Friday, May 10, 2013

My inner Tiger Mom

It's not my goal to raise a virtuoso, but a virtuous human being.

The violin is a source of joy and frustration. This instrument, the most exalted in the string family (in my humble opinion), has become my greatest ally and worst enemy. Ever since my 7-year-old son started learning to play, I’ve realized this: Nothing can bring out an Asian woman’s inner Tiger Mother more fiercely than a violin.

I recently finished reading Amy Chua’s controversial parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. This book was both affirming and aggravating. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me wanna violently shake Chua while screaming at her, “You’re such a horrible mother!” (Read the chapter called “The Birthday Card” and you’ll want to scream at her, too.) 

I embraced this book and I wanted to throw it (and Chua) across the room.

But it also made me empathize. As a mother, an Asian woman and the offspring of a Tiger mom (and dad) myself, I totally get Chua's extreme style of tough-love parenting. I'm a Korean mother, so of course it's in my blood to accept nothing less from my kids than Harvard. Yet like Chua's daughters, I felt as a child that my parents could have just chilled out. (Eighth grade graduation was considered a family tragedy, for example, because I had smeared my almost-perfect academic record with one single B-- and in math!).

And the instrument thing. Did I mention growing up I played not just the violin, but the piano and flute, too?      

As a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with the piano. I absolutely loved
to play. I hated to practice. But when I look back, I'm glad my Tiger mom
pushed me so hard. I know it was her way of showing me that she
believed in me. (Illustration: Yuta Onoda @

My Asian American friends and I have this joke: When asking an Asian American adult about his or her classical music background, the question isn’t: “What did you play when you were a kid?” but “How many instruments did you play?” 

My piano training started at age five and ended some time before high school. Somewhere in between I also picked up the flute and violin. One could say my musical upbringing was intense. I was expected to practice two hours a day, three to four on the weekends, and record it on my cassette tape player so my parents could 1) confirm the practicing took place and 2) make sure that it was an excellent, rigorous and focused practice session.

Tiger cubs grow up to become Tiger mothers.

I have no plans to encourage my son to pick up three instruments. I don’t make him practice two hours a day. I have no expectations that he'll be the next Joshua Bell. But I'll admit I push him (sometimes to the point of tears).

Caden will perform at his first recital tomorrow. Not happy with his progress, I decided to ramp up his practice sessions a few weeks ago. I cracked down on the lazy bow arm. Constantly corrected his stance. Forcefully moved his fingers to the right fret. "Watch that wrist!" I told him. "Tuck the violin under your jaw, not your chin!" I made him play scales and the "Twinkle" song over and over again. I shot over disapproving looks when he lost focus. I rarely smiled. I offered more criticism than praise. I couldn't help it: Tiger Mother was in full effect.

Perhaps you want to violently shake me and scream, "You're such a horrible mother!" But it's not about making my son play at Carnegie Hall (that's where Chua and I go our separate ways). It's about discipline, perseverance and character. Take this recent conversation he and I shared during a practice session:

Me: What’s the matter, Caden?

Caden: (Shifting around uncomfortably) Everything hurts. My fingers. My neck. My back. Can I take a break?

Me: But you just started. It’s only been five minutes.

Caden: (Groaning)

Me: (Voice getting louder) Caden, do you want to quit?

Caden: (No answer)

Me: (Even louder) Do you want me to force you to play the violin?

Caden: (Eyes start tearing up)

Me: (Voice softening) Because that’s the last thing I want to do. I don’t want to force you to do anything. I want you to play beautiful music on this instrument. Because I know you can. You are capable of doing anything you want if you put your mind, heart and soul into it. You are a talented boy. I believe in you.

Caden: But it’s hard.

Me: I know, sweetheart. This instrument (holding up his violin) is one of the hardest, if not THE hardest, instrument to learn. Did you know that? There’s nothing natural about it. You hold up this strange wooden thing and sling it under your neck-- which is a very sensitive part of your body—-and then you use this bow thing, which is made of horsehair, and you pull it over the strings. Too much pressure and it sounds like a dying bird. Not enough pressure and it sounds like a hoarse voice. And your fingers? You place it even a millimeter in the wrong place and the sound is completely off-tune. This is a strange thing we do as humans, isn’t it? Trying to play the violin?

Caden: (Laughs)

Me: But you know what’s so cool? That this violin, if you let him become your friend and if you get to know him every day, he’ll make beautiful music for you. But he can’t do it without you.

My son is one of those kids blessed with the ability to pick things up quickly. Mastery is his specialty. You teach him once--whether it’s complicated math equations, picking up lyrics to a song, or learning capitals and their corresponding states and countries-- and his brain downloads and retains the information forever. He’s never been tested, but my husband and I are convinced he has a photographic memory.   

But a photographic memory won’t help much when you’re learning to play the violin. For the first time, Caden feels like he’s not good at something. He wants to give up. I get it. It’s discouraging. It’s hard. It sucks.

But sometimes you gotta suck it up and move forward (actually, you need to do a lot of that in life). Discipline. Perseverance. An indomitable spirit. That’s what I’m trying to teach him. It is my responsibility, as a parent, to instill these values.

       “…The [Asian parents] believe that the best way 
       to protect their children is by preparing them 
       for the future, letting them see what they’re 
       capable of, and arming them with skills, work 
       habits, and inner confidence that no one can 
       ever take away.”

       --Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, page 63.

A magical thing happened during our practice sessions. Caden started seeing the fruits of his labor. All the repetition--playing scales and the Twinkle song ad nauseam, the correcting of stance and bow hold and wrist. It started getting easier. It felt more natural. It was actually fun (what a concept!) to play the violin.  

Caden played the Twinkle song for his classmates today.
It was "Share Your Talent" week at school and he
couldn't wait to perform for his teachers and friends.

The groans have disappeared and practicing is now (dare I say it) enjoyable. As a born performer, Caden can't wait for his first official recital tomorrow. In fact, I caught him playing "air violin" in the car on the way to school this morning.

I can't tell you how proud I am when my baby plays Twinkle Twinkle-- even when he's a bit off tune. I know how hard he worked. I know he didn't give up. I know he is building his character, one note at a time.     

And that is music to this Tiger mama's heart.