My mother was born a year before Singapore declared her independence.
Both my parents were the first generation to be born and bred in a country that had also just been newly birthed. It may sound like a romantic notion, but the truth was far from that: my mother grew up in a cramped, noisy household of ten children, none of whom finished tenth grade. Her Chinese name means “leaf,” and her sisters have names varying from “flower” to “baby.” Her late father used to say: “You still ask for a good name? You should be happy we can even put food on the table!”
If there was any romance at all in the idea of being the pioneering generation of a brand new country, it was that their lives progressed in step with the country’s progress, so that by the time I was born, my parents, like most of the population, were comfortably middle-class. Their life-stories had followed a similar trajectory to that of many children of immigrants. Indeed, the middle-class lifestyle they had attained uncannily resembles suburbanites of the nineties, halfway around the world, in the United States: the stay-at-home Mom, Dad returning home at the same hour every day from his 9 to 5 job, the entire family sitting down at the dinner table every evening, day after day… and new dreams for the next generation.
For me, and for many newly middle-class families, this brave new dream came in the form of musical training. When I was four, my parents enrolled me in piano classes. There was nothing remarkable about that first day; it was hot, humid, and sunny just like the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. I vaguely remember my mother bringing me to the tiny shopping center near our home. We ascended the rickety escalator, walked past the McDonald’s that to this day still occupies that corner of the mall, and stopped outside a store whose regal décor stood out of place next to the dingy monotones of the other stores. Polished, golden letters pronounced “CRISTOFORI MUSIC SCHOOL” in elegant typeset, next to a door that was more like a glass window framed by rich brown wooden paneling.
Inside, my mother spoke to the receptionist across a counter that I couldn’t look over even if I tiptoed. Forms were signed. I was led to one of the studios. Thus began the first piano lesson of my life.
At first, I was painfully lackadaisical about the whole affair. In the early days, “Have you practiced?” was a phrase heard a lot around our little apartment—into which we somehow managed to squeeze an upright piano—before it morphed into a more curt “Angela! Go practice!” As my first piano exam drew near—and, with it, the imminent danger of failure—my mother sat me down in front of the piano to personally supervise me.
If this sounds scarily reminiscent of a scene from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, you may be reassured to find out that unlike author (and self-proclaimed Tiger Mother) Amy Chua, my mother had no musical background and so could hardly discern if my playing was even correct, much less whether it was any good. Unlike Chua, who proclaimed about her daughters’ piano-practicing regime that “the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough” (4), my mother promised that if I played my scales and exam pieces once through—seriously—it would be enough for the day. “Just thirty minutes,” she would cajole.
I’m ashamed to admit that I took advantage of her lack of musical knowledge. “Done!” I’d say, after rushing through a set of scales and fervently praying that she wouldn’t realize I had stumbled over half the notes.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yes yes yes. Can we move on now pleeeeeeeeease?”
My father was more straight-forward about his feelings. “Why did we bother buying the piano if she doesn’t want to learn?” he would grumble to my mother.
It’s a question to which I’d never given much thought, until I read Battle Hymn a couple of years ago and was struck by this line: among the list of things Chua did not allow her daughters to do was to “play any instrument other than the piano and the violin” (2). Suddenly, I was reminded of my family’s own “piano wars”: the tantrums thrown, the raised voices, the loud sighs of exasperation. Why had my parents persisted in making me learn the piano despite how negatively I had responded? After all, we had tried out a couple of ballet lessons, and when it became clear I wasn’t taking to ballet, they had allowed me to drop out of the class. Neither had they pushed me to pursue any sports. Furthermore, their attitudes towards music were in stark contradiction with the importance they placed on my musical training: they rarely listened to classical music, seeing it as “very relaxing” lounge music at best, and they had made it clear that they did not want me to become a musician.
In considering why so many Asian parents insist that their children learn music from a young age, I found that I’m not the only one pondering this phenomenon: aside from the myriad articles and discussion threads in online forums (particularly in the wake of Battle Hymn), a book penned by University of Hawaii professor Mari Yoshihara in 2008 is explicitly titled Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music, and it delves into exactly that. In an interview, Yoshihara sums up the root cause: “[Many Asian families] believe that musical background leads to upward social mobility.”
My immediate thought was how talent in a musical instrument could bolster one’s chances of getting into one’s dream college. But there is another less obvious but more important factor, encapsulated so tellingly in the Chinese saying “ten minutes on stage requires ten years of hard work off stage”: mastering an instrument requires spades of self-discipline and grim determination over a long period of time, and thus builds these qualities in the musician. The earlier generations had learnt these qualities the hard way; as immigrants making their way in a new land, they’d had no alternative but to keep a stiff upper lip in order to survive—and to provide their children and grand-children with the privileges of the middle (or even upper) class. They made their kids learn music because they could now afford it, and in the hopes that the future generations would inherit the very traits that had enabled them to become middle-class.
Certainly, when my parents were growing up, an education in music—or anything outside of school—had been so far out of the question that they had probably never considered it until they became parents themselves. Now that they were comfortably middle-class, they wanted their daughter to have all the opportunities they were denied in their childhood… and I had rebuffed it with all the ungratefulness of a whiny, spoiled child. In fact, on the online publication Sounding Out!, Christie Zwahlen writes that “Chua’s Battle Hymn illustrates that, in addition to class consciousness, the pressure to study classical music stems from an intra-racial expectation to perform Asianness adequately [… Chua believes that] subsequent generations of Chinese Americans become lazier as they’re allowed to revel in the comforts of middle class life. Chua chooses classical music for her children because it is ‘the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.’”
I had been lazy, vulgar, and spoiled. I looked at the books sitting on the music rack, and not only realized, but felt, acutely, how expensive these slim volumes were, with their few sheets of paper and ample white spaces. Their edges were still sharp and the pages were still pristine from disuse. Guiltily I recalled the envelope with the bundle of dark blue $50 bills that my mother passed over that counter every month, over the counter that was still too tall for me. Worst of all was the understanding that had they been in my shoes, had they been fortunate enough to be born later in Singapore’s history, my parents would have jumped at this opportunity to learn the piano. They went through all the hardships that pioneering generations are inevitably cursed with, with no complaint, and here I sat, on my bed of roses, whingeing and stumbling over scales.
However, sports can also hone fortitude and resilience, as can other performing arts like dance and theatre, so why is music the popular medium of choice to foster discipline? We find our first clue in an ancient Chinese saying that encapsulates what a scholarly gentleman should achieve: qin qi shu hua—the zither, chess, calligraphy, and painting, respectively. Depictions in historical art-pieces and literature tell us that being skillful at the zither was not only expected of “scholarly gentlemen,” but also of ladies from well-to-do families.
Historically, music has played a prominent part in Chinese culture, and has for thousands of years been seen as a symbol of refinement, a skill that only the wealthy could afford to acquire. It is not just the high regard for music that has persisted to this day (with Chinese pianist Yuja Wang quoted by Lin as saying: “Music, in the Chinese mind, is the most sublime thing you can do.”), but the very notion of musical talent has been woven into the Asian identity, with Asians stereotyped as music prodigies.
In an interesting twist of fate, this image of the musically inclined Asian actually restricts the kind of instruments and music that Asians are expected to play. For instance, Zwahlen writes on Sounding Out! that where she grew up, “Asian youth gained a sort of ‘cred’ for mastering the violin or piano, and this pressure to ‘prove’ oneself along racial lines was something I always felt.” In today’s Asian community, the traditional respect for music does not extend to all kinds of music. It certainly does not extend to rap music, as Zwahlen complains, before contrasting it with the “comforting scene” of renowned Korean American violinist Sarah Chang “performing a violin concerto […] a sonic image that reaffirms a familiar cultural narrative of femininity and class stature associated with Asianness in the US.” Classical music is respectable and the obvious choice for Asian parents to bestow on their children, but why does this fascination with classical music lie with Western classical music, and not with traditional Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese music?
Here is, in my opinion, an interesting confluence of deeply rooted Asian traditions and the economic capital of the West. Yoshihara eloquently summed up this phenomenon: “Given the history of Western imperialism, Asian nationalism and push for modernization, and the flows of culture, goods, and people between Asia and the West that have occurred within this context, it is not surprising that there are more Asians pursuing Western music than Americans playing Asian music.” As the Western world surged ahead in the second half of the twentieth century, and the United States became a global superpower, Western classical music came to be associated “with Western modernity, cultural sophistication, and upper-middle-class status” (“Interview with Mari Yoshihara”). Indeed, my mother loves musing over how elegant and classy a house looks with a grand piano. (“If I’m that rich in the future, I could just buy the piano and put it there,” I once suggested. “I don’t actually have to know how to play it.” “But if you have guests over, and they ask you to play something, it’ll be embarrassing!” she retorted.) In Singapore, several conditions especially favored the preference for Western classical music: a recent history as an ex-British colony, the adoption of English as the lingua franca so that the ethnically diverse population could communicate, and a very Americanized media.
Among the myriad of Western classical instruments, the piano and the violin have been placed on the highest pedestal. Why did Amy Chua specifically choose the piano and the violin—and nothing else—for her daughters? Why do most Asian families gravitate not only towards Western classical music, but particularly to the piano and the violin? It would take another essay to examine the popularity of the piano and the violin in Western music, so suffice it to say that because these instruments were so popular in the West, they became the instruments that caught on among early Asian immigrants in the States, who were aspiring to join the ranks of the affluent classes.
As I entered primary school, another realization spurred me to take my music education more seriously: everyone around me was learning the piano. In recess breaks, my classmates spoke of their fears of the upcoming Grade 4, or 5 (or 7, or 8) exams. They spoke of skipping grades, of learning Music Theory, of learning another instrument. I had (and probably still have) a competitive streak in me that, at such an impressionable young age, was made worse because it was filtered through the eyes of a child—a child who hadn’t quite shaken off her childish, starry-eyed naivety and still believed she was invincible and no aspiration was too lofty for her to achieve. So I watched in envy as a friend played Fur Elise in the school canteen for some event or other, thinking I could do that too.
Apparently many Asian parents also think that of their children. Peer pressure has been a huge contributing factor in the popularity of the piano and violin among Asians. The desire for social mobility sets up a vicious cycle: the more people there are around you learning an instrument, the more people you have to compare with—and comparison is the lifeblood of many Asian cultures, reflected in the notorious cut-throat schooling systems in Korea, Japan, and China, to name a few examples. Take any random sample of people on the streets, and one invariably finds that it is much easier to see where one stands with a 138/150 on a piano exam than on an oboe exam. There are also a greater number of established competitions for the piano and the violin, which simultaneously arises because of their popularity and causes a further surge in their popularity.
Then there is the nature of the piano and the violin, captured so eloquently in a piece by Michael Ahn Paarlberg on Slate: “Asian and Asian-American performers gravitate almost exclusively to strings and piano […] Rarely does one encounter an Asian conservatory student playing the bassoon or trombone, or any instrument that does not afford the possibility of soloist superstardom.” Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, a freelance journalist who lived in China from 2009 to 2014, concurs. In an article written for BBC Online exploring ‘piano-mania’ in China, she finds a similar trend among Chinese parents, who “see status in having their children master the piano or violin. And they see the sheen of celebrity that has accompanied the huge international success of Lang Lang, the 25-year-old superstar, who has an Adidas shoe endorsement and his own line of baby grand pianos.”
I’m suddenly brought back to my first day in my high school’s Chinese Orchestra. The year was 2008, the day was unremarkable (just like the day of my first piano class), and the room was especially dusty. After showcasing to the new members the different instruments that we could pick up, the teacher-in-charge selected the sheng for me. It was an organ, a collection of about a dozen metal tubes, bound together and mounted on a wooden platform. It was also something bizarre that I’d never seen or heard about before in my life.“I’m not… too keen on that,” I nervously started.“We currently need players for that,” the teacher countered, with a frown.Luckily, another orchestra member piped up, “We also need players for the cello!”“Yes!” I was perhaps too eager in expressing my interest in learning the cello, which—incidentally or not—is quite possibly the third most popular instrument among Asians, after the piano and the violin. Like the piano and the violin, it is also an instrument that lends itself well to solo performance. Was I motivated by an underlying current of desire to be in the center-stage? Was that why I looked past all the unique drums and gongs and the whole section of plucked string instruments (all of which produced a sound that could never be found in a Western symphony orchestra)?There is one thing arguably unique about the manifestation of this phenomenon in Singapore. Parents want their children to excel in music—but Lord forbid the kid harbor dreams of becoming a musician. This is a very practical mindset and an unintended, unfortunate result of my country’s struggle for survival in the early days of independence, when our leaders neglected creative expression in favor of the more technical fields so that we could swiftly build up our core industries. Thus, math and the sciences are generally seen as respectable fields in which to pursue a career, and music is relegated to the sidelines—nothing more than a glorified extracurricular. This mindset is especially prevalent among the middle class (which is the majority of the population), and understandably so: the idea that music belongs solely to the realm of hobbies and entertainment is deeply ingrained in their psyche because my countrymen still recall the taste of strife they’ve had to endure to get to where they are today. My mother has always said that being an artist was a job reserved for the rich; I was free to pursue music “for fun”, but I needed a “proper” way of earning a living. But I refuse to accept that my parents wanted me to learn the piano for the sole purpose of padding my resume, so I settle it in the most direct of ways—with a phone call back home.
“Mummy,” I say, when the other end of the line is answered on the opposite side of the world. “Why did you make me learn the piano when you didn’t want me to be a pianist?”
My mother is silent for a while. And then she utters one syllable.
I realize this is a very strange way to begin a conversation when you have not called home for days, so I clarify my question, and the discussion gets going.
“A lot of people say learning the piano helps you use both sides of the brain,” she pipes up. “And you certainly had a good memory and caught onto math concepts really fast!”
While it is true that playing music aids in brain development, I’m not content to think of my piano training as simply another supplement like fish oil or Omega-3 pills, as something my parents made me do just because it’s good for the brain.
I find my answer in the most ironic of places: Tiger Mom Amy Chua’s daughter Sophia runs a blog, on which she says “I’m never going to be a professional pianist, but the piano has given me confidence that totally shapes my life. I feel that if I work hard enough, I can do anything. I know I can focus on a given task for hours at a time.”
If my mother had allowed me to give up because I couldn’t sit still in front of the piano, or because I tired of keeping my fingers curved and my back straight, I would always be hankering after easy successes. Later on, I would never have had the patience to learn how to hold the cello bow the right way. I would never learn to persist at something long enough to love it. And so I come full circle to the very first reason Asian parents make their kids learn musical instruments: my parents wanted to instill in me the self-discipline that I would need to succeed in life, and they chose music because of its historical importance in Chinese culture, and they chose the piano because of its established popularity.
Question is, do I love the piano? Or was I doing it because everyone around me was doing it? Knowing that I lack the talent to ever be a professional player, that there may be no purpose to my continuing to play the piano now that it has taught me self-discipline, do I love it enough to justify the hours I spend learning a song? I recall my frequent bouts of tantrums at my painfully slow progress after I’d decided to dedicate myself to the instrument. Now my father’s grumbles became “If you’re suffering so much learning the piano, then don’t learn it!” Was it important to me to play well because I wanted to best my other piano-playing peers, or because I wanted to better myself? For that matter, how do Tiger Cubs reconcile their relationship with music, after being forced so hard to learn an instrument and realizing they have no talent for it, or that their parents have no intention of letting them pursue music as a career? On Quora, a question-and-answer website that enables users to source answers from a wide community with different experiences and backgrounds, topics raised in the wake of Chua’s Battle Hymn have ranged from the relationship Tiger Cubs have with their parents to responses to Chua’s parenting methods. On one such thread, a Quora user writes, “I can no longer play the piano without almost immediately feeling a sensation of impotent rage and frustration every time I make a small error.”
Today I can easily reach over the counter at Cristofori Music School, but I stopped going for formal lessons many years ago. I finally got around to learning Fur Elise over the last summer. I still spend hours on end at the piano when I can, and I keep returning to it despite having acknowledged long ago that I have no special skill for it. Perhaps I keep going because it’s my first instrument, and it has taught me so much. Beyond the practicalities of being able to read music, the appreciation for music that it implanted in me is the reason why a friend gave me a ukulele to bring to the States, and why I’m now seriously considering learning the guitar.
Speaking of which, I do wonder how trends will evolve in the future. Yoshihara postulates that this trend of Asians being fascinated with Western music (but not the reverse) “may change in the coming decades, as Asia’s place in the global economy and culture changes. We can already see a rapidly growing interest among American youths in, for instance, Japanese manga, Korean pop, and Hong Kong cinema” (“Interview with Mari Yoshihara”). Back in my tiny island nation, more people are seeing the arts as a viable career path with numerous reputable professions. As the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields become saturated, this paradigm shift is accelerating, aided further by governmental efforts to promote the arts in light of criticism of the lack of creativity in Singapore. Will other instruments, like the French horn or bassoon or something outside of orchestral music, gain more popularity? I cannot say for certain, but I do know how my own attitude to music has changed over the years. If I were to go back to that Chinese orchestra room, I might choose the strange, strange sheng over the cello.
Now only one question remains: what instruments should my kids learn?
Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Feggy Art. “The Sheng.” Photograph. Flickr, Nov. 28 2009. Web. 13 July 2015.
“Interview with Mari Yoshihara.” Temple University Press, 2007. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
IQRemix. “Edmonton Chinese New Year 2014.” Photograph. Flickr, 18 January 2014. Web. 12 July 2015.Lin, Jennifer. “China’s ‘Piano Fever’.” Philly.com. Philly.com, 8 June 2008. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Paarlberg, Michael Anh. “Can Asians Save Classical Music?” Slate. The Slate Group, 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Rubenfeld-Chua, Sophia. “Q&A: elves, dirt, and college decisions.” A New Tiger in Town. Blogger, April 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Sebag-Montefiore, Clarissa. “Why Piano-mania Grips China’s Children.” BBC.com. BBC, 21 Oct. 2014. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Wong, Yishan. “Re: Is Amy Chua right when she explains “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal?” Quora.com. 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Yoshihara, Mari. Musicians From a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. Print.
Zwahlen, Christie. “From Illegitimate to Illmatic: On Tiger Mothers, Ethnoburbs, and Playing the Violin While Dreaming of Nas.” Sounding Out! 21 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
 This best-selling autobiography is Yale law professor Amy Chua’s account of how she raised her two daughters under the strict “Chinese” style of parenting under which her own parents—immigrants from China who had become wealthy in the United States through sheer hard work—had raised her. The book is controversial because of Chua’s harsh “tiger parenting” methods, particularly instances in which she pushed her daughters to practice the piano and violin for hours on end, using verbal put-downs as motivation, denying them food and bathroom breaks, and even threatening to burn their toys.