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Catherine Manoukian

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A Response to the ldquoTiger Momrdquo

A Response to the “Tiger Mom”

Hello Everyone!

I’m officially on vacation now, and, like every year, I’m using the opportunity to catch up on sleep, television shows, and reading. On top of my book list this year was the infamous Tiger Mom’s memoirish parenting guide, not least because it was recommended to me by at least 50 people. I must (rather grudgingly) confess that, whatever one’s opinion of its content, it’s at least a fabulous read: it had me so riveted I finished it in a single sitting.

Since I’m not a parent, I’ll reserve judgment on the merits of the Tiger Mom’s approach as a method of child-rearing (though I should add that I’m extremely happy not to be her child). I would, however, like to comment on her approach as a method of musician-rearing because, in that sense, it absolutely sucks.

If I understand her correctly, the Tiger Mom appears to think that a maniacal work ethic and a competitive attitude will produce a good musician. This isn’t terribly surprising considering that her background is academic: she seems to think about the upbringing of a musician on the model of a 19th century Austrian Gymnasium. What she has completely failed to grasp, however, is that the essence of music is inherently contradictory to that model. Everything that’s important for the making of a good musician is stifled by that model.

Let’s look at the question of competitive attitude first. The Tiger Mom thinks that, by encouraging competitiveness, she can drive progress (some kind of a warped Hegelian dialectic thing perhaps). I think that competitiveness is (1) useless as a driving force for (musical) progress, and (2) downright poisonous to good musicianship. Let me give you an analogy for (1): thinking that pitting your musical child against others (whether through words or by formally entering them in contests) will make good musicians of them is much like thinking you can make a good writer of a verbally gifted child by entering them in a lot of spelling bees. This is because you can only rank that which you can quantify, and you cannot quantify musicianship. In its place, judges instead end up quantifying speed and accuracy of playing, which, while very important aspects of good musicianship, are not equivalent to it. They are merely building blocks for it. Which leads us to (2): making music a competitive affair ensures that these building blocks are understood by the competitors to be all that matter (because that’s what they’ll be judged on anyway) and this shoves the actual point – artistry - to the background. Why come up with a beautifully turned phrase if all you’ll be credited for is spelling your words correctly?

Most of the people who recommended this book to me were concerned primarily with the work ethic issue: surely instilling discipline and a reverence for hard work is vital in the making of a good musician? Not exactly – at least not at all in the way the Tiger Mom thinks. A good musician won’t see practise as gruelling work in the first place. The best training isn’t that which gets you to practise despite not liking it, but the one that gets you to actually like it. The Tiger Mom thinks this will come along with “being good at” the task at hand, which, she believes, happens only after a lot of forced, unpleasant work. But here she has another notion that’s poisonous to good musicianship. The focus should always be on the music and not on the musician – a narcissistic focus on oneself can only detract from good music-making. Enjoyment of an activity can be gotten from many sources other than the egocentric realization that one is “proficient” at that activity. An understanding of context, for example, can go a long way: for me (and for many others I’ve encountered over the years), the connecting of, say, a Beethoven Sonata with Napoleonic Europe or a Shostakovich Symphony with Soviet history can be an extremely powerful way of lending meaning to the work in question. And meaning brings enjoyment. Of course it’s important to work hard, but it’s equally important to work hard for the right reasons. Wanting to “be number one” is not one of those reasons.

You might suggest that, perhaps, the Tiger Mom’s approach is good as a start, for unruly little kids, who can then graduate to a less strict model when they’ve become disciplined enough. But this overlooks a key issue: the psychological requirements of good musicianship. A great deal of music-making is a question of balanced pacing and timing and control. Speeding and/or dragging, for example, are bad things. Now, anyone who’s ever performed anything knows that nervousness and anxiousness mess precisely with your pacing and timing and control - when your heartrate goes up, the adrenaline flows, and you lose the connection between your internal metronome and your hands. This is particularly so in children, who lack the experience to deal with the situation when it arises. So why on Earth would you want to impose a system of training that promotes and feeds on nervousness and anxiousness? We should, on the contrary, do everything we can to help relaxation – and we’re certainly not going to achieve that by forcing practice and by constantly comparing, criticizing, and instigating competitiveness.

I don’t know if the Tiger Mom’s approach is a good way of training theoretical physicists or neurosurgeons (I kind of suspect not), but it is, I think, a reprehensible way of training musicians. And the sad fact is that there are far too many Tiger Moms in the classical music world. For the sake of their offspring, and for the future of musicianship, it would be a great service if those of us in the know might sometimes try to set them straight.

updated: 4 years ago