A Banjo, Clarinet and Tiger Mother Walk into a Bar

The hottest thing in the book world these days is the fire around the stake to which outraged parents are hoping to tie the "Tiger Mother," Amy Chua.


Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Press, 2011), a cunningly-marketed memoir in which she defends her authoritarian and demanding "Chinese" style of parenting against the permissiveness and coddling she claims is typical of American parents. She recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that has generated more responses (and, apparently, more death threats) than any other article in the paper's history.

There is plenty to say about Chua's assault-helicopter approach to parenting.* What interests me most is the importance she places on her daughters' musical education. I speak as both a parent thinking about music lessons for my children, and as a musician. ...Oh, that snorting sound you hear in the background? That's my wife choking on her latte. Fine, let's just say that I play some guitar and recently started violin lessons. 

Chua required her daughters to learn either piano or violin (but only piano or violin), and practice hours a day, every day, no complaints. 

The first thing that strikes me is her prohibition against any instrument other than the piano or violin. I suspect an element of snobbery in this. The piano and violin are of course "serious" and instruments upon which one plays "serious" music. I reck'n t'aint no banjer pickin' at them fancy big-city supp'n parties Ms. Chuu-er gets to. 

But why only piano or violin? Why not French horn or oboe? They too are quite serious instruments and play a crucial, if not defining, role in the world's greatest orchestras. Ah, but they are not solo instruments. Quick, without Google, can you tell me where the French horn sits in the orchestra? I had to look it up too. They are, in a sense, hidden instruments; and there is no room for hidden talent in Chua's world. In all fairness, however, I agree that some instruments are just plain wrong. I draw the line at clarinet. 


To her credit, I doubt Chua is motivated primarily by vanity. I believe her motives are more pedagogical. Learning to play a musical instrument requires discipline, focus, coordination and the ability to speak in an altogether new symbolic language. And as a child grows older, and gains the ability to interpret, not just play, music, she develops an appreciation for nuance and expression. Few instruments are as expressive as the piano and violin.  

In addition, when a child masters a difficult passage that she didn't think possible, it can give her great confidence, as Chua proudly points out in her account of a marathon steel-cage death match between her and her 7-year-old daughter over learning an especially difficult piano piece. 

But that is not the most important reason we make the (sometimes painful) effort to teach a child to play music. If it were, learning music would be merely a means to an end, a pedagogical tool with a big price tag. In which case, there are other things that could easily stand in its stead, like learning to read Sophocles in Ancient Greek. The dude makes violin look easy. Of course, he doesn't do anything for eye-hand coordination, so you'd probably have to throw in juggling lessons on the side. 

We love music because it is supremely moving. It is by turns graceful, spirited, pathetic, triumphant, intellectual and erotic. Its sublime beauty rests in its ability to awaken our deepest passions and articulate them with a clarity we would not ordinarily experience. On the highest level, we learn to play music because we want to participate in this transcendence. And chicks dig musicians. 

There is nothing like music. Literature, poetry, drama, dance and the visual arts all have the power to convey the emotional complexity of the human experience, but not with the same immediacy and infectiousness as music. Even crappy music. Don't believe me? Remember that movie Footloose? I doubt you remember much about the actors, lines, costumes and dance steps; but I bet you can hum the theme song... 


If it makes you feel any better, I'll be going to bed with Kenny Loggins in my head too. But see my point? 

Chua may not hold the other arts, particularly drama, in very high esteem. She would be wrong in that. But she seems to sense there is something special about music that warrants taking time away from math drills and spelling bees for piano lessons.   

Nevertheless, even if Chua has the noblest intentions regarding her daughters' musical education, her methods raise some troubling questions. 

I don't consider myself one of those indulgent parents Chua criticizes for being overly concerned with damaging their children's fragile egos. However, the first thing I thought when I read of Chua's relentless enforcement of a practice schedule that would have raised eyebrows in a Victorian textile mill was that she risks poisoning music for her children. I guess in my soft American mind I have some difficulty reconciling the drudgery of forced, endless practice with the liberating joy that the best music spontaneously elicits--as you can see happening with this little guy.

But I realize this is a simplistic view that does not give music itself enough credit. 

Some kids pick up the violin and want to learn to play it the way other kids want to learn to ride a bike. Most, however, need more encouragement. But how much is too much? No doubt there are many children whose early affinity for music has the lifeblood sucked out of it by overzealous parents intent on "nurturing" their child's "gift for music." (I call it the G#-bomb.) At the same time, there are other children whose deep passion for music grew out of the most draconian musical education.

I cannot, and indeed have no right to, speculate about Chua's daughters. But, speaking in general terms, I will say that if there is a bright light in Amy Chua's otherwise technocratic, bleak and disturbing portrait of parenting, it is her insistence on music. If anything has the power to withstand and transcend the oppressive drudgery of Camp Tiger Mother, it is music...and, somewhat paradoxically, music practice. 

The better you get at playing music, the more powerful it becomes. A parent (and I don't necessarily mean Chua) may want her daughter to learn Handel and Brahms for all the wrong reasons--vanity, social conventions, overly-ambitious notions of brain development, etc. But the fact remains that the child is learning Handel and Brahms. Time spent in their company makes up for a lot of multiplication flash cards.


*I'll leave it up to you to decide whether calling your children "fatso" or "garbage" is a handy arrow in your parenting quiver. Or whether there might not be some very reasonable middle ground between Chua's extremism and the overly-lax coddling of the "everyone's a winner" school. Or whether it's fair to drag your (still-teenage) daughters into the caustic public maelstrom you have deliberately created to sell books. Or whether she hasn't deprived her daughters of the hardest lessons of all, the social ones that may be the most crucial to their future success. (See David Brooks' excellent column, "Amy Chua is a Wimp."

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen