The Tiger Mother, her ferocious cub, and the trusted zookeeper

Long read guest post by Dr Michael Low

Regardless of where you stand (or perhaps more appropriately, sit, as that is our general default position when it comes to using electronic devices such as tablets, chrome books and laptops) on the subject of social media, there is no doubt that websites and applications such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter play a huge part in our everyday lives. Apart from the countless hilarious sports memes, adorable pet videos, spiritual (and lifestyle) citations, cooking tips, political news bulletins, relationship status updates and narcissistic selfies, they also provides the ideal podium for a talented artist or an upcoming entrepreneur to showcase their ability. Furthermore, even if these aspiring individuals don’t have the ability to ‘make the cut’, there is a certain sense of satisfaction when one’s social media post generates hundreds and thousands of views and ‘likes’. Perhaps it says something about the world that we live in that being noticed counts just as much as having the ability to do something unique.

However, social media can also be a very unforgiving and ugly platform where humanity’s flaws and imperfections are ridiculed and unfairly judged. Someone recently likened social media to that of the cyber age colosseum, its members the mob, often out for blood and entertainment. A similar parallel can be drawn from the words of Derek Jacobi’s Gracchus in Gladiator (2000) directed by Ridley Scott:

The beating heart of Rome, is not the marvel of the senate, but the sound of the colosseum. He [Ceasar] will bring them death, and they will love him for it.

There is something very distasteful and perverse about that part of human nature where we want to see those directly in competition with us crash and burn. Perhaps this is one the (many) reasons behind the success of prime-time television shows such as Idols, Dragon’s Den and The Weakest Link, where members of the jury (or in Anne Robinson’s case, juror) are known for their ability to outrightly dismiss the contestant with cutting remarks.

Just as an aside, the Hong Kong version of The Weakest Link sets out to replicate the British series in all its full glory. However, the Chinese viewers did not understand or appreciate Carol Cheng’s imitation of Anne Robinson (let’s face it, who can?) and soon vent their anger at broadcast company, resulting in Cheng’s much changed and likeable demeanour. Which I thought completely missed the point: the reason why audiences tune into The Weakest Link is for Anne Robinson sarcasm and her trademark parting shot: ‘You are the weakest link – goodbye! Furthermore, it is also known that (as well as the prize money) some contestants go on the show because they are keen to experience what it is like to be dismissed by Robinson on television. The shift in Hong Kong’s presentation perhaps owes more to what the East perceived as acceptable behaviour on television as the Orientals are not known for their sarcasm and dry sense of humour.

As a golf enthusiast, it saddens me to say that the 1999 Open Championship in Carnoustie will always be remembered for Jean van de Velde’s implosion on the final hole, rather than Paul Lawrie’s performance during the playoff. (Van de Velde’s entourage will point to the fact that he got what is arguably one of the most bizarre ricochets in sports when his second shot bounced off the railing of the grandstand, onto the top of the stonewall before nesting itself in the deep rough. At the same time, critics will argue that it was Frenchman’s combination of flair and dire decision-making that resulted in his precarious second shot). Tennis fans will recall Jana Novotna’s unfortunate collapse (and her tears on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder) rather than Steffi Graf’s heroic comeback during the 1993 Wimbledon Ladies Final. The 2013-14 English Premier League football season will forever be synonymous with the image of Steven Gerard’s slip which handed the initiative back to Manchester City, who became the eventual champions. Finally, we all knew what happened in the most recent US Open Ladies final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

One of the subjects that generates the most interest on social media is that of the musical prodigy: an infant with the technical ability and (at times) musical maturity equal to an adult musician. However, before I proceed with the rest of this article I just want to clarify the following points:

  • The article is a based upon my own experience as a human being, an educator and a musician.
  • This is Not (notice the capital N) Dr Michael Low’s How Not to be An @rs3hole Piano Teacher or D1ckhead Parent 101.
  • I am not a parent.

There is a general (and much overstated) adage that behind every successful child prodigy stands (at least) one Tiger Parent – an overbearing individual who set the highest standard of achievement for their children by authoritarian means. The term Tiger Mother or Tiger Mom (老虎妈妈) is synonymous with Amy Chua’s controversial 2011 Memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where the author detailed her stringent and at times ferocious parenting regime. Though it is not explicit, the book also argues in favour of such parental methodology as well as the superiority of Chinese as opposed to Western culture.

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Amy Chua watches her daughter Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld practise the piano in her home in New Haven, Connecticut

I know a number of parents who have read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and hated every single paragraph, as it goes against what they believe to be good parenting. On the other hand, I interpreted the book as an outright parody of the Chinese culture (much like Jon Chu’s movie adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians) and found the author’s writing immensely entertaining (I read the entire book – given to me as a Christmas present by the parent of a student – en route to London and it actually made me love my mum [herself also a Tiger Mom during her heyday] even more when I saw her). Regardless of what you think of Amy Chua, there is one thing that is clear: no matter how badly a parent wants a child to succeed, the final application has to come from the child him/herself. Chua openly confesses that despite her intense style of parenting (which bore fruit with her eldest daughter, Sophia), she has to admit defeat and eat a considerable portion of humble pie when her youngest daughter, Lulu, refuses to emulate Sophia’s musical achievement. Of all the very talented children I have had the privilege to have worked with, and there are just about (at least) two or three in every corner of Asia, none of them gave me the impression that they are playing the piano for their parents (the counter-argument here is that the less musically interested child would not have to seek out another teacher’s opinion in the first place). The feeling I get from working with these talented youngsters is that they would not achieved such a level of technical attainment if they do not firstly, believe in themselves (needless to say, this is supported unwaveringly by their parents and teacher) and secondly, enjoy what they do. Critics of Tiger parenting often point out that one run the risk of forsaking one’s soul if you ‘demand a child to practise an instrument until they hate it’ – presumably seeing practising as the outdated, dry, and monotonous act which is often associate with strict parenting. Being an avid practiser myself, I can tell you that I won’t even last five minutes, let alone four hours, doing this sort of practising! However, if a child can be taught how to practise intelligently, creatively and at the same time being able to enjoy the process of slowly working through a new piece of music before eventually having the satisfaction of playing the composition up to speed, why shouldn’t they practise for hours on end? Some may argue that musical intensity at this young age will come at the expense of the infant’s childhood, leaving the individual susceptible to various psychological and emotional scars later on in life. But then again, just how many of us are actually ‘normal’ in every sense of the word? We seek an expression in art (and especially music) because part of us (for whatever reason) is looking for an alternate form of human expression. And in today’s world, the only way for one to have any chance of success in music, be in performance or otherwise, is to really love what we do. The eminent piano pedagogue Maria Curcio recalled that her teacher, Artur Schnabel, once told her that in art, there is no such thing as a compromise. This is a statement that resonates with me on most levels (notice I say most, not all), because I have always maintained that the best people are those who can maintain a sense of balance and perspective in their life (which is not often easy when you are a child or a teenager, as there is a tendency to be impatient wanting to live for the moment).

It is the lack of social distraction, coupled with the ever-rapid ability to grasp the basic, along with many hours of discipline, that propels a musically talented child into the status of a prodigy. Universally admired by their peers, lauded by parents and immortalised by social media, the prodigy is much like a meteor or a ‘shooting star’, incandescence on their journey and leaving behind a streak of light in their quest for world recognition. Unfortunately, meteors also have the tendency to fall back down to earth: with every advancing year, the musical prodigy relinquishes a certain amount of his/hers prodigious status. I would argue that it is the technical ability – much more than the interpretive vision – that is the contributing factor behind the prodigy’s success (a certain Wow factor such as: ‘Did you see that six-year-old with such tiny hands play the Hammerklavier Sonata?’). And when a musical prodigy reaches the awkward age of the late teens and early twenties, no longer will he/she be judged on their technical prowess (which is now taken for granted) but their artistic vision. I use the term ‘awkward’ because this is the alleged stage when a musician ‘comes of age’ (which is absolutely nonsense in my not so humble opinion because studying music is a lifetime of work, and every artist matures at a different age). This, along with the human propensity to always be looking for the next best thing, meant that the prodigy has a life-span akin to that of a sportsman, although the former probably doesn’t earn as much. Conversely, I would imagine that if a child is used to performing in front of a packed house, as well as to an audience who is easily wowed by the performer’s technical prowess, he or she will probably find it very difficult to settle for anything less later on in life. These are some of the contributing factors towards why many musical prodigies have not catapulted themselves onto a successful musical career despite their remarkable promise.

It is the teacher’s job to see the best in our student, and with that, help them to realise their potential. In our line of work, we often work very closely with the parents of our students, and this has both its advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately for us, we also live in a results-driven culture where marks and validation on a piece of paper counts more than anything else, and this is especially evident in some of the more driven, first-world countries in the East. In such cultures, it is not unusual for the parents to have Tiger-like tendencies: imagine being part of a lifestyle similar to that of a fast-moving train, in a society where every parent will do anything (within reasons and financial means) to hurl their own children on board in the fear that they will either come second or miss out. In these societies, it must be very difficult not to get caught up with what everyone else is doing. Even if there are parents who feel that being part of such a competitive environment is not entirely suitable for their children, are they willing to jeopardise their child’s future by not participating? The question becomes infinitely more complicated when the child exhibits potential or show glimpses of ability to attain – and in some cases exceed – the standard set by his/hers teachers and peers. Realistically, how many parents have the financial means as well as the mind-set to even consider the possibility of emigration and starting life in a different country?

While we are on the subject of achievement, it is my humble opinion that parents have every right to feel proud when their child produces a brilliant musical performance, and the same can be said for us teachers. Let’s not be coy for a second here, there is always a tremendous sense of satisfaction and reward when one of our students perform well in either an exam, festival or competition (and sometimes all three!). As a teenager, I recall attending my sister’s ABRSM High Scorer’s Concert (which took place in the RAM’s Duke’s Hall) and said to myself, ‘It must be such an honour for any teacher and their student to take part in these occasions.’ Such feelings became reality a few years ago when one of my Grade 8 piano student was invited to perform in such a concert here in Cape Town. However, I have also seen the CV of several high-profile piano teachers (this is much more apparent in the East, where piano playing is seen as an achievement rather than an artistic expression), who littered their website with names of prize-winners whom they have taught or worked with (the irony here is that most, if not all of these competitions are relatively unknown, or perhaps I am just not that knowledgeable when it comes to competitions). While the business part of me understands such a marketing ploy, the cynical side of me seems to have other reservations. Afterall, I have always believed that the greatest teachers are those who let their students do the talking, or playing, in this case.

In the perfect world, no piano teacher would have to sit through their student’s mediocre performance, nor should we have to deal with tears and disappointment when exam marks and competition juries don’t see eye to eye with our candidate. One of the hardest thing for any teacher to endure is to allow our student to make their own mistake knowing full well this is the only way they will learn their lesson. I will never forget teaching a very talented student who, despite her tremendous musical temperament and ability, didn’t quite have the patience or mindset to practise slowly (for this student it is the case of ‘playing through’ a piece of music hoping that it will eventually come right). In spite my best efforts in trying to reason, encourage, and motivate her to be more disciplined in her practising, she was adamant that things will continue as they were. Afterall, why should anything change? She has gotten to where she is by doing what comes naturally to her (the superstitious side of me tells me that this is karma at its bitchiest best, the perfect payback for all those times in the past when I did not listen to my piano teachers). Heartless though it may seem, I eventually realised that the only way forward is to let her play the exam on her own terms, and this lead to the following afterwards: ‘Dr Low, I am so sorry… I fu(k3d up so badly…I have let you down…’ followed by loud sobs (for those interested, this student actually ended up passing her exam, despite the assumption that she ‘fu(k3d up’ her own performance). This incident made me realise one thing: if allowing your student to play out her own mistake isn’t heartbreakingly enough, it must be (at least) twenty times worse for a parent to let their child do the same (I can say with a degree of certainty that no parents want to see their children hurt, physically or emotionally). Unfortunately such is life that sometimes the only way for a child to grow is for them to make their own mistake, and this is in spite of their parent’s best intervention – conversely, interventions can sometimes end up pushing the child further away from their parents. It is not often easy to develop a sense of objectivity when we work closely with our student. However, I strongly believe that not every single piano teacher is completely responsible for how their student performs, just as not every parent is entirely liable for the adult their children become.

Parenting is perhaps the hardest job in the world. Children are conceived not only for the purpose of genetic immortality, but also to provide an opportunity for a parent to play the all-important role in shaping an infant’s life. I have often heard the following numerous times: ‘Michael, I don’t want my son to give up the piano because it was a decision that I regret taking when I was his age.’ To which I answer: ‘It is never too late for you to start having lessons again.’ Interesting that this is often followed by: ‘I just want him (the child) to be able to sit down and play!’ As teachers and musicians, all of us recognise that ‘to be able to sit down and play’ is far from straightforward, as it requires not only many hours of practising, but also a considerable amount of performing experience. Imagine just ‘chilling out’ playing the Rachmaninoff D minor Piano Concerto or Bach’s Goldberg Variations! I will never forget almost incurring the wrath of one of my piano teachers when I asked him to perform Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata during one of our lessons! (I did ask nicely just in case any of you guys are wondering!) It is my humble opinion that no parent raises their children with the intention of deliberately messing them up (psychologically or otherwise). Parents will always make the decisions based on what they know best when a situation arises, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), hindsight is such a beautiful thing and will always have the last word. I do not believe that there is a right or a wrong way to bring up a child; parents are human beings after all, and no matter which approach a parent decides to take, whether it is the Tiger Mother/Dragon Father combination, or the converse, Mother Hen/Father Owl mindset, somewhere down the line, mistakes will occur, and the child will be better or worse off because of that. No self-respecting parent raises their children hoping that they will become billionaire owners of football clubs, along with their corrupt Russian Oligarch associates. Nor do any parents wish their kids to turn into some sort of pathological animal lovers who give candy bars to golden retriever pups. I can say (with a degree of confidence) that every parents raises their children in the hope that they will one day become courageous, compassionate, intelligent and respectable human beings; to be able see the beauty in this cold and (at times) objective world that we live in, to love another whole-heartedly, to live a life of integrity and perhaps, just perhaps, also be able to find the extraordinary in our ordinary life. Similarly, a piano teacher should not harbour the unrealistic expectation in hoping that our student will be the next celebrity performer akin to Khatia Buniatishvilli, Lang Lang, Ivo Pogorelich or Wang Yuja. We teach piano and because we want to convey the passion and love of music to our students, and in learning a musical instrument, a student will hopefully be able to grasp a set of important life skills and ethics such as discipline, integrity, honesty, hard work and communication. At the end of the day, if any of my students can apply to their life what they have learnt from their piano lessons, then I will be quite content.


As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa’s greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

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