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.