Parental Misguidance

Talking with Joshua Bell about his early musical development, it struck me just how important a part parents play in encouraging their children to develop an interest in music. Notwithstanding their obvious role in providing the finance necessary for lessons, exams, instruments etc., as Joshua made it clear, it was parental encouragement which got him into music in the first place. He made no bones about it; had not his parents been so supportive of his infantile interest in music, he would never have become the star violinist he now is, and while an enlightened teacher (and he certainly had one of those) is a vital part of the process from keen beginner to polished professional, without that initial support from parents the path would not even have begun to open up.

Which, of course, begs the question; can you become a great musician without that initial parental support? There are famous examples where that has happened – Handel and Delius spring immediately to mind – but I suspect not many. Sadly, if parents do not identify and encourage that musical spark in their offspring, the chances of their musical talent being fully realised are slim. I don’t think many would argue that the role parents play in nurturing musical talent – even where, as in Joshua’s case, the parents are not themselves particularly musical – is absolutely vital.

There is, however, a flip side to the coin, and those of us who have dealings with musical education in south east Asia know it only too well. The parents who, having seen how Lang Lang, Yundi Li and the like have become great superstars (with correspondingly large financial rewards), feel that, given proper musical training, their offspring can follow suit. The parents who, vaguely aware of the social value of their children learning a musical instrument (almost invariably the piano), note just how expensive piano lessons are, do a quick mental computation – hourly fee times number of pupils seen going in through the door – and, realising that music teaching must be a lucrative business, look on it as a potential career choice for their child. And, most common of all, the parents who, anxious that their children should be seen to be better than their neighbour’s, press them into examination after examination in a frantic race to reach the ultimate goal – a diploma – at the earliest possible age.

I had a dramatic example of that last type of parent when I delivered a seminar on piano diploma performance in Hong Kong earlier this year. After my long talk a singularly pushy lady pressed me on a point I had mentioned about the use of the pedals: I believe I had said something along the lines that, if you attempted to play a Chopin Nocturne without using the pedal, you could not expect to produce an acceptable performance. She asked me if examiners took into consideration the problems candidates faced when they could not reach the pedals. Bearing in mind this was a seminar about professional-level diplomas, I assumed she was talking about a disabled candidate and explained, sadly, that unless some kind of mechanism had been constructed to overcome the disability, then the performance could not succeed; examiners at this level judge what they hear without making allowances for physical disabilities. But no, this was a mother talking about a perfectly able-bodied performer; but one who was just 10 years old. Putting aside the obvious question – why play a Chopin Nocturne at all when you can’t reach the pedals (Chopin, indeed any Romantic repertoire, is not obligatory when doing a diploma: at least, when doing a Trinity Guildhall one) – I stood horrified at the prospect that a 10-year-old child was even attempting a professional recital diploma. What was this mother thinking? Unless the child was an extraordinary genius (in which case why was she doing a diploma in the first place and not out and about stunning the world with her virtuoso prowess?) what possible value, musical, educational or social, was there in taking a professional-level diploma which, at 10 years of age, serves no practical purpose? She can’t enter the profession for another eight years or so, by which time she will have got bored of music, and all that time and money spent on her training would be wasted. The answer, given blandly and without so much as a touch of red in the cheeks to indicate embarrassment, was; “She must do her diploma before her friend, who did it when she was 12”.

That mother, determined to destroy her child’s love of music, innocence of childhood and fun of life in a single-minded pursuit of selfish self-aggrandisement, may seem like Monster-From-Hell to those sensible people who read this, but believe me, she is entirely typical of those innumerable parents in south east Asia (and beyond) who see music as just another competitive sport, a purely physical recreation in which winning is the sole goal. Such parents are the scourge of music educators and compound their stupidity with a belief that, as they are the ones footing the bills, they can, from their pinnacles of ignorance, instruct the teacher on what’s best for their offspring. I have lost count of the teachers who come up to me, when I complain about the standards of candidates put forward for examinations, explaining that what can they do when the parents demand it?

The problem lies in the fact that in south east Asia we now have a generation of parents who, brought up in relatively backward communities where music played no part in daily life, see music as a symbol of their own elevated social standing and think of it purely as a badge of civilization. When you can boast that your children are learning music, you are showing that you, as parents, have arrived. And, to a certain extent, what’s wrong with that? Music is, as we all know, a civilizing influence, and if parents are keen for their children to learn, we must encourage them, otherwise we’re closing the door on future Joshua Bells. But somewhere along the line, parents have to be told that music is an emotional and spiritual matter every bit as much as it is a physical one, and playing around with your child’s emotional development is a very dangerous thing to do indeed. Teachers will usually understand this; but perhaps not to the extent that they can argue with parents (who do, after all, pay their salaries) in a bid to dissuade this ridiculous circus we have at the moment where ignorant parents feel they can call the shots on capable teachers.

Compared with, say, training to be a medical doctor or a legal professional, the path to a career in music seems, from the outside, to be a relatively simple and short one. If you start early enough, the thinking goes, by the time you are of an age where you need to earn a living, you will have mastered the necessary physical skills. But music requires a breadth of emotional and psychological maturity which cannot be taught or achieved through hard daily practice. Music, to misquote Orwell, expresses thoughts and emotions which lie beyond words. A 10-year-old child doesn’t yet know the limits of vocabulary, so how can he or she know what lies beyond? How can you communicate those desperate inner feelings of love and desire, if you’ve never experienced them for yourself? How can you communicate sensations of ecstasy and profound grief unless you’ve had something of the sort in your personal experience? And on a more prosaic level, how can you communicate, say, a piece of Chopin to an audience, unless you yourself have some deep and long-standing relationship with the composer and understand his world in a way your audience does not? I despair how few diploma candidates know or understand anything about the music they play. “What else did Bach write?”, I once asked a diploma candidate who had played a Bach Prelude and Fugue. A long pause ensued, followed by the querulous response; “Some other preludes and fugues?”. If at that level the candidate hadn’t experienced the supreme examples of western art music such as the B minor Mass, the St Matthew Passion or even the Brandenburg Concertos, then what the devil were they doing trying to persuade me that they knew enough about music to warrant professional recognition?

Parents must support and encourage their children’s interest in music, but they must also realise that in doing so they are opening up a whole can of worms which they can neither fully understand nor control. Leave that side of it to the professionals.

1 Response to “Parental Misguidance”

  1. 1 vincent4wang
    June 19, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I’m lucky that my parents introduced me to music without the dream of making a superstar.
    But Lang Lang was such a successful example (at least financial) for all the misguiding parents. And most media only broadcasts such successful examples…That’s why I love to read blog like this. Both sides of the stories!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

June 2010


%d bloggers like this: