Saturday night, my husband and I heard the Charles Lloyd Quartet with Zakir Hussain. It was a spectacular evening. We had heard Mr. Lloyd once before, maybe 30 years ago, and were as impressed now as we were then. He played the saxophone, for which he is most famous, but also the clarinet, flute and piano. His musical virtuosity immediately brought to mind the book I’m reading now, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. According to Wikipedia, Mr. Lloyd started his musical career at age nine.
“Battle Hymn” is the memoir of a Chinese American mother, Amy Chua, who says she adopted the parenting strategies of her mother and many other immigrant Chinese mothers so her two daughters could achieve success, which ultimately she defined as admission to an Ivy League university.
The premise of the book is one which a former superintendent boss of mine endorsed wholeheartedly: Demand the best performance from your children (in his case an entire school district of kids) and they will rise to the challenge. Nothing creates positive self-esteem like successfully achieving something you never thought you could do. The similarities in views probably stops here. Ms. Chua lists the beliefs of Chinese mothers as: “schoolwork always comes first; an A-minus is a bad grade; your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; you must never compliment your children in public; if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and that medal must be gold.” I just read a New York Times review of the book, which somewhat matches my own view: while acknowledging Ms. Chua’s incredible successes with her children, it’s hard not to believe that she was in it for her own ego as much as her kids’ achievements.
Much of the book focuses on music. Ms. Chua bought a piano for one daughter and a violin for the other, saying that these are the only two musical instruments permitted by Chinese mothers. Both daughters excelled musically, thanks to her efforts as well as theirs. She drove for hours every weekend so one could have a lesson by a teacher known for turning out the best musicians and sat with both during their lessons and practice sessions, coaching them through every step of their development. One performed in Carnegie Hall and both were considered prodigies. This takes me to my own unremarkable piano experience. I took piano lessons for about four years as a child, then returned to it on three different occasions as an adult, my most recent return being three months ago. I enjoy playing, though I have rarely gotten through a piece without a few mistakes. Tiger Mother forced her children to practice for hours on end, in the case of one daughter, through arguments and strife, until they achieved complete mastery, both in technique and interpretation. The result: brilliant performances. It’s no use wondering what kind of player I would be today if my mom had badgered me into hours of practice. She wouldn’t have and I probably wouldn’t have allowed her to, especially when I reached my teen years. But I think I would benefit now from being my own tiger mom, that is, from having a determination to play a piece as long as it takes to play without errors and with feeling. Now, I give up when success seems impossible and tell my teacher (who was born in Taiwan, but is definitely not a tiger teacher) I don’t want to play a particular piece or pieces any longer. While I think Amy Chua was extreme in her methods, I think her philosophy has merit. I’m going to work a little longer and a littler harder on my pieces. The first step, however, will be remembering to practice.