted to be in the know! (Funny aside: A ten year-old student recently showed up to her lesson decidedly more prepared than usual. When I expressed my pleasure, she sighed, rolled her eyes and said, “my mom is reading that Tiger Mother book”.)
If this is the first time you are hearing of this book, the subtitle pretty much says it all:
“ This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”
Yes. So. Let me try to avoid wading into any sort of controversy…
I very much enjoyed the book, just for the entertainment value alone. Amy Chua’s writing is very humorous and she manages to strike a tone that is a bit self-deprecating and yet sincere.
I think this book should be required reading for piano teachers. I do not say this because I believe it is a totally accurate representation of parenting in a particular culture or because I have a fixed opinion of whether Chua was right or wrong in the approach she took with raising her daughters (to give a sense of scale: the pianist makes her Carnegie Hall debut as an eighth-grader, the violinist is the concert master of her youth orchestra and studies with a teacher from the Julliard Prep, having narrowly missed acceptance into that program). The value of the book for me was in the questions that it raised in my mind:
- How do I interact with different styles of parenting?
- What is my role as a teacher in the context of the parent-child relationship?
- Do I have clear communication with parents about the musical goals they have for their children?
There were moments in Chua’s book that made me smile. While I was certainly not raised in anything even remotely resembling the Tiger Mother style, I am an immigrant child and remember clearly the culture shock that my parents experienced upon encountering the American education system and parenting style. Other moments in her story were absolutely gut wrenching, painful to read and infuriating. Yet, at the core of Chua’s story I think there are three very valid messages that can be applied to the work of music teachers.
Assume Strength, Not Fragility
High expectations are vital to a child’s growth. Parents and teachers do a huge disservice to a young person when we demand too little. I often encounter parents that say things like “Well, she’s not going to be a professional…” And while that is all well and good, there can be an implied message of “so she doesn’t need too try to hard” or even worse “I don’t think she has the ability to do particularly well.” In those situations I feel that it is my role to push the student to master a more advanced piece or to take on preparing for an exam. I want to give her the pleasure and satisfaction of knowing that she can achieve at a high level, regardless of the endgame. Which brings me to the next very valid point of Chua’s book…
The Virtuous Circle
Parent: “My little Johnnie doesn’t want to practice. Whatever shall I do?”
Me: “Tell Johnnie that he must practice.”
Parent: “Oh, but he doesn’t want to.”
Me: “Of course he doesn’t what to! I don’t know of any child that wants to!”
Parent: “Really?! However can this be?”
Every time I have this conversation, I then try to explain that the “wanting to” will come later. There will be good days and bad days. Days when piano is fun and days when it is a grind. But when a child begins to see the results of his work, starts to marvel at the speed and precision that his fingers can achieve, he will become more driven. And it is the parent and teacher who must facilitate this realization by requiring the discipline of practice. Of course there are good and bad ways to go about this, and of course I don’t want any child to be unhappy and lose their love of music in the process. Which brings me to my final lesson from the Tiger Mother book…
Amy Chua doesn’t exactly advocate a balanced approach or a sensitive touch in her book, but this is what I took away from the story. Every child is a mysterious and subtly tuned instrument. The joy of teaching is finding exactly the right thing to say or do that will coax someone out of a grumpy mood, or free him to really let loose and play with feeling, or make her understand that more work needs to be done. I have dealt with my share of Tiger Parents (of all cultural backgrounds!) I have gently (or firmly, when necessary) asked parents to not sit in on lessons and used my time with their children to help them make music their own– to take ownership of the piano and help them love it, to free the act of playing from the parental pressure and expectation that can become so tangled with it. On the other hand, when faced with a parental approach of “This is just for fun. What? Practicing? He’s not going to be a professional!” I feel that my role is to give the child a good push, to show her that I expect her to work just as hard as anyone else. And sometimes magic happens and an inner drive to excel is unleashed.
I would love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and words of wisdom…