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Letter to the Editor: A Lion Mom Roars

Susan Pascale of the South Pasadena Strings Program offered Patch her perspective on the Tiger method and rearing musical children.

Letter to the Editor: A Lion Mom Roars

A few weeks ago, I took my 17-year-old daughter, Ariana, an accomplished viola player, to the East Coast to audition at top-tier music conservatories. The auditions are, of course, important -- where you go to college affects your whole life. Waiting for her turn, I asked Ariana if she was nervous. “No, mommy, I’m so excited to play for them!” 

It felt to me like the end of a long road, and the start of a new one. When Ariana and her brother Zak were little, I suddenly became a single mother.  I believed that I would never be able to send them to college without scholarships. So I groomed them in something that, as a symphonic violinist, I knew well: music. I started Zak on violin at 6 and Ariana at 5 (Zak eventually switched to jazz saxophone, and Ariana switched to viola).

During those hard times, I sometimes sacrificed paying my utilities bills in order to pay for their lessons and instruments. The first piece in Ariana’s first college audition was a dramatic Brahms sonata. I practically glued my ear to the door. It seemed to me that she was expressing all the life experiences that had brought her to this point; wonderful experiences like play dates and sleepovers with good friends, horseback riding, and playing in jazz and rock’n’roll bands.

And there were echoes of difficult experiences, too, like her parents’ divorce, a cross-country move and teenage school troubles. When she emerged, I could tell from her face that she had nailed it. The teacher, who served as a judge, followed her out the door, congratulated me, and said that he’d love to teach her. I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience, because so many people have asked me about the ‘tiger mother’ essay. You’ve probably read the article, by law professor Amy Chua, in the (January 8, 2011) Wall Street Journal, titled ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.’ ( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html)

In the article, Chua outlines her approach to childrearing, which she calls the ‘tiger’ way, and contrasts it to the ‘Western’ way. Her children were never allowed sleepovers or play dates. They were required to be the top student in their classes, and to play only piano or the violin, for upwards of three hours each day. 

Chua tells an anecdote about her 7-year-old daughter Lulu’s difficulty with a particular piano piece. Lulu gave up and left the piano. Her mother forced her back. “Punching, thrashing and kicking” ensued. Chua insulted and threatened her daughter, and didn’t let her go to the bathroom. After many hours — with no dinner — Lulu finally played the piece correctly.

My response: Chua could have achieved the same results with none of the negativity. 

I know this because, not only am I now the parent of three highly musical children, but I also direct a music school with hundreds of clients. Our Los Angeles Children’s Orchestra is the only competitive elementary-age orchestra in the region. In 2009, we set a world record as the youngest orchestra ever to perform at Carnegie Hall. LACO routinely wins top honors in competitions with middle and high school groups.

We groom our students to become good enough to get into any top-tier music program, if that’s the direction they choose. So in my ambition for my children, I’m a lot like Chua, who tried to get her daughter into Juilliard’s precollege program. But my experience helping children to reach high couldn’t be more different from Chua’s Tiger Mother. In fact, I’m starting to call myself a Lion Mother – ferocious, but nurturing. 

ANGER IS EASY 

In letting herself become angry at her children during practice, Chua takes the easy way out. The violin is the most difficult instrument a child can play.  Seeing a child mess up, a parent’s anger can go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Add to that the financial sacrifice – no wonder parents go ballistic. I tell the parents that they’re not alone in these feelings, and I offer them tools to reduce the frustration. Our positive reward system includes plenty of praise and presents, from puffy stickers and ‘silly band’ bracelets, to cute Japanese erasers and plastic busts of great composers. We also offer dozens of ideas to help make practicing fun. 

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT VS. ‘PLAYING’ WITH FRIENDS 

Chua puts a lot of emphasis on making her children practice for many hours –3 hours a day or more of solitary practice, with mom supervising. That would be 21 hours a week (plus whatever lessons they attend). I’m like Chua in my insistence that my children practice every day, and put in a lot of time each week. Some parents think I’m over the top. I added up the hours my 9-year-old daughter Jenna spends with music and her cello - it comes out to nearly 20 hours a week.  

Putting time into practice in is important. In the elementary through high school years, the kids who practice for the most hours will have the most advanced technique.

But when they go out into the real world, and start auditioning for conservatories, high-level orchestras, and competitions, the winners will be the players who are not only technically proficient, but who are also able to interpret a piece of music in a way that is unique to them, with a high level of musicianship which can only come from varied life experiences – including non-musical experiences like play dates, sleepovers, and friendships. A significant percentage of Jenna’s 21 hours is spent in groups with her peers. (Jenna is in two of my music school’s orchestras; and she plays in three quartets with girls her age.) It’s in group playing that students develop their musicality, and other critical skills like listening, leading, and rhythm. It’s also in group playing that the child develops a sense of belonging that pulls him or her upwards in music. They join a wonderful club with friendships, fun, snacks, trips to amusement park music festivals, medals, pins, trophies, and above all, travel!

Membership inspires them to practice – reducing parents’ frustration. This brings up another reason that the ‘tiger’ approach is counterproductive.  Being a professional musician is a social career. If there’s a good job, and there are two players to choose from, it’s the one who gets along with everybody and knows how to cooperate, who will get the job. 

MISTAKES SHOULD BE A LAUGHING MATTER 

I believe that overbearing parents inhibit student progress. After ten years of running a music school, we’ve learned that some parents should be separated from the student during lessons. I’ll be teaching a child how important it is to relax their upper body, and then the parent will chime in, or even physically poke the child – “And don’t forget to push your arm in!” -  which pretty much puts us back to square one with the child’s tension.

Something I say a lot in class and orchestra is, “I am so happy you played that wrong, now we can all learn!” My own children have made plenty of mistakes – big ones. Like the time Ariana forgot to tighten her bow before a fancy recital! Another time, she left the mute on her violin for the entire performance! You bet she’ll never do that again. We laughed then, and we still chuckle about it. 
After years of dealing with hundreds of parents, it’s pretty clear to me that those who do behave like Chua have tied their self-esteem too tightly to their children’s performance.

STICK WITH IT

Along with being ambitious for our children, there is another area where Chua and I are similar: We’re both stubborn. I agree with her attitude that, if someone wants their child to become a skillful musician, a parent must be very single-minded, stick with it, slog through the difficult parts, and never give up. But parents also must learn to separate from the child, to grow their own lives emotionally and spiritually.  And parents do not have to take away a child’s precious childhood.

Susan Pascale is founder and director of the nationally-acclaimed South Pasadena Strings Program. Her Los Angeles Children's Orchestra (LACO) has performed at Carnegie Hall, and set a world record as the youngest orchestra ever to perform there. The group has also been featured in many local and national media outlets. Her approach to teaching, the Pascale Method, is receiving international attention for its success with launching young children into music. For more information, and to see and hear her students in action, go to  http://www.stringsprogram.com.

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