"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 askakorean@gmail.com.