A few years ago, I read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, curious about the controversy author Amy Chua was stirring. I was intrigued by the chapter where Chua pushes her child to practice "Little White Donkey" on the piano to perfection, despite how fiercely her daughter fought to quit, convinced that she couldn't play it.
I felt like Chua was really being a bully, threatening her with the loss of beloved toys, food, bathroom breaks and holiday presents. I thought she'd smother her daughter's love of music. But when the breakthrough happened, and her daughter's tiny fingers could finally play "Little White Donkey," the little girl rejoiced, asking to play it again and again. I imagined that when that girl grew up, her sharpest memory would be of what it felt like to master that song, not whatever her mother threatened to take away.
I wanted that for my boys — I wanted them to experience the feeling of overcoming self-doubt, of persisting when things seemed too difficult, of mastering music.
Both of our sons play an instrument. Ezra started playing drums about a year ago and his beats are just starting to make sense. Maxon has been playing guitar for more than three years. He has a natural sense of rhythm and learns quickly. I love hearing him play.
However, he has quite a resistance movement when it comes to progressing his musical talent. He asks to quit the guitar once every six months or so, including once this week right after his lesson. It's whiny and exhausting. But to me, music lessons are mandatory. If my boys want to quit, they will have to wait until college. And yes, my motivation is rooted in my own childhood.
When I was in 6th grade I played the cello. It's an exquisite instrument, and I loved it. When I switched schools in 7th grade I didn’t continue – lessons were through my old school and the cello belonged to the music department. I wish my mom had gone tiger when it came to that cello. I wish I had been forced to practice when I would have rather watched TV. Giving up on the cello is one of my biggest regrets.
I would rather endure the resistance and have Maxon think I am a big pain in the tuchus than regret quitting guitar. And while it is less of a fight to get him to practice today, over the years I have made my own threats and promises to get him to practice.
Last summer he had to learn the lead for Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" for his rock music camp concert. It required all of his concentration and he struggled with it more than any other song he had to learn. I remember sitting with him in his room as he hunched over his guitar whining out an "I can't" solo. He would have given anything to put the guitar down and quit.
To me, "Street Spirit" was Maxon's "Little White Donkey." And I was the Jewish Tiger Mother, which is a tiger without as many teeth. I didn't threaten him with anything except more practice time — the more he complained, the longer he had to practice.
Jewish Tiger Mothers also hover and nag: You're playing it too fast, that's why you keep messing it up. Slow it down, you won't get it if you rush it. Kvetching won't help you play it any better. And that's five extra practice minutes. Listen to the song again before you play it. You'll thank me when you're 16, I promise you.
When he finally got it, he did play it over and over. He made sure to tell me he would never ever thank me when he was 16. But I knew he felt what it was like to overcome self-doubt, to persist when the notes seemed too difficult, to master that song.
At the concert, he played sitting down, head hunched over and eyes fixed on his strings and strumming hand. He said he was afraid he would make a mistake, but to me he sounded just like Radiohead.
In two weeks he will be back at the same music camp, and there will be another concert at the end of the session. Jewish Tiger Mother is ready to face the resistance.