Charles Petzold

Tiger Mothers and the Future of Classical Music

February 8, 2011
New York, N.Y.

I have not read Yale Law School professor Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Most of what I know of this controversial book was picked up through cultural osmosis and Elizabeth Kolbert's review in The New Yorker, "America's Top Parent". I have never raised children myself, so I also feel completely unqualified in discussing the pros and cons of Amy Chua's approach to parenting.

Amy Chua defines herself as a "Chinese Mother," which in her definition is any parent who is very strict with her chldren, who puts extremely high demands on them, who micro-manages their lives, and who even belittles them with phrases such as "You're garbage." This is the complete antithesis to the more "American" style of child-rearing, which is very permissive and instead seeks to build the child's self-esteem under the assumption that the child will grow into a fine human being if simply given the autonomy to do so.

We wouldn't even be having this debate were it not for some disturbing global trends. As Elizabeth Kolbert points out in her article, the American style seems to have failed. Compared with their peers around the world, American students routinely lag far behind in reading, sciences, and math. Only in one area are American students Number One, and that is self-confidence. The result is that American students believe themselves to be very smart, but are actually quite stupid — a deadly combination.

Amy Chua has decided that her older daugher will learn piano, and her younger daughter will learn violin, and she compels them to practice many hours a day and expects them to achieve a proficiency good enough for Carnegie Hall. The idea of a mother forcing her children to learn a musical instrument is extremely abhorent to many Americans, both young and old. Elizabeth Kolbert quotes one of them commenting on the Wall Street Journal's web site: "Yes, you can brute-force any kid to learn to play the piano — just precisely like his or her billion neighbors. But you'll never get a Jimi Hendrix that way."

I found that comment quite peculiar. Surely the number of piano-playing youngsters can hardly be counted in the billions, and it must be miniscule compared with the number of kids wielding electric guitars (or at least video games that let them pretend they can play). Moreover, the use of Jimi Hendrix as a role model is more than a little disturbing: Wouldn't you want your child to survive at least beyond his 28th birthday regardless of his skill on the guitar?

As readers of this blog know, I enjoy going to concerts of classical music played by young people. Just a couple weeks ago I saw several concerts of chamber music played by Juilliard students, and the past couple summers my wife and I have greatly enjoyed seeing young piano students perform at the Shandelee Music Festival in Sullivan County, New York.

Any time young people gather on a stage to perform classical music, something very interesting is very obvious to the audience: Usually at least half the students are of Asian descent, either born in Asian countries or born in the United States to Asian parents. The trend has also started being reflected in the composition of professional orchestras.

Why is this? Is it something in the Asian DNA? A "Brahms gene" perhaps? Of course that's just silly! The difference is obviously nurture rather than nature. Apparently, Asian kids are being raised in an environment that is simply more conducive to mastering the skills necessary to play classical music. Classical music is yet another discipline where American students are flunking out.

It takes a lot of work to play the piano or violin on the concert stage. Almost always, somebody who achieves this degree of proficiency begins at a very young age and practices a great deal. (It's the traditional "way to Carnegie Hall.") Sometimes, a child will take her own initiative. Apparently Hilary Hahn decided on her own at the age of 4 that she would play the violin. But often some parental "guidance" is necessary, and quite possibly a considerable degree of coercion.

I'm sure the process creates some emotional wrecks. But most of the students that I've seen on stage exhibit a great deal of joy in the music and take pleasure in their ability to play it. It's one thing to see Schubert's great String Quintet being performed, but the whole experience is racheted up a notch when you get to watch Juilliard students Jacqueline Choi and Denise Ro sitting side by side playing the two cello parts with such sheer delight. (And who wants to bet that these two women are going to live many many decades past their 28th birthdays?)

Undoubtedly, the personal histories of young performers of classical music are wide and varied, and in general I suspect it's a combination of self-initiative and parental pressure. But thanks in part to Amy Chua, I now have the nagging thought in my head that if classical music survives as a vital living performance tradition, we have Tiger Mothers to thank.

And I'm also wishing that my mother had been a bit more tigerish herself in my upbringing.