Friday, May 20, 2011

"Roboticity" and Violin -- Reaction from a Reader

Really good reactions to the Korean's post keep hitting the Korean's inbox, and he is learning a lot from them. This one from N.S., a former violin instructor (and a current law student) was extremely enlightening toward addressing the silly argument that Asian classical musicians are supposed to be wooden and robotic.

(Posted with permission, with some edits from the Korean.)

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Dear Korean,

I read your "Tiger Mom" and "Paper Tiger" pieces via links through other blogs. I thought they were terrific and will read more. As a parent and a soon-to-be "Biglawyer", they spoke to my concerns, and I really liked the way you took ethnic themes and got beyond them to questions of wider concern. You're right, of course: any "tiger parent" is going to take their kids farther than they'd get with lackadaisical, cut-corners, low-energy-low-involvement parenting.

I used to be a violin teacher. In my experience, it wasn't that Asian kids were robotic; rather, their skill level was higher than their talent level relative to other kids.  Highly talented Asian kids would of course play very well. But even moderately talented Asian kids would play fairly well -- well enough to sit at the back of the second violins in all-state orchestra, instead of first chair.

Meanwhile, moderately talented white kids wouldn't put in the work necessary to compete with Asian kids at their talent level. It's true that moderately talented Asian kids would tend to sound rather "drilled," but on the other hand, moderately talented white kids would play out of tune, suffer memory lapses and miss shifts. And they would do all that with phrasing and pacing just as boxy as those of the "drilled" Asian kids. Meanwhile, the truly talented Asian kids would eat everyone's lunches and outplay less hardworking kids on every metric: phrasing and musicianship, intonation, bow control, articulation, whatever you could name. That's what you get when you have both skill and talent. Drill alone isn't sufficient for playing like Cho-Liang Lin or Kyung-Wha Chung or Nobuko Imai. But it is necessary, and anyone saying otherwise is dreaming.

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One caveat -- N.S. was specifically commenting on the stereotype about how Asian American children are supposed to be robotic because of their upbringing. He is NOT making a racist comment about the supposed abilities of white violin students. There are obviously many, many talented white violin players in America and in the world, and N.S. as a violin instructor would be the first to know them. Don't get it twisted.

This comment particularly hit close to home because Chung Kyung-Wha that N.S. mentioned is the Korean Wife's violin heroine. The timing of this post is particularly appropriate, because Chung's mother Lee Won-Sook passed away just a few days ago, at age 93. Lee was the original Tiger Mom -- she had seven children, and raised four of them to be world-class classical musicians. (The other three became a successful businessman, a professor, and a doctor.) She wrote two books on childhood education, and the stories she told in those books make Prof. Amy Chua look like a hallmark of indulgence. For example, Lee would carry a hammer and nails in her purse, check every single seat of a concert hall where her children would play, and fix the chairs that might creak.

To close, here is a beautiful rendition of Zigeunerweisen by Chung. Pay attention at around 6 minute mark for a show of ridiculous virtuosity.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Great point and letter by N.S.

    However, much to the fact that Chung's mother raised 4 world class musicians out of her 7 children. And all those got there based on hard work and effort and the discipline instilled by Chung....

    I do want to emphasize that the relentless practice and dedication to their activity/hobby/passion outweighs "talent." After reading "Bounce" by Syed and "The Talent Code" by Coyle, I don't believe in such a thing that "natural talent" is a necessary component to being successful in a particular field. And I think Asians are a great example to supporting that theory. (*I highly recommend these reads - especially if you're a parent of young children).

    Asians do not have some super math/science gene that makes it easy for us to learn those subjects. We merely put more hours into learning those subjects starting at a young age. (Also w/ violin and piano). And why do so many Asians put so much time into those subjects? B/c we see so many other Asians do well in those fields, so there is that connection and the "if s/he can do it, and s/he looks like me and comes from a family like mine, I can do it!" idea is sparked. Couple that w/ Tiger parents, and there is the formula to success!

    I think there was such a backlash to Amy Chua's book b/c frankly, many non-Asian Americans can't admit that it takes years, YEARS, of relentless hard work to achieve success. And a lot of these unengaged parents don't want to put the effort into doing it themselves for their kids. They simply shuttle them to tutors/coaches/ etc and hope they will do it for them. If the parent is not actively involved in their kid's practice sessions or study sessions or whatever DAILY at home, the kid will not become great. And that is a hard pill to swallow - to say that your kid did not become great b/c you, as a parent, was not engaged and involved in helping them become great. And a lot of this involves time and proper feedback (which is not - "oh, honey, you're doing great. As long as you did your best, it's fine. what? you're tired of practicing? okay, what do you want for dinner?")

  2. Agreed wholeheartedly. I've played the cello for most of my life (although I'm NOWHERE near as good as many of my peers), and it irks me that so many people would accuse Asians of being "wooden" or "robotic" in any sort of way - most of these critics have probably never even picked up a string instrument.

  3. Thank you, TK, for uploading this wonderful recording. I do think, that aside from the possible exceptions of some of Kreisler's compositions, 'Gypsy Airs' is the most well-known violin composition in Korea. I well remember the Chung siblings from when I was a child growing up in Seoul; funny that at that time I didn't really think of them as real-life Koreans so much as some unearthly creatures who belonged in a different plane of existence altogether -- perhaps because back then SK was still a developing-country-backwater and nobody I knew had the slightest inkling of what was to come. The closest thing I experienced to the dawning of a new era for S. Korea was hearing the music of Shin JoongHyun, The Pearl Sisters and Kim ChuJa, and all the folk and pop acts that followed in their wake.

    How times have changed.

  4. I completely agree, hard work and dedication is what turns a gifted musician into an extraordinary one. A corrolary of that "robotic" argument is usually the "lack of creativity" fallacy, which extends to every genre of music.
    According to that argument, Asian musicians would be highly talented technically but completely lack any sort of creativity. Proof of that being the lack of internationally recognized Asian bands.
    I usually hear this coming from people who are unable to name an Asian musician "because they're not famous, duh".

  5. What is being overlooked is how many Asian parents force their kids to play violin/piano/cello. I have no problem with kids who thoroughly enjoy this type of skill and work hard at building it, but the majority of Asian kids are coerced.

    In Corporate America, law/medicine/business, most of your colleagues will not give a damn about this type of hobby. Most will care about your interests in technology, sports, politics and culture.

    If Asian parents spent half the level of effort at cultivating their kids interpersonal skills like working well in a team, negotiating difficult situations and leading a playgroup, their kids would be much more successful than those that same time practicing scales and concertos.

  6. GolfAddict23,

    Sophia Rubenfeld-Chua has the perfect response for you:

    "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. And on horrible days when I’m lost and a mess, I can say to myself, "I’m good at something that I really, really love." I want my kids to have that confidence – confidence rooted in something concrete, not just "aww everyone’s a winner!!!" confidence, because in your heart you never believe that."


  7. GolfAddit23,

    "If Asian parents spent half the level of effort at cultivating their kids interpersonal skills like working well in a team, negotiating difficult situations and leading a playgroup, their kids would be much more successful than those that same time practicing scales and concertos."

    I'm assuming you think current leaders of US (in business, congress, etc) went through childhood building such social skills. How do you explain?

    -Wall Street
    -Business outsourcing jobs without restraint

  8. GolfAddict23,

    I agree there probably needs to be more focus on building up social skills. There is a lot of time during the day. If they are in school they will get plenty of interaction with people. Parents may need to realize the importance that type of interaction for later success.

    That still leaves a lot of time for other things. If you cut out tv/computer time and shuttling them from one activity to another, there is probably enough time to learn scales and concertos.

  9. most people who are true Americans (parents where born and raised here idc what there heritage is) pretty much want there kids to be an individual instead of a sheep. If you happen to like something then ride with it...but what is the actual chance that most of these Asian children actually had the chance to try other things? Was the violin put in front of them and that is all they were allowed to try out? I am glad I am not like everyone else and I have my own opinions even if they are sometimes stupid.

  10. Linda does have a great point, but I would also say that with that drilling and repetition comes familiarity, and as a creative outlet it may become particularly useful to a child.

    I once had the great honor of being a guest at a formal dinner with Chung Kyung-Wha's older sister, cellist Chung Myung-Wha, among other people of a caliber that left me pretty starstruck. She has other interests than the cello, but when she spoke about performances or teaching it, it definitely isn't with a common sort of passion... even now, she practices and cares even though she had spent so much time practicing as a child. I personally think that if I spent more time practicing something when I was younger, I would have the confidence to continue as I got older.

    I think being as good at something as she is may also contribute to wanting to continue. If I could venture a guess, I'd say that the technical skills she learned (maybe under the iron will of her mother, who knows?) ended up becoming an important part of her success today, and her prowess on the cello developed with her maturing personality and sense of artistic expression.


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