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 viola player, to the East Coast to audition at top-tier music conservatories, The auditions are, of course, important – where you go to college affects your whole life. At the first audition, waiting for her turn, I asked Ariana if she was nervous. “No, mommy, I’m so excited to play for them!” She was happy, like Cinderella going to the ball.

It felt to me like the end of a long road, and the start of a new one. When Ariana and her brother Zak were little, I suddenly became a single mother. I believed that I would never be able to send them to college without scholarships. So I groomed them in something that, as a symphonic violinist, I knew well: music. I started Zak on violin at 6 and Ariana at 5 (she switched to viola in her teens). During those hard times, I sometimes sacrificed paying my utilities bills in order to buy their instruments and pay for their lessons.

The first piece in Ariana’s first college audition was a dramatic Brahms sonata. I practically glued my ear to the door. It seemed to me that she was expressing all the life experiences that had brought her to this point; wonderful experiences like play dates and sleepovers with good friends, horseback riding, and playing in jazz and rock’n’roll bands. And there were echoes of difficult experiences, too, like her parents’ divorce, a cross-country move and teenage school troubles.

When she emerged from the room, I could tell from her face that she had nailed it. The teacher, who served as a judge, followed her out the door, congratulated me, and said that he’d love to teach her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience, because so many people have asked me about the ‘tiger mother’ essay. You’ve probably read the article, by law professor Amy Chua, in the (January 8, 2011) Wall Street Journal, titled ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.’ Chua outlines her approach to childrearing, which she calls the ‘tiger’ way, and compares it to the ‘Western’ way. Her children were never allowed sleepovers or play dates. They were required to be the top student in their classes, and to play only piano or the violin, for hours each 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. Her mother forced her back. “Punching, thrashing and kicking” ensued. Chua insulted and threatened her daughter, and didn’t let her go to the bathroom. After many hours – with no dinner – Lulu finally played the piece correctly.

My response: Chua could have achieved the same results with none of the negativity.

I know this because, not only am I now the parent of three highly musical children, but I also direct a music school with hundreds of young clients. We groom students from the beginning so that they can become good enough to get into Juilliard or any top-tier music program, if that’s the direction they choose. So in our ambition for our children, I’m a lot like Chua, who tried to get her daughter into Juilliard’s precollege program.

But, aside from admiring Juilliard, my experience helping children grow and to thrive in music to reach the highest levels couldn’t be more different from Chua’s.

ANGER IS EASY

In letting herself become angry at her children during practices, Chua takes the easy way out. The violin is the most difficult instrument a child can play. Seeing their children mess up, a parent’s anger can go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Sometimes I just want to jump inside my daughter’s little body and do it for her! Add to that the financial sacrifice – no wonder parents go ballistic.

I tell the parents that they’re not alone in these feelings, and offer them tools to reduce the frustration and help the child progress. My positive reward system includes plenty of praise and presents, from puffy stickers and ‘silly band’ bracelets, to cute Japanese erasers and plastic busts of great composers. We also offer dozens of ideas to help make practice fun, or at least tolerable.

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT VS. ‘PLAYING’ WITH FRIENDS

Chua puts a lot of emphasis on making her children practice for many hours – not just one or two hours, but 3 hours a day or more of solitary practice, just with mom. That would be 21 hours a week (plus whatever lessons they attend). I’m like Chua, in terms of my insistence that my children practice every day, and put in a lot of time each week. Some parents think I’m over the top. I added up the hours my 9-year-old daughter Jenna spends with music and her cello – it comes out to nearly 20 hours a week. But that’s not solo practice. Jenna is in two of my music school’s orchestras; and she plays in three quartets, with girls her age. On top of that, she has four cello lessons a week, one piano lesson, and one music theory class. I try to get her to practice solo for an additional – 1 hour a day. (All this isn’t 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 a week; participate in one of our string quartets once a week, and play with one or two of our orchestras weekly. He is also encouraged to practice 45-90 minutes a day, depending on level and age. That can average out 1 hours a day, around 12 hours a week, compared to Chua’s childrens’ 21 hours.

Putting time into practice in is important. In the elementary through high school years, it is true that the kids who practice for the most hours will have the most advanced technique, and will earn 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 who are also able to interpret a piece of music in a way that is unique to them, with a high level of musicianship which can only come from varied life experiences – including non-musical experiences like play dates, sleepovers, and friendships.

Jenna is getting quality time, rather than just “doing time.” A significant percentage of her 21 hours, and the 12 hours of our more typical students, is spent in groups with her peers. It’s in group playing that students develop their musicality, and other critical skills like listening, leading, and rhythm. It’s also in group playing that the child develops a sense of belonging that pulls him or her upwards in music. They join a wonderful club with friendships, fun, snacks, trips to amusement park music festivals, medals, pins, trophies, and above all, travel! Membership inspires them to practice – reducing parents’ frustration.

Which brings up another reason that the ‘tiger’ approach is counterproductive. Being a professional musician is a social career. Succeeding is about making connections and friends. If there’s a good job, and there are two players to choose from, it’s the one who gets along with everybody who will get the job.

Chua appears to isolate her daughters. She describes as ‘Chinese’ her insistence that her child must be number one in almost any situation, school and music. My perspective: In music, as in life, aiming to be number one is a losing proposition. There will always be someone who plays better. Children must learn cooperation in order to succeed.

MISTAKES ARE A LAUGHING MATTER

After ten years of running a music school, we’ve learned that some parents should be separated from the student during lessons. I’ll be teaching a child how important it is to relax their upper body, and then the parent will chime in, or even poke the child – “And don’t forget to push your arm in!” – which pretty much puts us back to square one with the child’s tension. Overbearing parents inhibit student progress.

Chua demands perfection from her daughters. I tell my students (and their parents) that it’s O.K. to make mistakes. Something I say a lot in class and orchestra is, “I am so happy you played that wrong, now we can all learn!” My own children have made plenty of mistakes – big ones. Like the time Ariana forgot to tighten her bow before a fancy recital! Another time, she left the mute on her violin for the entire performance! You bet she’ll never do that again. We laughed then, and we still chuckle about it.

When my own children fail, when they don’t get first chair, I don’t take it personally. I know they’ll do better next time. They don’t need me to rub it in.

After years of dealing with hundreds of parents, it’s pretty clear to me that those who behave like Chua have tied their self-esteem too tightly to their children’s performance.

STICK WITH IT

Along with being ambitious, there is another area where Chua and I are similar: We’re both stubborn. If she’s a tiger mother, you can call me a lion mother. I agree with Chua’s attitude that, if someone wants their child to become a skillful musician, a parent must be very single-minded, stick with it, slog through the difficult parts, and never give up. But parents also must learn to separate from the child, and to grow their own lives emotionally and spiritually. And parents do not have to take away a child’s precious childhood.

Advice to Successfully Practice Properly at Home

From time to time, all music students struggle with creating a successful practice routine at home. Spending many hours working at their music, the results may vary. The lists within this article have working within my piano studio to help students create a successful practice routine that will save time and also encourage fun experiences.

Suggestions for teachers to consider:

1. Practice means REPETITION, such as any physical action dictates.

2. If we play something enough times properly, the fingers learn to do the action automatically.

3. The fingers are the orchestra; as the teacher, we are the conductor telling the orchestra members what to do.

4. The experienced musician may be able to look at a piece of music and be able to read and interpret the many aspects of the material very quickly; with some practice of the challenging sections of the piece, it will be mastered quickly.

5. Beginner students are mostly interested in learning the notes properly; most of the suggestions of interpretation must come from the music teacher.

How can we encourage the student to practice?

1. Active portions of the lesson should be utilized to show how to practice portions of the piece; the teacher should remember what was assigned the week before.

2. Repetition must always be encouraged.

3. Challenges should be taught to be dealt with in isolation, one at a time.

EFFECTIVE PRACTICE = EFFICIENT PRACTICE

4. Practicing should be organized by the activity and not the amount of time spent on something.

5. Slow practice is important.

6. Use a practice planner so that there is clear communication between the teacher, the student, and the parent as to the weekly expectations.

7. Details should be included when necessary.

What learning environment will encourage a successful practice session?

1. A quiet space with plenty of light.

2. No electronic distractions, such as cell phones, t.v., or tablets should be present during home practice (unless an app on an electronic device has been assigned to be used by the music instructor)

3. Practice at a time of day that creates musical creativity. This will vary from student to student. Some students prefer to work at night, other students prefer to work during the day (morning or afternoon). Make sure to find the time of day that suits your schedule, this will allow the practice sessions to be fun and not “a chore”.

Don’t Fall For The Myth Of Perfection

“The things that I have learned in my guitar lessons so far is really cool. I need to master this stuff before I learn anything else though.”

Have you thought this, or said it before? If so, you are not alone. Many guitar players have thought like this. On the surface, it sounds perfectly reasonable right? Take the things that you have learned and perfect them before adding more things to your plate? Makes sense right?

Wrong! You do not want to take this approach to learning how to play guitar. The reason is that if you spend the amount of time it is going to take to master any one guitar playing item in isolation, when you go to play anything else that isn’t that item, you are going to quickly realize that you now have to start over with this new item and perfect that only to find out that something else will need the same treatment. You will repeat this over and over and it will literally take decades to get to your ultimate goal. How frustrating would that be?

I’m going to use a non musical example to further illustrate this point.

Say you were planning on becoming a professional body builder. You hit the gym for your first day of training and you’ve made your plan on how you are going to become this awesome body builder. You decide that the best way to reach this goal is to only work on one muscle group at a time until you built that muscle group up to where you wanted it. To break down how insane this is even further, let’s say that you only want to build up that particular muscle group on one side of your body only? After working out for a few months, how weird would it look if you had a huge left bicep and the right bicep was tiny? How would that bicep look in comparison to the rest of your body?

Pretty silly right? Yes it is and this is exactly what you are doing by only focusing on “perfecting” one aspect of your guitar playing while completely ignoring everything else.

Instead of focusing on perfection, focus on improving your guitar playing from week to week. If you are a better guitar player this week than you were last week and you have a way to measure this, every week. You are on the right track.

The mastery that you are looking for will come and it will come faster if you focus on improving multiple areas of your guitar playing at the same time instead of pulling each single item out and trying to master them in isolation.

All the best to you and your guitar playing.