This probably applies to other Asians as well, as I knew a lot of Koreans who were very good at piano and violin in high school, but among the Chinese community, both in the US and in China, it seems a large majority insists on their kids playing some sort of musical instrument (my wife included).
It drives me nuts.
Now don’t get me wrong, I see the value in learning a musical instrument. But my biggest gripe with this is that for the amount of effort you put into learning an instrument, the utility or benefit you get is very small.
Before I continue, I need to give some background. I’m by no means an expert on this. But I did play violin from 4th grade until freshman year in college, coming out to exactly 10 years. I practiced around an hour a day, every single day (I just did a rough estimate, and I’ve probably put in at least 3,000 hours of my life into violin). I participated in every orchestra imaginable: school orchestra, county orchestra, all-state orchestra. The county and all-state orchestras both required auditions, so I was competing against (mostly) Asian kids in my county and state.
So I feel that I am qualified to give an honest opinion on this topic.
It feels like Chinese parents force their kids to play a musical instrument usually for one of two main reasons: Better chance to get admitted into college and to develop their kid’s artistic ability. Both reasons are extremely outdated.
Better Chance to get Admitted into College
First off, for college admissions, Asians are compared against other Asians. And almost everyone plays a musical instrument. Unless you have some sort of national recognition, or are a prodigy that can perform at Carnegie Hall, there is almost no differentiation between you and every other Asian applicant. In this sense, I assume college admissions staff essentially disregard music as an extracurricular activity for Asian applicants. Also, this thinking is outdated because there are so many extracurricular activities that kids can do, it doesn’t have to be just music.
Develop Their Kid’s Artistic Ability
This is kind of a joke. In an effort to make their kid’s more well-rounded (instead of only being a bookworm), Chinese parents force their kids to play a musical instrument to develop “artistic ability.” When I asked my wife what this meant exactly, she said she thought it was cool that when I listened to a concert or show, I can tell when there are mistakes in tone, or when a note was missed and the sound is a little bit off. She also thought it was cool that I liked certain violin concertos from Mendelssohn and Bach.
Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I don’t see the value in having this “artistic ability.” It certainly doesn’t pay the bills. And I don’t think my life would be any different if I never listened to Bach or Mozart. I actually don’t even care if someone messed up during a concert. The fact that I can hear the mistake so clearly is actually annoying because it detracts from my ability to enjoy the concert.
This leads me to my main point, which is that for the amount of time I put into learning violin, the corresponding benefit or utility that I derived from it is very minuscule.
I don’t play violin anymore. I haven’t touched it in more than 10 years now. My fingers are old and rigid, so even something as simple as vibrato will probably be difficult for me now. I have no way to derive any joy from picking it up again, because I most likely won’t be able to play any difficult songs anymore, nor will it sound good at all. And even if I did, it would require me to put in a lot of time to practice before I could play anything at a passable level, and this is time that is becoming more and more scarce.
Now before all the haters yell at me, I figured I would be somewhat objective and list out some benefits of playing violin.
Learning Self-Control and Discipline
I’ll be honest, it takes a certain amount of self-control and discipline to be able to practice every single day for 10 years. Of course it didn’t start out like this. When I first started, my parents forced me to practice every day. I was lucky in that they just nagged and yelled at me, and eventually I listened. But I’ve heard of stories from friends who’s parents would beat them if they didn’t practice, and smack their hands with a ruler if they played a wrong note on the piano… No need to call child services, this is pretty common for Asian households.
But over time, it felt like a responsibility that I had to do every day and eventually I developed the self-control to find an hour every day to practice (and because I had a private tutor, I also had “homework” every week so I had to practice to make her happy, that damn old lady. Haha just kidding, she’s one of the main reasons I got so good).
This was even the case after football and wrestling practice. Of course those days were brutal and I probably didn’t improve much, but just the fact that I picked up the violin after a rough 2-a-day practice on the football field probably built a lot of character.
Friends from Orchestra
Because I was in all these orchestras, and because most of the kids who took violin seriously were all in the same orchestras, you automatically pick up a few friends. You spend so much time practicing together that it’s easy to become really close with your stand partner (the person sitting next to you. You two share a stand which holds your sheet music).
For me personally, I had a lot of buddies from orchestra during high school. I even met my high school crush during orchestra, since we were stand partners and I would spend all of orchestra class flirting with her. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t keep in touch with any of them anymore (this is probably more my fault, since I’m an introvert at heart, and I’m also halfway across the world), but there wasn’t really anything connecting most of us other than music. We all just drifted apart and went our separate ways.
I won’t go so far as to say I regret playing violin.
But if I had to do it over again, I would probably put less time into violin, and more time into things that I still do now, such as playing basketball, or working out.
Celine made a good point, that maybe if I had spent all this time playing basketball, I would have gotten sick of basketball and given that up as well. Who knows. All I know is that if my kid really wants to play a musical instrument, I’ll let him/her try it and see if they like it. But I certainly won’t force them to play it.