How to survive piano practice – the Tiger Mother way

Amy Chua with Lulu and Sophia

Daily piano practice was one of the few excuses that could get me or my sister Cathy out of our after-dinner dishwashing duties when we were little girls. I hated taking piano lessons, those endless scales, arpeggios, piano recitals. But after four years of battles with my mother over my Royal Conservatory of Music studies, she finally let me quit.

Had my mother been more like Amy Chua, the Yale law prof and controversial author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she would never have allowed me to give up playing the piano just because I didn’t enjoy it. Chua’s Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior essay about raising her two daughters, Lulu and Sophia, attracted worldwide attention, much of it downright hostile, when it was published recently in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s part of what caused all that fuss, in Chua’s own words: 

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“Here’s a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called The Little White Donkey by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it’s also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.

“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.

“My husband Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn’t even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn’t think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn’t do the technique—perhaps she didn’t have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?

“You just don’t believe in her,” I accused.

“That’s ridiculous,” Jed said scornfully. “Of course I do.”

“Sophia could play the piece when she was this age.”

“But Lulu and Sophia are different people,” Jed pointed out.

“Oh no, not this,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Everyone is special in their special own way,” I mimicked sarcastically. “Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.”

“I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

“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.”

© 2011 Wall Street Journal

What do you think of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother parenting?

14 thoughts on “How to survive piano practice – the Tiger Mother way

  1. I’m in shock. Not only does she call her daughter names like “pathetic” but she then goes on to actually tell the world this story. I’m looking forward to Lulu’s own tell-all “Mommie Dearest” memoir some day….

    • We need to get over our shock. Because it produces lazy ineffective kids who don’t believe they can do anything. One of the daughters actually wrote a letter thanking her mom. I know my mom loves me because of how hard she is. She cares enough to encourage me to practice instead of spend the same four hours
      playing angry birds. Lulu learned that she could do ANYTHING, as long as she worked. That’s a lesson people need to be teaching.

  2. The ends do not justify the means.

    I was treated similarly as a kid and while I did get perfect grades, played violin perfectly and excelled at whatever I was told to do, I resented every minute of it and couldn’t wait to be free.

    The very week I turned 18, I left home, ditched school and partied like a “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic” and very happy young person with no goals, no pressure, no future.

    A few years of that and I settled down, worked hard to make my way and learn new skills that excited me. Today I am successful, even admired and a mom of two happy children. My mom SUCKED and she sucks as a grandmother, too.

    I’ll bet when Lulu hears “Little White Donkey” it gives her shivers, not feelings of pride.

    • OMG! I cannot even believe this woman. Not that I’m unaware there aren’t many parents like her, but I’m stunned that she would actually write a book bragging about calling her daughter names like this. How is this good for a little child?

  3. This is an extreme example but in a way, I think she may have a point. We have swung the parenting pendulum so far over to the extreme that we’re now afraid to endanger the tender psyches of our little darlings.

    We don’t keep score in school sports because it would be too traumatic to be on the losing team. We praise every tiny accomplishment, no matter how trivial, as if it WERE a piano concerto. We don’t “fail” kids in school anymore because that would damage their self-esteem. Instead, we keep promoting kids who can’t read or function in the classroom until they become somebody else’s problem in high school, or drop out, whichever comes first.

    Let’s face it, we’ve been raising a generation of spoiled, self-absorbed brats with a poor work ethic – Chua’s story is merely a reality check and that’s why we all hate her for it.

      • Amen to that. In my 11-year-old son’s hockey games, when the difference between the scores is about 7+, the scoreboard “freezes” the winning team’s score until the losing team “catches up”. What’s wrong with showing facts as they are? In my daughter’s 3rd grade class, her teacher would usually give out a study guide a day or two before a test and the test was basically the study guide without the answers.

  4. “I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.”

    I felt sick when I read this. Threats, namecalling – this is what passes for parental love in Chua’s traditional Chinese culture? In 2008, the Chinese Association for Mental Health reported that suicide rates for young people in that country (ages 15 to 34) were among the highest in the world, adding: “School children are particularly susceptible to suicide due to high pressure at school and home, and fear among many children of not being able to meet high expectations.”

  5. Such an interesting article. Except for the name calling and threatening bits (which made me cringe in dismay for the poor little girl) the one message that does come out loud and clear is this parent’s high expectation of her children’s work ethic. Just showing up is not good enough, hard work is rewarded. Is this such a bad thing, in a society where we have successfully raised a generation of self-absorbed, entitled young adults who have cruised through life expecting that the real world will coddle them like their doting mummies and daddies always did? Life is not like that – a big shock to many modern kids. My parents weren’t Chinese (they were immigrants from Hungary during the 1950s) but they too expected their children to develop a strong work ethic.

  6. My mother is Trinidadian, and she doesn’t play. My piano teacher is Asian, and is my second mother. People cringe when I tell them she used to hit me when I made a mistake. My first recital my fingers were whacked when I messed up the duet with her. But she loves me like her daughter, and treats me so. I learned that there is nothing I cannot do,as long as I do the work.

    My mom cannot stand the American “don’t hurt the poor child”. This is life. We have to learn to go after goals and succeed. Children are lazy unless you force them otherwise. And with the piano, (and many other things) kids will soon love what they are good at.

    People cannot stand Amy’s way because it convicts our American Hovering. She shows how pathetic parents that are lax are. And guess what? People hate her for it.

  7. I agree with some of the above comments…

    We need our children to work harder… Though I disagree with the threats…

    … There must be balance.

  8. The Tiger Mother system can be very destructive for a child’s psyche. I was raised under such a system and I decided to write a humorous book about that experience. The funny thing is that I went to Columbia Law School, but every step along the way to that moment of success was deemed a failure by my tiger parents. Here is my book, if people are interested. It is very funny.

    • Columbia Law School was a disappointment because “it wasn’t Harvard”. So very sad – for you AND for them! Congrats on being able to turn your Tiger Cub childhood into fuel for a humorous book, Mike. Speaking of funny, have you seen this hilarious video on Asian Parents?

  9. Well, this is not a simple matter. But I will do my best to be concise and clear in my thoughts on this subject…

    Musical ability, or should I say, abilities, are something that does differ from person to person, obviously. The same can be said for musical taste, as well as work ethic, passion, etc., all of these things. Now, a student can make a decision to improve some aspect of themselves, their abilities, etc., they can choose a more rigorous road ahead of them, but it is ultimately always the student that has to see that more rigorous course all the way through in their lives, not the parent. The parent is there to be a parent. Neither the parent, nor the teacher, should make decisions like this, for the student. Even if that means that the student will not attain an especially high level of mastery of the piano, etc. Of course, if the child, the student, etc., benefits from having a very strict parent, if there are no lasting emotional scars (which I find hard to believe, myself), I think that being a “Tiger mom” is “ok”. But, the majority of my soul knows that this is not the case. What is the point of driving a kid that HARD, if that experience is something more bitter to them, rather than transformative, etc.? Some kids that experience this kind of parenting excel at the piano, esp. later on. Some don’t. What about the kids that don’t excel? Again, what is the point?

    Any achievement in life is always, ALWAYS secondary to the nature of our relationships with each other, their strength, their “rightness”, etc. Because the goal of being a professional musician is completely meaningless, if we ourselves are living for someone else, if we ourselves are not happy, and are not enjoying being a professional musician. Somewhere along the line, the drive to excel MUST come from the student themselves. Or it will never come at all. The parent CANNOT give the student the drive to excel. It must come from within…

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