Tiger Mother book review

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

OK, I’ll admit it: I’m a (Hybrid) Tiger Mother.

I will never be a full, genuine Tiger Mother because I’m not Chinese, like Amy Chua who is the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. My dear husband knows how to balance me out when I bare my savage teeth. And I’ll never have the time or energy to sit with my kids while they practice for three hours each and every day. But I relate to Amy Chua’s struggles as the mother of two young musicians. A previous blog post touched on this briefly and provided fodder for the Tiger Mothers out there. This post will examine Chua’s book and my feelings about it more deeply.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua should be on everyone’s book club list. Since its publication in 2011, Battle Hymn has received so much press that the term “Tiger Mother” is part of our lexicon. Among my friends, there seems to be two polarized camps: people who resonate with Amy Chua’s story and those who think she is a terrible parent. I think many people are missing the parts of this book that are meant to be read as tongue-in-cheek and self-parody.

I find the book to be an honest, often self-deprecating, look at a style of parenting that seems to contradict a lot of the popular parenting books. Top parenting books with titles like Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and The 5 Love Languages of Children seem to suggest that the only way to be a good parent is to offer unconditional love and use soothing tones. But there is a rising volume of voices that suggest this kind of parenting leads to narcissistic kids who don’t become productive, happy members of society. Jean Twenge’s books The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and Generation Me are in the latter category.

On her website, the self-described Tiger Mother, Amy Chua writes

“My book has been controversial. Many people have misunderstood it. If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d choose happiness in a second. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that; it can be a tough world out there, and true self-esteem has to be earned.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is about Amy Chua’s struggles as a Chinese mother raising two “Chinese-Jewish-American” daughters. The older girl plays piano and the younger is a violinist. Amy Chua and I share some rules: practice is top priority, get good grades in school, be kind and respectful. When I read that Sophia and Lulu practice even when on vacation (Chua calls around to find a piano in the city they are visiting,) I was inspired. That’s a great idea!

Like the author, I don’t like sleepovers (or not-sleeping-overs) because the children turn into zombies for the next couple of days. However, I my husband and I don’t prohibit sleepovers. Amy Chua never let the gils have sleepovers while they were young, though she does allow them now. Our family is considered unusual in our small town because the kids each play one season of club sports. (No travel teams or year-round activities like most of their friends.) But the author’s girls are not allowed to play any sports at all.

Despite the strict rules, Amy Chua’s love for her children comes shining through. She wants the best for her children and she’s highly invested, in time and money, in their success, even hiring people to sit with her girls when they practice. I’d like to note that Amy Chua’s girls do not like to practice their instruments (nor do my kids, as I admit in the blog post “Parenting and Practicing.”) In Chua’s book, we read about her often resorting to screaming, threats, and bribes. I think it’s very brave of her to write about the times that she lost control or pushed too hard. It happens to everyone, but not everyone admits it… or writes about it with brutal honesty.

Amy Chua does not hold herself up as a shining example of the ideal parent. She simply says that this is one way of parenting. Western parents would be wise to examine their own decisions through a different cultural lens. Interestingly, Chua’s husband is also an author and has been thrown into that parenting spotlight with his wife.  I’m fascinated to follow Amy Chua’s story into the future. Everyone is wondering when Sophia and Lulu will write their memoirs.

daughter with flute

“I don’t want to practice” — watch out… here comes Tiger Mother!

 

 

Essential For Being Human

Music is essential for being human.

Scientists are learning a lot about how music effects the brain, how it changes our cognition (see blog posts Better Brains and Brain Imaging). But that’s not the whole story. There’s something much deeper going on with music. It is central to every culture across the world and across history. Music is enjoyed by people of all classes, gender, and age. Those who do not play an instrument still love listening to music.

Leonid Perlovsky, visiting scholar at Harvard University, writes

Billions of people enjoy music; many feel that they can’t live without it.

Why?

It’s a question that has puzzled scientists and philosophers for centuries. 2,400 years ago Aristotle wondered, “Why does music, being just sounds, remind us of the states of our soul?”

In the 19th century Darwin tried to decipher if our ability to create music evolved by natural selection. Of all human faculties, only music seemed beyond understanding; flummoxed, he came to the conclusion that “music is the greatest mystery.”

Perlovsky has conducted research on the “greatest mystery” and believes the answer is that music helps us resolve cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is psychologist-speak for the emotional discomfort caused by believing two things, despite understanding that they cannot be true at the same time. The classic example is a lawyer who must enter a “not-guilty” plea for a defendant, even though the lawyer knows the person committed the crime. Cognitive dissonance effects us on a deeply emotional level and if not resolved, it can be paralyzing.

Read the whole article here: How Music Helps Resolve Our Deepest Inner Conflicts (https://theconversation.com/how-music-helps-resolve-our-deepest-inner-conflicts-38531)love the piano

Tom Barnes writes about Perlovsky’s research in this article:

Science May Finally Have Found Out Why Music Is So Important to Humans  (http://mic.com/articles/116300/science-may-finally-have-found-out-why-music-is-so-important-to-humans)

Barnes cites research that implies music has played an essential role in human evolution, especially in the following areas

  • Resolving cognitive dissonance (Perlovsky’s conclusion)
  • Modulating mood
  • Reducing anxiety and stress
  • Promoting social cohesion
  • Developing language
  • Physical healing

I’ve often wondered why so many songs are about love and heartbreak. Revisiting a painful breakup through music somehow feels good, but that doesn’t make any logical sense. I don’t enjoy thinking about the time I suffered from shingles. That was painful too, but I’m not going to write a song about it. The difference, of course, is that love is emotional. Love and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin, as are life and death. At the center of our existential angst is the knowledge that we have to embrace the duality of being human.

Music makes it easier to get out of bed and face the world every day.

Practice: The journey is the destination.

Practice leads to harmony.

picture in music studio

“Never forget the pleasure of the journey.”

This picture hangs beside the door to my music studio. No one can leave without seeing it, including me. The text reads

“Never Forget the Pleasure of the Journey. This Chinese word means Traveling and Playing, whether it refers to studying a discipline, climbing a mountain, going through life…”

A friend recently posted on Facebook an article titled “We are graduating too many, too narrowly trained musicians.” The author, and the book he reviews, are concerned that there are more musicians than there are jobs. Music schools are graduating a record number of highly-skilled musicians, yet there are fewer and fewer jobs available in orchestras. While this is true, I don’t see it as a crisis. Anyone who makes it through music school will possess abilities that are highly in demand in the workforce: the ability to collaborate with others, the ability to set goals and complete them, the understanding that criticism can lead to transformation, persistence and patience, among others. The resourceful music graduate will either create a job in music (perhaps where none has existed before as an entrepreneur) or will market their unique skill set to their advantage. These are not people who give up easily. They know how to spend hours alone doing hard work. Musicians know how to practice.

After completing my bachelor’s degree in flute performance at The Ohio State University, I continued my studies at the University of Colorado and completed a Master of Music degree in Flute Performance. Throughout my college years, I was aware that I didn’t want to be in the flute section of a major symphony orchestra. So why on earth would I spend thousands of dollars to get a degree that I would not use to the letter? Because I wanted to be the best I could be. I knew that if I wanted to teach, I had to immerse myself in the material. I had to learn everything I could before passing that knowledge on to others. Learning how to practice, studying, seeking out teachers, facing my performance anxiety… these were the goals.

Giving a child music lessons does not mean that the child will grow up to be a classical solo artist. Speaking as a parent, my children take lessons and practice everyday because the skills they learn will help them for the rest of their lives. I’ve been collecting articles about research on the brains of musicians. You can read about some of these studies elsewhere on the blog (Brain ImagingBetter Brains) so it seems there is compelling evidence from science that musicians have different skills than non-musicians.

I teach many adult students in my music studio. Most of them will never play professionally. They play because they love music, they love learning.

Musician's Yoga book

practice

Recently, I read the book Musician’s Yoga: A Guide To Practice, Performance, and Inspiration by Mia Olson. This excellent book draws beautiful connections between the breath and body work of yoga and music practice. Even in yoga, the word practice is used to describe the time we spend on the mat. When I first started going to yoga classes, I was goal focused. I had the idea that I was going to be able to touch my toes within a month. I’ve never, ever been able to touch my toes and after four years of regular practice, I still can’t. I know that I won’t ever become a yoga teacher or a master yogi, and I’m OK with that. Some poses are easier for me than others. I show up for class with my mat and I breathe. Most days I flow with the instructor and I leave the gym feeling refreshed. Other days, I struggle against my body and I want to give up halfway through class. But I’m learning to turn off the judgement and just be glad that I showed up, that I practiced. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to touch my toes, but I can now reach my shins– progress!

Six wisdoms from practicing yoga:

  1. Humility- there is always going to be someone better/more flexible/stronger than me.
  2. Whatever is on my mind, it can wait until I am done with my practice. I turn off my cell phone, try to quiet the monkey-brain. Everything will still be there in an hour.
  3. Breathe deeply and consciously.
  4. Be playful and have a sense of humor. It’s not unusual for me to fall over during balance poses. A little laughter goes a long way toward healing a bruised ego.
  5. Today my practice will be different than yesterday; tomorrow will be different from today.
  6. Pay attention to my body. It’s good to find the edges of my ability but I always have to be careful not to injure myself.

I wonder what would happen if we re-framed music practice in a similar way. How would we feel if the goal was the practice and not the performance? What if the action of showing up in front of the music stand every day is the highest achievement? Don’t forget to breathe. Namaste.

drawing by MMH

harmony

Woodshedding: The Articulation Game

“Woodshedding” is musician-speak for practicing, especially when working on difficult passages.

Woodshedding is the process of isolating a hard section of the music and practicing it until the technical issues are resolved. It is NOT playing a piece at a fast tempo from the beginning to the end at the finished tempo, nor is it mindless repetition. In my years as a teacher, I have found that woodshedding in a detailed, methodical, concentrated way is a struggle for many students.

Scientists are confirming what we already know – the brain craves novelty (Pure Novelty Spurs the Brain), and isolating tricky passages and practicing them correctly is the best path to mastery (Effective Practice Skills). When we practice wrong notes, we strengthen those neural pathways and make the mistake more likely to happen again.

The first step in fixing a problem is identifying it.

As you play through a piece of music, make a pencil mark on difficult sections. The way you mark you music is up to you, but make it obvious, (For more ideas about marking music, please refer to blog articles The Pencil Problem, and Miss It? Mark It. parts 1, 2, and 3.

Once you know which parts need “woodshedding,” you’re ready to go to work. Consider these two flummoxing measures from one of the Bach Sonatas for Flute:

music passage for woodshedding

woodshedding passage

I might be tempted to play these measures over and over again in the same way at the same tempo, but there will probably still be some wrong notes and a lot of frustration. This is the worst way to woodshed.

Is woodshedding always a grueling, unpleasant task? No! You can play games to give your brain the novelty and variety it craves. You will save time and reduce frustration too!

There are many ways to woodshed. Today’s blog post will focus on one way – changing the articulations. Note: this works best for wind instruments because we use our tongues to articulate. Pianists may not find much use for this game. String players, I’d be interested to hear if this is adaptable for your instruments.

You will need two dice and the following chart:

articulation rubric

roll two dice, play the articulation given

If you roll snake eyes (2), play the passage all tongued. If you roll 3, play slurring by two. If you roll 9, play the first note articulated and slur by 2 thereafter. And so forth. I’m not the first teacher to come up with the idea of changing the articulation to strengthen facility (many thanks to my teachers Tom Kennedy and Katherine Borst-Jones for showing me how to do this.) However, I hope you will find that it’s useful to see all of the articulations presented in the table above with the game suggestion. This presentation is my own creation.

Of course, you should do this exercise at a manageable tempo. The tempo should be quick enough to provide challenge, but there should be very few (if any) wrong notes.

This game is magical for learning scales too. (Also, see my blog post on The Game for Scales for another idea.)

Teachers, my students enjoy playing this game in their lessons. I have my students roll the dice when quizzing them on scales, but it is also useful when checking lesson assignments. Many exercises (thirds, chromatic scales, short etudes) are easily adaptable. Playing the Articulation Game will help students learn different slur patterns and will deepen their mastery of the assignments. Another helpful activity is the Rhythm Spinner Game that uses different rhythm patterns for woodshedding.

Keep this tool in your woodshedding arsenal. Changing the articulations is one effective way to improve technique on difficult passages, but there are other ways too. Future blog posts on woodshedding will share ideas about how to use the metronome for woodshedding.

Happy practicing!

Brain Imaging on Musicians

As brain imaging technology improves, so does our understanding of music’s effects on the brain.

Listening to music makes the whole brain light up. Playing music causes the neurons to fire even more brightly and faster. It’s easy to understand how musicians use the visual and auditory parts of the brain as well as the places that regulate motor coordination. However, musicians must also tap into the emotional, logical, and creative centers of the brain.

brain scans

brain imaging

My kids and I have enjoyed watching the cute, informative Ted ED video titled “How Playing An Instrument Benefits Your Brain” by Anita Collins.

Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain?

http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-playing-an-instrument-benefits-your-brain-anita-collins

As I was watching the video, I started to wonder if all of the arts engage our brains in similar ways. Anita Collins says that scientists have discovered that

the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different from any other activity studied, including other arts.

It seems clear to me that all children would benefit from learning to play a musical instrument. Sure, many kids learn how to toot “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the recorder, but that’s just scratching the surface. Neuroscientists now know that kids’ brains are changed when they practice and perform a musical instrument.

Playing a musical instrument is good for kids, and it’s good for adults too.

In my private studio, I teach many adult students. Many of them report better mental acuity since beginning lessons. Older adults are encouraged to do keep their brains active by doing activities like crossword puzzles or keeping a journal. Brain games are thought to ward off memory disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease (https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/crossword-puzzles-alzheimers/). I wonder if playing a musical instrument might have even better results. Reading and writing activate discreet centers of the brain; the whole brain is highly activated by playing music.

Do you want your kids to excel in school? Perhaps your money is better spent on music lessons than a math tutor.

Do you want to stay mentally sharp? Dust off your old clarinet or learn a new instrument. It’s like taking your brain to the gym.

Practice Better, Enjoy Life More

Practice Better, Enjoy Life More: Quality is more important than quantity in practice.

practicing the bass

practice

Feeling stressed-out and under-accomplished? Perhaps you need to reconsider how you’re doing the work that needs to be done. Research shows that spending concentrated time on a single task has two benefits: the work is done better and you have more time for leisure.

Check out the article “If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers”

http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/11/11/if-youre-busy-youre-doing-something-wrong-the-surprisingly-relaxed-lives-of-elite-achievers/

Scientists studied the habits of the highest performing musicians to discover the secret to their success. In the two groups of musicians, the “elite” players and the “average” players, researchers found that the amount of time spent practicing wasn’t important.

The difference was in how they spent this time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice — the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.

How do we practice efficiently? Staying mentally focused and listening deeply (Hearing vs. Listening) are good places to begin. Consider using different practice strategies for “woodshedding” the hard parts. Blog entries with ideas include

Cal Newport in “If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong” ends his post with these sage words:

This analysis leads to an important conclusion. Whether you’re a student or well along in your career, if your goal is to build a remarkable life, then busyness and exhaustion should be your enemy. If you’re chronically stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong…You’ve built a life around hard to do work, not hard work.

The solution suggested by this research, as well as my own, is as simple as it is startling: Do less. But do what you do with complete and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.

For another article about different research with some of the same conclusions, please visit my blog post Research On Effective Practice Skills.