Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: Producing Excellence

If you're a parent in the middle class, you've probably read countless parenting books. Most of them are prescriptive, telling you what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and why the advice works. Whether the advice is any good is up for grabs. Producing Excellence is the ultimate parenting book in reverse, beating even Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for a great list of things not to do to your kids.

The book explores the world of the violin virtuoso who's training for a career as an international soloist. Imagine a world in which:

  • Parents regularly pick the careers for their children at an early age (5 or 6 is not uncommon)
  • Subject kids to 8 hours of practice a day, eliminating their social life outside of music
  • Engage in extreme helicopter parenting, including participation in rigged competitions (every musical competition is pretty much rigged, if you believe this book), selecting music teachers, finding prestigious violins to play (getting such violins on loan takes up an intriguing 10 pages of the book), punishing international travel to get to competitions, garnering sponsorship, and eliminating general education to the point where soloists-in-training cannot conceive of (and in any case aren't prepared for) a career outside music, even in the (common) event that they cannot achieve their goals
As I read this book, I found myself highlighting passage after passage, not just because of how interesting they were, but because of how appalling the process is:
     “I do not need prodigy pupils, only gifted mothers.” —Violin teacher  (kindle loc 1113-16)
Teachers advocate minimum practice periods of an hour to an hour and a half for three- to five-year-old students; two to three hours for six year olds, four or more hours daily by the age of eight. The famous twentieth-century teacher Stolyarsky Piotr Solomonovitch “demanded that his student take the violin out of its case immediately after breakfast and put it away just before going to sleep at night. All other activities, including general education, were expected to be cut to a minimum”  (Kindle Loc. 1240-47)
 I first heard while observing an eight-year-old student taught by a renowned teacher from the Moscow Gnesina School: You know who Niccolò Paganini was? The most important virtuoso of the nineteenth century. You know why he was so famous, so great, and the best violinist of his time? People say that he offered his soul to the devil in exchange for such magical skill that [his instrument] was a magic wand! Niccolò, at your age, had already worked very hard. From the beginning of each day, his father confined his little son to a small empty room and ordered him to play violin. After one hour of work, Niccolò earned the right to breakfast. Then again, he worked until lunchtime. When the father had estimated that Niccolò played badly, he wouldn’t let him eat anything. In that manner the boy worked all day. (Kindle  Loc. 1276-80)
 In another case, the parents of a child were said to have given him slaps on the head, or pulled his ears or hair. Public revelations concerning such practices are rare, yet Ruggiero Ricci, the American violinist, is convinced that numerous child virtuosos are victims of parental pressure or abuse. According to Schwartz, “Ricci was speaking from experience. He describes his father as ‘some kind of musical maniac.’ He had all seven children playing an instrument. ‘I wanted to be pianist, but my parents got me off that jig. They bribed me with fiddles.’ On the whole, Ricci had an unhappy childhood. His father did not hesitate to put pressure on the boy”  (Kindle Loc. 1328-30)
 With testimonials like this, it is no wonder that Amy Chua abused her daughters to get them into Carnegie Hall: she was competing with other parents who were more extreme, more willing to work their kids, threaten them or even physically abuse them. With more intellectual activities like Math, Computer Science, or Physics, once you've mastered the material, all new work is fresh problem solving. Not so with motor skills like violin, piano, or practically any other musical instrument. Even after reaching the pinnacle of their professions, the violin player still needs constant daily practice to maintain excellence:
Kubelik’s biographers reported that he worked twelve hours each day before concerts; on the evening when he performed, his fingers would bleed. Heifetz described his practice as two hours each day, exercises and scales, and several hours of repertoire. (Kindle Loc. 1392-1400)
With STEM fields, achievement in the field is based on publication and citations. If you managed to prove P=NP and published a paper to that effect, no amount of bias or attempts at suppression of your work would succeed. But musical competitions are extremely subjective, with loaded juries. In fact, according to Wagner's book, most of the competitions have a "pay to win" component:
Competitors try to have a master class with at least one jury member. In the case of the observed competition, its organizer created a master class with a jury member just before the event, to allow competitors to “better prepare their performance,” as a jurist explained in his opening speech. For this master class, lessons and accommodation cost over 300 euros. Not all competitors were able to pay this, but all competition finalists had participated in this master class.  (Kindle Loc. 1822-26)
Negotiations of the jury are secret; according to testimonies, discussions are sometimes stormy. According to a teacher who participates in juries, it is always possible to “sway the vote.” Three jurists working together, he says, can control and influence competition results. “I don’t know of any competitions which aren’t backhanded. It is always possible to support or throw out someone before the finale.” An accompanist, speaking with a competitor’s parent on the first day of selections, expressed discontent: “Here, the prizes have already been distributed. It’s a pity, because I have accompanied children who have played very well.  (Kindle Loc. 1873-76)
After the competition, the parent of a losing candidate asked two jurists separately for reasons they did not select his child. Both men responded that the young violinist was very talented and a soloist career was at his fingertips, but that he should change his teacher. Both suggested the young musician would be welcome in their classes.  (Kindle 1905-9)
If you're wondering what sort of parent would put their child through this huge amount of hard work just so as to support a corrupt system where success has very little to do with actual excellence but everything to do with who you know, and the kind of backroom dealing that you would expect from 3rd world banana republic elections, you're not alone. The answer appears to be that the truth behind the classical music industry is carefully hidden from parents, students, and the general public:
Teachers carefully hide the fact that success is rare, even nearly impossible. Professors believe that the parents and their children do not need this information. Without faith in a glorious future as a globetrotting soloist playing packed halls such as the Albert, Carnegie, and Pleyel, how can the teacher motivate young students and their parents? The shadow of failure could dull the enthusiasm and provoke the demobilization of the teacher’s entourage. It is absolutely contrary to the teachers’ interest to speak about the relative proportion of successful students. And so, the teachers continue to support the notion that students’ aspirations are realistic.  (Kindle Loc. 4957-60)
 “The problem with Ivan, and with others who work with children as he does [in the soloist class], is that for every ten students, one will attempt suicide, one will become mentally ill, two will become alcoholics, two will slam doors and jettison the violin out the window, three will work as violinists, and perhaps one will become a soloist.” Although this may be exaggerated, the ratio of success is certainly accurate, and the risks of failure are not unrealistic.  (Kindle Loc. 4962-64)
When students are asked, “Why have you chosen to became a musician?” the response is generally, “I don’t know,” or “It was always that way,” or “I only know how to play.” The lack of knowledge in any other field seems to pose an impassable obstacle. At the end of their education, after abandoning hope of becoming a soloist, the easiest solution is to find a job in the larger world of music. (Kindle Loc. 5329-36)
 The author then discloses that she herself is the mother of a son who was put into this career track before she started her research project (the book was the result of her PhD thesis on ethnology). Her poignant passage upon the realization that she had stuck her son into this low-success-rate career:
 When my position as a research worker opened the possibility for me of seeing my world from a different point of view, I developed profoundly mixed emotions. It was frightening to be more fully aware of a world where competition is strong and the market is saturated. I came to realize the stakes that participants of that world—including my son—were up against. I hadn’t seen how high those stakes were before, because I had embraced the ideology of the world. The sociologist in me was overjoyed—the mother in me panic-stricken. I tried to retreat and find ways for my son to leave this milieu and find another field of study and work. But I failed, for the bonds between him and the soloist elite were too tightly wound for his escape. (Kindle Loc. 5884-89)
 There were many times during my reading of this book where I had to stop because I was so stricken with incredulity and pain. By the time I was done with this book, I became disgusted with myself for having spent any money at all on classical music and thus indirectly contributing to the unhappiness of so many children worldwide. I'm not sure I could in good conscience ever go to a classical music performance, listen to a  classical soloist, or look on the (frequently shared) YouTube videos of "child prodigies" again with the innocence I once had. It's a shame that something as beautiful as music has been turned into a corrupt industry by greed, hunger for fame, and desire for money. What's worse is that the kids who were started on this career path were driven to it by their parents, not because they personally would have chosen the career path on their own. Furthermore, the media glorifies the exceptions who make it (we all know that Lang Lang's father was an SOB who was abusive to his son), while hiding the very human costs for the ones who don't make it.

I also can't help but wonder how rigged the science competitions are: since each submission is effectively a unique research project and it's run by a jury similar to those on music competitions, I wonder how much backroom dealing is involved. At least with the math Olympiads, everyone's given the same problem and has to solve them within the time limits.

All in all, I came away from reading this book sadder but quite a bit wiser. A few principles:

  • Any situation where there's a jury determining winners and losers is bound to be unfair. Hence running (no judges) is better than figure skating, and math is better than music. Even though many athletic events are plagued by cheating and drug using, the people involved in those are adults and chose to cheat or not cheat.
  • Where possible, choose fields where your results are sold directly to the public, rather than being sold to a narrow band of curators or taste makers. That means pop music is probably (but not much) better than classical music, and self-publishing books is probably better than the crazy system which is book publishing.
  • Any kind of democratization of taste that works by disinter-mediating the elite taste makers is a good thing. It's a good thing that people now pay more attention to Amazon's reviews than to "official" book critics like the New York Times review of books.
  • The media loves child prodigies. They will show the glories of a kid producing music, but not show the hidden costs behind that performance. And when that kid ages out of being cute, he will be dropped like a hot potato and never be mentioned again. Bear the in mind the next time you see a Youtube video of a child prodigy. Resist the temptation to turn your child into one of those. If you are still tempted, buy and read a copy of this book.
In any case, I enjoyed this book and can recommend it. It's a lot like watching a train wreck: you cringe for the people involved, but there's a perverse fascination in watching nevertheless. And if the book inoculates you against trying to turn your kids into one of those prodigies, that's well worth the (hefty) price.

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