Saturday, January 08, 2011

Is this what music is supposed to be about?

I could feel my blood run cold while reading this article. Here's a scenario where 7-year-old Lulu is having some trouble playing Ibert's Petit Ane Blanc.
Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.

"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.

"You can't make me."

"Oh yes, I can."

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

Please read the whole article, and leave your comments below. I'm speechless.


Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

And I thought Jewish mothers were tough! This punishing mentality sickens me: the imposition of the parent's will onto the child at any cost. It's pure self-absorption on the part of the parent and greed!

You and I feel similarly about many topics, particularly when it comes to respecting the emotions of children, and nurturing their development and critical thinking skills through patient understanding.

It is not true that children are lazy, as the article seems to suggests. Children, in my opinion, adore learning, the greatest facet of life itself!

Thank you for posting.

brad said...

As long as we're talking in stereotypes, I will say that my best students are first, those with Chinese or Korean moms and second, any immigrant mom (I've recently been graced by Afghani, Hungarian, and German moms). The Western moms feature kids who perform less well and are harder to motivate.

One Chinese student in particular is a stellar cello student, also studies piano with another teacher, and in addition to picking up very difficult repertoire after only a few years of practice on classical cello, is delving into jazz and composition.

But here's the statistical outlier: I have another student, two years younger, who was adopted into a western home but who is ethnically Korean. She exhibits the same attributes! Both kids are hard chargers, each set of parents acts according to stereotype, and each is excelling.

High standards are great things for a kid no matter how you arrive at them. Now I've got to leave this computer and tutor my own more assiduously.

Eric Edberg said...

I was horrified when I read the quote in your post, Elaine.

When I read the entire article, though, I found myself rethinking certain things. Including realizing again why some notoriously tough and gruff teachers (in the cello world I think of Harvey Shaprio and Janos Starker, especially before the latter mellowed into a twinkle-eyed grandfatherly figure who often seems more grumpily loveable than genuinely harsh) have such loyal, devoted followings.

A salient cultural point is made earlier in the article: "In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently."

And then this was what got me thinking. After the intially horrifying description of the mother-daughter interaction cane the following. "Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

"Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.

"'Mommy, look—it's easy!' After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When she performed "The Little White Donkey" at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, 'What a perfect piece for Lulu—it's so spunky and so her.'

"Even Jed [the writer's non-Chinese husband] gave me credit for that one. Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."

So Lulu didn't end up crushed; from this description she ended up energized and empowered.

Tough love is often still experienced as love, no matter how tough, especially if it's genuine love and belief in a child's capabilities. What I see here is the the mom kept at it until the daughter got it, and then they had a wonderful time together, both happy.

That's different than berating a kid and giving up on her, leaving her feeling like a demeaned failure, unloved and not respected by her mother. THAT would be abusive.

About a dozen years ago, I went on a field trip with my son's fourth-grade class. As the kids soomed around a playground area at the zoo or park or wherever we were, I chatted with his teacher, who was about to retire after 30-some years. I asked her if, in her experience, kids had changed from when she started teaching. She said she found the current students on the whole to be much less disciplined and responsible, and much more emotionally needy. And, therefore harder to teach.

This seemed to me to be more than the complaints of a a burned-out teacher ready to retire. Changes in parenting styles? More divorced homes? More homes with both parents working full-time and less emotionally available? I don't know.

I'm not saying we should all be "Chinese mothers." I've been a big fan of humanistic educational principles for most of my career. But this article got me thinking more about the virtues of being tough and demanding in the right circumstances.

Elaine Fine said...

It's possible to raise disciplined children without going to the extremes of threatening punishment and then lavishing rewards of love on them when they accomplish a goal that you have set for them.

My son is extremely dedicated and disciplined as a musician, yet he rarely practiced his cello when he was a child. He took lessons, and played in ensembles, but it wasn't until he became a young adult that he understood the personal rewards connected with playing music. Now his musical life involves playing the cello, but his real heart is in playing the banjo, an instrument he found for himself.

After reading the article he mentioned that he was grateful that we let him stop taking lessons when he wasn't interested in practicing for them. He played through high school, but his cello sat in his room at home through his first years of college. One day he took it out, realized he could still play it, and thought it was something he could use in his music making.

I imagine that if I had done the "tough love" thing with him with music, the chances that he would be able to express himself musically as an adult could be slim to non-existent. And that would be a real shame.

And I believe that practice of conditional love is an oxymoron. Real love can only be unconditional. Withholding love as a punishment, and being overly demonstrative in order to reward, gives a child a very conditional view of the world.

I imagine the parenting practices in the article are rewarding for certain types of parents, like people who get a kick out of controlling people who are vulnerable. And children are vulnerable. They are individuals with independent thoughts, opinions, and desires. Especially the smart ones. I don't think parent-oriented control goes very far in the quest to raise children to be creative and emotionally healthy adults, and to be good parents themselves.

There are many ways to teach discipline to children without punishment, but they involve a lot of selflessness on the part of the parents.

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

I'm sure that I will think about this article for a while. It was good to emphasize the cultural differences in parenting. It's a vital topic, and timely, as more and more American students seem to be unable to keep pace.

I do, however, wish to mention that in Finland (my husband is Finnish) the level of education and learning standard, scores, etc. is tied with Korea. We also know that little Finland produces amazing artists, scientists, innovators. Yet, the upbringing of children is the complete opposite of the "Chinese" mom mentality. The schooling and training (dedication of teachers) in Finland cannot be beat.

It would be wonderful to believe (and I do) that excellent work ethics can be cultivated without beating up on a child, either mentally or physically. I did well with my own children (she humbly adds).

Anonymous said...

"It's possible to raise disciplined children without going to the extremes of threatening punishment and then lavishing rewards of love on them when they accomplish a goal that you have set for them."

It's also possible to raise up disciplined children through such as of which the article speaks. That is it not your way does not make it wrong. Just different.

I was given such discipline and thank my lucky stars today that this was so. As to goals set for children, without goals whither the children. Some will forge ahead while others will be aimless. Menuhin tells of the "crystalizing experience" after which self-discipline evidences itself.