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.

Sight Reading Music Vs. Reading Music

I’m writing this article because of a debate that recently occurred in a piano forum I participate in. The argument was on the proper use of the words when describing reading music, specifically the term “sight reading”. If you are sight reading a piece of music, is it the very first time you are playing it or have you played it before, and therefore are only reading music and no longer sight reading it? Some in the forum felt that the use of the term “sight reading” didn’t accurately describe the process I was talking about at the time. I hadn’t realized there were such strong thoughts around the way we describe playing sheet music, but I learned quickly that there are more than a few people with varying opinions on the use of words. I’ll share both sides of the argument and offer up my own thoughts on the subject.

Many in the music community view the term “sight reading” to mean “reading music on first sight”. This may be your definition as well, and is often the end goal for anyone trying to read music. Many sites and forums are dedicated to the ability to play music at first sight, a skill that is very difficult to master, and can be frustrating, especially for the beginner piano student. Most piano players need to play through a piece of music numerous times before being able to play it straight through. So this definition would lead many to believe that sight reading is an impossible task for the beginner. I personally don’t like this limited view and therefore I tend to agree with the more general definition.

The other side of the argument is more where I stand. The term “sight reading” to me simply means “playing music by what you see” as opposed to playing by ear or by rote (mimicking another player, like on YouTube). I don’t make a determination as to whether it is the first reading or the hundredth. In fact, I would define one’s sight reading ability not only by the difficulty of the pieces they can play, but also by how many times it takes them to play it before the mistakes are minimal. Even for a seasoned pro, every additional time reading through a piece of music usually results in more accuracy. If you could be able to play a piece of music by spending 5-10 minutes with it, playing it through a few times and then able to play it flawlessly, wouldn’t that be an accomplishment of your ability to read music by sight? There are advanced techniques to improve the skills to minimize mistakes on first read, but I don’t want to diminish someone’s skill level just because it takes them a few more times playing through to really get it.

One more point on my side of the argument. As someone who has been called on to read music at first glance often (for example, playing for musical theater auditions) I can honestly say that I rarely, if ever, play the music without reading through it first. I read through the piece I’m about to play, looking for difficult sections, analyzing the various notes and patterns. So I could argue that my first time playing the music is actually my SECOND time reading through it. So would that mean that by definition I’m simply reading the music now and not actually sight reading it? I wouldn’t make that distinction. It would be like reading through a speech before giving it. Even if you are reading off your cards and giving that speech for the first time, it’s not technically the first read-through.

That is how I define sight reading, in the broader definition. I understand how some put a stricter meaning to the word, but in the end, aren’t we all trying to learn and do the same thing? We want to be able to look at a piece of music and play it with as little mistakes as possible, whether it’s the first time through, or the millionth.

How To Play Piano Without Sheet Music

Looking for tips on how to memorize music? Playing without sheet music is possible. Here are my own challenges and triumphs.

A group of us musicians were asked to play for an outdoor event at an amphitheater right by the ocean. The morning began with a huge downpour and we were frantically drying wet music scores with a hair dryer. Needless to say, it was quite challenging. What did I personally learn from the experience? Memorize your music! Yes, you can insert sheet music in plastic sleeves and that would be one way to succeed. However, it’s fun just to go to Guitar Center and play a few memorized tunes in front of anyone who will listen.

1. So, why memorize music?

Playing without sheet music is very liberating.

Of course there’s no need to memorize music if you don’t want to. As a musician, I choose to memorize to avoid uncomfortable situations like music blowing off my stand when playing outdoors. Especially performing a night gig and the light bulb goes out on your music stand, surrounded by total darkness in the orchestra pit.

If you have been doing your homework during your practice sessions and you are familiar with the set of music, then you’re not locked in to reading just the music notes with having to turn pages as well.

You will soon discover new ways of music flowing since you’re eager to play without music.

2. Steps to help you memorize music.

If you’re playing boogie blues or rock and roll, learn the various left hand patterns in the 12 bar blues form. Notice a couple of phrases and see if the second phrase answers the first.

When I’m reviewing a song, let’s say it’s a ballad, I first determine the keynote and play around and find the melody in that particular key.

If you’re given a lead sheet, remembering chord progressions is the key to memorizing the song that is built on recalling the theory that you understand. Analyze the structure of the piece.

Now memorizing note for note is another ball game. Honestly, it can be more difficult for others than a youngster playing a memorized piece at a recital. In my opinion, the key to memorizing sheet music is through repetition. Also, try to remember if your hands are going in opposite directions or playing separately. Note tricky fingering as well.

I suggest taking small sections of music and repeatedly going over a few lines. We call this chunking and chaining. Please be patient. You may find recording or using flash cards to quiz yourself helps boost confidence in playing licks to a certain measure.

Laying down a rhythm pattern, programming drums, jamming in garage band or just using a metronome for a classical piece can keep you on track with skills to remember a song. Listening to a phrase of music indeed works the brain for short-term memory. Keep at it daily. In the beginning, I would open my music, then close it and try to play what I pictured.

3. Why these steps will help.

Practice, repetition and patience, a win-win formula, but truly there is no magic pill to take in memorizing music. Playing with other musicians for years and having that experience helps in knowing how to play certain songs well without sheet music. I’m thinking the biggest factor of all is choosing to memorize a song that you know and love will make it much easier for you to learn. You’re on your way!