What Defines a Musician Most

I’ve mentioned before here that the classical music story of the latter half of the 20th century, the header that will—or, at least, should—appear in future music history textbooks, is the large-scale adoption of Western art music practices by Asians, Asian-Americans, and Asian-Europeans. I’m not equipped to speculate too much on the anthropology of this trend, except to note that Asian communities must be the only communities in the world where the prestige-value of classical music is still taken seriously as a means of upward mobility and self-betterment. On a purely anecdotal level, I don’t think it would be out of line to suggest that Asian-American families are more likely than white families at the same income level to encourage their children to take up classical music.

But I was a bit taken aback to read this Slate review of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. For the purposes of my argument here, the fact that Chua is a Chinese mother in the literal and, according to her, figurative senses is immaterial: She’s a mother who got her kids into classical music, and when she first signed them up for lessons, she took responsibility for their development not only as people but as musicians. In other words, she’s not just in the business of making adults; she’s in the business of making artists.

Slate‘s Ann Hulbert describes in excruciating detail the regimen of “intensely disciplined labor that fuels high performance” undertaken by Chua’s daughters. The whole point of this regimen is to prepare her daughters to excel—to establish dominance over their peers and gain access to the most valuable resources (education, employment, husband, etc.) available. Technical mastery of a musical instrument is a useful byproduct; actually giving a shit about the relationship between culture and society, on the other hand, is not on the menu. To borrow from another instrumentalizing ideology, namely the Protestant work ethic: What does it profit a middle-schooler to gain facile virtuosity but to miss the entire point of art?



I’m on record with the opinion that the world would be a better place if every young performer sacrificed an hour of practice every day for an hour of reading aesthetics, philosophy, art history, current events, plays, novels, and so on. This must be doubly true for children under pressure to overachieve. Even as a childless loudmouth, I feel perfectly comfortable asserting that a parent who harasses his kid toward excellence in music may in fact be creating a very dangerous kind of individual: A negamusician, if you will, who resembles a musician in every respect except the capacity for critical thought and social engagement. Without that capacity, a young virtuoso is simply a person who is better than another person—the opposite of an artist.

5 thoughts on “What Defines a Musician Most

  1. pgblu

    The points that you and David Brooksmake in response to Amy Chua are valid, I think. However, I wholeheartedly endorse the central thesis of her book even if I can’t agree with all of her ridiculous taboos:

    “Nothing is really fun until you’re good at it… and there’s nothing better for building self-confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.”

    I know you’re not quibbling with any of that. I would, however, say that this type of self-confidence also provides a foundation upon which a child has a chance of developing the kind of mature view of his/her role in society which you endorse.

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  2. davidwolfson

    Whether or not you agree with this statement (and I personally do not, seeing as how there are many things I am only mediocre at that I enjoy a great deal), I think it also needs to be said that being forced to practice a skill in which one has no interest is not only no fun at all, it’s apt to ruin any possible fun that could be had in that area.

    Not only that, while it’s true that realizing one is good at something one never thought one could accomplish is good for one’s self-confidence, it’s also true that having one’s own tastes and opinions forcefully negated is bad for one’s self-confidence.

    I suspect the real difference in this controversy comes down to whether one views children as people, or just unfinished adults.

    David Wolfson

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  3. pgblu

    I suppose the statement is too pat as it’s formulated (with its use of the word ‘nothing’), but it’s got a grain of truth to it that I think few parents have the stomach to really pursue.

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  4. Elena

    Very interesting post… as a 15 year old, I think I am old enough to look back on my past years of musicianship growth and reflect on them. Because my parents pushed me to begin an instrument, I kindled a relationship with music, but they didn’t decide my paths and didn’t make my decisions for me. Therefore, I have realized that I do not only like to play the piano, but to write about music as well. My dream now is to become a music journalist, but if my parents had drawn my route for me in my early years I might not have discovered that passion. I am grateful for the initial impetus, but also for the later freedom.

    My blog

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