Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Full Orchestra (Babble)

Like many, I had strong reactions to the now ubiquitous Tiger Mother article and all the controversy surrounding it.  It’s not my parenting philosophy, but I also think there was more humor intended in her writing than many were willing to see.  Regardless, there was one element of this strict parenting concept that I haven’t seen addressed that I felt compelled to write about.

As a musician and violin maker the requirement on Ms Chua’s list of making children play violin or piano jumped out at me.  I understand why of all the instruments available in the world that these two (or four if you lump viola and cello in under the category of violin) were singled out.  They are among the few that can be taught as early as a child is ready because physically they rely primarily on finger dexterity.  (I’ve written about this before in a post about music lessons for kids.)  It’s not that these instruments are inherently better than others, it’s that they are available to children at a younger age.

But an orchestra needs more than violins.  And this is the thing that bothered me about such a narrow definition of success.  The world she wants for herself and her children depends upon a greater population that does not raise their own children in this way.  I certainly enjoy playing viola, and I like playing with my string quartet, but there are no Beethoven symphonies without horns and flutes and percussion.  There is no Handel’s Messiah without singers and bassoons and trumpets.  To imply other instruments are inferior is to insult their value to the whole.  A successful orchestra has balance.  If we all play the same part we lose the complexity and the beauty available to us.  Ms Chua, I am sure, would want nothing less for her children than to have a full orchestra available, and yet she holds up a model for educating a population of musicians that would make such a thing untenable.

This idea, of course, extends beyond music.  If everyone were raised with such limited choices of expression, such as not being allowed in school plays, there would be no school plays, and eventually that means no plays (or movies or TV) period.  In a world of science leaning professionals and violinists, there is no one to design our clothes, build our homes, fly us across the world or cut our hair.  There would be no restaurants, no novels, no art, no sports….  It’s inhuman, unsustainable, and frankly very, very dull.  To label one path superior, but not to acknowledge dependence on the rest of the world taking different paths that support your own is peculiar, and a tad insulting.  I’m pleased her own daughter is an accomplished pianist.  But her daughter depends on someone else to build pianos and keep them maintained for that to happen.  What is gained by labeling that career and those talents as inferior?

I once had a neighbor who told me one afternoon as we chatted on the porch that it was the 20th anniversary of when she began waitressing.  I helped put myself through violin making school by waitressing for a bit, and I was good at it, but it wore me out and I was relieved when I was able to give it up.  In regards to my neighbor my first thought was to project my own cumbersome attitude about the job onto her too, but then she told me how proud she was.  She loved being a waitress.  It was social, it was active, she made good money, and her schedule was predictable.  I was so glad to not be a waitress that I honestly had never considered that someone else might enjoy it.  I felt so much better about the world to know that she was in the right job.  There are so many niches to fill and jobs that need doing to make everything run that I think it’s marvelous that there are enough different types of people in the world to do them.  It would be great if everyone found the right match for their talents and abilities.

I don’t think you improve the world by forcing people into niches against their will, and there are too many options out there to hazard a guess of what is the best fit for someone else, even your own child.  My mom is an artist and my dad a poet.  I’m sure if you asked them when they met who their children would grow up to be they wouldn’t have guessed an entomologist, a neuro-scientist, and a luthier.  My dad once told me it was wonderful to be led so many unexpected directions by his children and to learn things he never would have come across if it weren’t for us.  I can’t wait to see what my own children will do and what they have to teach me.

My parenting style is very loose compared to anything discussed in the Tiger Mother article, but I can live with that.  And I suspect parents who actually abide by those strict standards are glad that many of the rest of us don’t.  If your goal is to be superior, you need something or someone to feel superior to, but at some point you may need a plumber, or a mechanic, or (dare I say it) a luthier, and you should pay people with necessary skills you don’t have some respect.  Because the world I want to live in has many definitions of success.  Almost as many as there are people in it.

Violins are lovely.  But the full orchestra is superior to the whole lot of them.

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