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?