Sunday, January 23, 2011

Piano and Violin: Blunt Instruments of Bourgeois Education

I agree with everything that the Tenured Radical, Claire Potter, has to say about the whole "Chinese Mother" child rearing topic, which has been put forth by Yale Professor Amy Chua in a book and a couple of well-placed advance publicity articles.

As a minor addition to this topic, I wish to note that Amy Chua places these two items at the end of her WSJ list of the things her daughters were never allowed to do:

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

So the "Chinese Mother" is not insisting on the q'in or the er-hu, but piano and violin. What is it about that pair of instruments? There is a long western tradition in which learning these two instruments — with perhaps the 'cello as a rather rare variation — is considered acceptable and desirable for bourgeois and upper class children. Children whose parents are determined to set on a path of upward mobility into or within these classes have been encouraged, when not forced, to take up one of these axes. The aim is for the ability to show discipline and training and, perhaps secondarily, to be able to demonstrate a form of virtuosity before private audiences. In rare cases, the aim is professionalism, but generally the goal is considered to be a form of cultivation, in this case closely identified with a particular repertoire, one centered in the Viennese classics and peppered with display pieces from neighboring repertoires. Further, those rare cases of paths to professional musical careers were almost exclusively male, and the cachet for a musically well-trained young woman was not infrequently, a higher value on the marriage market.

This amateur piano/violin tradition was already present in Beethoven's Vienna (think of the young women who were his piano students) and continued, at least until very recently, in Central Europe. (I witnessed the tail end of this in Budapest: violin, piano and the occasional 'cello were still the dominant instruments of urban upper class identification and aspirations, while the rest of the orchestra was filled by instrumentalists whose pedagogical traditions had, both historically and more recently, distinctively rural and military backgrounds.) These instruments were considered to be high culture-bearing; they had significant solo and repertoire by all of the important names and as people from outside of Europe wished to express an affinity for this prestigious tradition, these were obvious instruments of choice. We can still recognize this phenomena in the European immigrant communities in the Americas, through which the present conservatory and orchestral landscape was developed, but the recent waves of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese (both in home country and in places of immigration) enthusiasms for this repertoire are more marked in recent memory. The Suzuki-Yamaha divide between violin and piano pedagogy of the 1960's and 70's is now echoed in Prof. Chua's no-instrument-other-than-the-piano-or-violin ideology.

Now, as a composer who likes writing for the piano or violin from time to time, I appreciate the fact that we will have more pianists and violinists among us in the future. And, as I have noted often here, I strongly appreciate the fact that many of those violinists and pianists will be best-meaning-of-the-word-amateurs. But I do wish to add two caveats. The first is that the orchestra (professional or amateur) relatively rarely uses pianos and though there can be many violins, we need violas and bassoons and horns as well. A world full of "Chinese Mothered" violinists and pianists will be a world in which violists, bassoonists and horn players will be valued more highly. (The "Chinese Mother" appears not always to be wise about economics.) The second caveat is that I want to work with and listen to musicians who are not only mechanically competent, but are honestly interested in the music and, generally speaking, cheerful rather than fearful about music-making. Unfortunately the tactical application of fear appears to be a major element of Prof. Chua's pedagogy; in all my experience of music, I have never seen any necessity for fear as an element in its production.


Tom DePlonty said...

in all my experience of music, I have never seen any necessity for fear as an element in its production.

Amen to that.

Elaine Fine said...

From what I understand violin and piano are considered (by some) to be the most difficult instruments to play (I know, it's bunk--in an alternate and more musically-informed universe we would have Chinese mothers pushing the Cornetto on their kids). Only a few years ago viola and oboe were considered the instruments of choice for getting college scholarships, and now we have a glut of over-developed oboists and violists!

People like this CM, who consider music as an "accomplishment," a way of competing as a family in higher society (though Chua is kind of at the top of her game right now) rather than as a means for self expression, really don't miss out on the real stuff of music.

Lots of Eastern European Jewish kids played violin back in the late 19th and early 20th century because the instruments were around (consider the gypsy culture), and they were cheap. Lessons were cheap too. Nobody did it because it was "difficult."

Being a violinist was a lowly enough profession economically not to cause any objection from people in authority, but at a certain point (after Glazunov bent the rules so that Jewish students could be admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory) it became a way to get ahead in the world, if you had talent and were willing to work hard.

The culture of accomplishment has twisted this whole thing around.

Elaine Fine said...

I mean, of course, that they DO miss out on the real stuff of music!

Abby said...

Great blog post. I started learning piano at my parents' insistence. My parents are Chinese, and piano was sort of the expected thing to do... at my church (which is made up of mostly Chinese) most of the kids learn either piano or violin. However, few of them are really interested in playing and would quit in a heartbeat if their parents didn't threaten them. It's quite sad, really.

i do know a girl who plays the q'in. I kind of feel sad because these are instruments which are pretty cool (though very non-standard) and it seems as if their tradition is dying out.