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Susan Pascale

Off to Juilliard: Tiger Mom vs. Lion Mother Update

May 4, 2011 at 6:54 PM

Remember my blog post on February 14, 2011, when I described my approach to music education, compared to that of the 'Tiger Mom?' Since that article appeared on the web, there have been some new developments. My daughter, Ariana has been accepted to Juilliard, Class of '15! Here's a revised version of the article:

Several months ago, I took my 17-year-old daughter, Ariana, an accomplished viola player, to the East Coast to audition at top-tier music conservatories.

The auditions are, of course, important - where you go to college affects your whole life. At the first audition, waiting for her turn, I asked Ariana if she was nervous. “No, mom, I’m so excited to play for them!” She was like Cinderella going to the ball.

 It felt to me like the end of a long road, and the start of a new one. When Ariana and her brother Zak were little, I suddenly became a single mother. I believed that I would never be able to send them to college without scholarships. So I groomed them in something that, as a symphonic violinist, I knew well: music. I started Zak on violin at 6 and Ariana at 5 (she switched to viola in her teens). During those hard times, I sacrificed paying my utilities bills in order to buy their instruments and pay for their lessons.

The first piece in Ariana’s first college audition was a dramatic Brahms sonata. I practically glued my ear to the door. It seemed to me that she was expressing all the life experiences that had brought her to this point; wonderful experiences like playdates and sleepovers with good friends, horseback riding, and playing in jazz and rock’n’roll bands. And there were echoes of difficult experiences, too, like her parents’ divorce, a cross- country move and teenage school troubles.

When she emerged from the room, I could tell from her face that she had nailed it. The teacher, who served as a judge, followed her out the door, congratulated me, and said that he’d love to teach her.

Three months later, Ariana was admitted to Juilliard, Class of ’15.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my daughter’s journey, because so many people have asked me about the ‘Tiger Mother’ essay. You’ve probably read the article, by law professor Amy Chua, in the (January 8, 2011) Wall Street Journal, titled ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.’ In the article, Chua outlines her approach to childrearing, which she calls the ‘tiger’ way, and compares to the ‘Western’ way. Her children were never allowed sleepovers or play dates. They were required to be the top student in their classes, and to play only piano or the violin, for hours each day.

Chua tells an anecdote about her 7-year-old daughter Lulu’s difficulty with a particular piano piece. Lulu gave up and left the piano. Her mother forced her back. “Punching, thrashing and kicking” ensued. Chua insulted and threatened her daughter, and didn’t let her go to the bathroom. After many hours—with no dinner — Lulu finally played the piece correctly.

My response: Chua could have achieved the same results with none of the abuse.

I know this because, not only am I now the parent of three highly musical children, but I also direct a music school with hundreds of young clients. Our Los Angeles Children’s Orchestra is the only competitive elementary-age orchestra in the region. It set a world record in 2009 as the youngest orchestra ever to perform at Carnegie Hall, and routinely wins top honors in competitions with high school groups.

We groom students from the beginning so that they can become good enough to get into Juilliard or any top-tier music program, if that’s the direction they choose. So in our ambition for our children, I’m a lot like Chua, who tried (unsuccessfully) to get her daughter into Juilliard’s precollege program.

But, aside from aspiring to Juilliard, my experience helping children grow and  thrive in music to reach the highest levels couldn’t be more different from Chua’s.


In letting herself become angry at her children during practices, Chua takes the easy way out. The violin is the most difficult instrument a child can play. Seeing a child mess up, a parent’s anger can go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Sometimes I just want to jump inside my daughter’s little body and do it for her! Add to that the financial sacrifice – no wonder parents go ballistic!

I offer parents tools to reduce the frustration and help the child progress. Our program’s positive reward system includes plenty of praise and presents, from puffy stickers and ‘silly band’ bracelets, to cute Japanese erasers and plastic busts of the great composers. We also offer ideas to help make practicing fun, or at least tolerable. For example, when they were little, I’d set my daughters’ dolls and stuffed animals in a circle surrounding the music stand, as an audience for the ‘grand concerts.’.(My Pascale Method ® is all about ideas like these. See ‘Playing for Life, at Child-Engaged-in-Music-Lessons-From-Early-Childhood-Through-Teens&id=4850136)


Chua makes her children practice for many hours – not just one or two, but 3 hours a day or more of solitary practice, just with mom. That would be 21 hours a week (plus whatever lessons they attend).

I’m like Chua, in terms of my insistence that my children practice every day, and put in a lot of time. Some parents think I’m over the top. I added up the hours my 9- year-old daughter Jenna spends with music and her cello - it comes out to nearly 20 hours a week.

But that’s not solo practice. Jenna is in two of my music school’s orchestras; and she plays in three quartets, with girls her age. On top of that, she has four cello lessons a week, one piano lesson, and one music theory class. I try to get her to practice solo for an additional 1/2 - 1 hour a day. (All this isn’t nearly as expensive or time-consuming as it sounds because, of course, we own the music school, which is Jenna’s second home.)

A more typical student in my program might take 1 or 2 lessons a week; participate in one of our string quartets once a week, and play with one or two of our orchestras weekly. He is also encouraged to practice 45-90 minutes a day, depending on level and age. That can average out 1 3/4 hours a day, around 12 hours a week, compared to Chua’s childrens’ 21 hours.

Putting time into practice in is important. In the elementary through high school years, it is true that the kids who practice for the most hours will have the most advanced technique, and will earn first chairs.

But when they go out into the real world, and start auditioning for conservatories, high- level orchestras, and competitions, the winners will be the players who are not only technically proficient, but who are also able to interpret a piece of music in a way that is unique to them, with a high level of musicianship which can only come from varied life experiences – including non-musical experiences like play dates, sleepovers, and friendships.

Jenna is getting quality time, rather than just “doing time.” A significant percentage of her 21 hours, and the 12 hours of our more typical students, is spent in groups with her peers. It’s in group playing that students develop their musicality, and critical skills like listening, leading, rhythm, and above all, cooperation. It’s in group playing that the child develops a sense of belonging that pulls him or her upwards in music. They join a wonderful club with friendships, fun, snacks, trips to amusement park music festivals, medals, pins, trophies, and above all, travel! Membership inspires them to practice – reducing parents’ frustration.

Which brings up another reason that the ‘tiger’ approach is counterproductive. Being a professional musician is a social career. Succeeding is about making connections and friends. If there’s a good job, and there are two players to choose from, it’s the one who gets along with everybody who will get the job.

Chua appears to isolate her daughters. She describes as ‘Chinese’ her insistence that her child must be number one in almost any situation, school and music. My perspective: In music, as in life, aiming to be number one is a losing proposition. There will always be someone who plays better.


After ten years of running a music school, we’ve learned that some parents should be separated from the student during lessons. I’ll be teaching a child how important it is to relax their upper body, and then the parent will chime in, or even poke the child – “And don’t forget to push your arm in!” they’ll yell - which pretty much puts us back to square one with the child’s tension. Overbearing parents inhibit student progress.

Chua demands perfection from her daughters. I tell my students (and their parents) that it’s O.K. to make mistakes. We do everything we can to take the blame off of the child. For example, in our KinderViolin® program, when the bow is introduced, we transform their bow hand fingers into characters in a play, each with its own job. The engineer (thumb) sits down to drive the train (the bow). If there’s a problem, the character – not the child - gets blamed. I’ll say, "Tell the engineer to sit down!"

Something else I say a lot in class and orchestra is, “I am so happy you played that wrong, now we can all learn!” My own children have made plenty of mistakes – big ones. Like the time Ariana forgot to tighten her bow before a fancy recital! Another time, she left the mute on her violin for the entire performance! You bet she’ll never do that again. We laughed then, and we still chuckle about it.

When my own children fail, when they don’t get first chair, I don’t take it personally. I know they’ll do better next time. They don’t need me to rub it in.

After years of dealing with hundreds of parents, it’s pretty clear to me that those who do behave like Chua have tied their self-esteem too tightly to their children’s performance.


Along with being ambitious, there is another area where Chua and I are similar: We’re both stubborn. I agree with her attitude that, if a parent wants their child to become a skillful musician, she or he must be very single-minded, stick with it, slog through the difficult times, and never give up. But parents also must learn to separate from the child, to grow their own lives emotionally and spiritually. And parents do not have to take away a child’s precious childhood.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 5, 2011 at 1:38 AM

Bravo to both of you ...  Best of luck!!!

From Diane Allen
Posted on May 5, 2011 at 2:39 PM

I read Amy Chua's book.

I'm glad I read it. It was quite thought provoking, It doesn't mean I'm in agreement. It just means it raises many questions. For that reason alone I recommend the book. It's a great way to hold a mirror up to your own beliefs and see them, mold them, or abandon them.

As for Amy's daughters - the child advocate in me screams at Amy. Couldn't she wait 10 years to publish the book and let the girls grow up? Didn't she realize  that her daughters are now going to be "watched" by the general public to "see how they do"? Why didn't she protect their identities?

My violin teaching studio has been recession proof. My guess for this is the quality experience for students was worth toughing it out for many families financially.

I totally agree with Susan's approach to teaching. My goal is to pay at least 1 compliment to every student that walks through the door. People are incredibly receptive in a nurturing environment!

From E. Smith
Posted on May 5, 2011 at 5:55 PM

The author wrote:

 "So in our ambition for our children, I’m a lot like Chua, who tried (unsuccessfully) to get her daughter into Juilliard’s precollege program."

 I'm pretty sure that at least one of her daughters was at the pre-college. 

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 5, 2011 at 8:03 PM

 It's not necessary to abuse children to help them achieve excellence in music. And when they do, I think they should be able to claim that achievement for themselves. 

From al ku
Posted on May 5, 2011 at 8:54 PM

 game one: it is a tie.  chua's kid got into harvard:)

but here is the problem for the rest of us.

super strict family produces harvard kid.  

super doing-everthing-just-right-except-paying-utilitiy bills-late family produces juilliard kid.

if we are somewhere in between, not saints but not bad ass enough to be devils, is there any hope left for our kids? :)

here is something chua kid said "Having you as a mother was no tea party," she wrote, addressing Chua. "There were some play dates I wish I’d gone to and some piano camps I wish I’d skipped. But now that I’m 18 and about to leave the tiger den, I’m glad you and Daddy raised me the way you did.”

tiger dad on tiger mom:


From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 5, 2011 at 10:39 PM

As a non-Tiger Parent who raised his children in much the same way as the author of this blog and was quite pleased with the results, I can only say bravo.  I suspect Chua's oldest daughter would have done just as well without Chua's practices.  In addition, Chua had an enormous advantage, starting with two daughters who were clearly very bright and talented.  Her book and achievements would be much more interesting/impressive if she had had boys or a special needs child.  The concern I always have with raising kids as Chua did is they end up with only three real skills: the ability to work very hard, knowing how to seek approval of others, and the ability to follow orders.  The problem is that life is messy and unpredictable.  While these skills are important to some extent, they are not the whole story.  They may get you into Harvard, but that is not the whole story either.  People have to be able to take risks and make good decisions.  They need coping skills, life skills, and interpersonal skills.  I fear that the Tiger Mother regimen de-emphasizes the skills a person really needs to learn in order to function effectively in anything but the cocoon environment provided by Tiger Mother.  My kids did well and have those skills.  I have a narrative of raising my children that I have sent around during the debate over Tiger Mother which I would be glad to provide to anyone who is interested.  For those who are interested in what a Tiger Mother looks like at her worst, I recommend the book, The Overachievers, by Alexandra Robbins, in which she follows closely a group of local kids, some of whom my daughter went through middle school with, during the last two years of high school and the college applications process.  One kid had a Korean immigrant mother who was  Chua on steroids.  She made Chua look like a cream puff.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 7, 2011 at 4:16 PM

Thank you for sharing your experiences -- good news about daughter Ariana.

"After ten years of running a music school, we’ve learned that some parents should be separated from the student during lessons."

No doubt about this, based on what I've read on the discussion board over the last 5 years.  I have long felt, too, that a kid's preferences matter a great deal.  More on this in the parents and lessons thread -- e.g., Buri's input on overbearing parents.

Posted on May 10, 2011 at 11:28 AM


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