Music education, David Cameron and the ‘Tiger Mother’

David Cameron’s first speech this year introduced what he called a ‘social approach’ to poverty, announcing, among other measures, more money for couples’ counselling (£35 million) and an expansion of the ‘Troubled Families’ programme, including parenting classes. The part of the speech I want to focus on in this blog post is the section on education, in which Cameron started by defending a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ before moving on to ‘character’ education. He argues that ‘[c]haracter – persistence – is core to success’, and suggests that in the past this has been ‘the preserve of the most elite schools‘ but now he wants ‘to spread this to everyone.

The drive for schools to teach ‘character’ has been embedded in the Department for Education for some time, for example with a £5 million fund last year for awards for character programmes in schools. This drive is also coming from outside government, with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues established at University of Birmingham in 2012, with influence and endorsement from US abstinence promoter Thomas Lickona. Even centre-left thinktank Demos have jumped on the bandwagon and authored two reports, the most recent co-written with the Jubilee Centre.

My colleague Kim Allen and I are organising an academic conference on 11th July at King’s College London to explore some of the implications of this development – watch this space for the call for papers coming very soon (and booking will open in late April). There’s one particular aspect of Cameron’s speech that I want to focus on today. This was his statement that character ‘is what the Tiger Mother’s battle hymn is all about: work, try hard, believe you can succeed, get up and try again.‘ This is a reference to the book that became a global talking-point when it was published in 2011, Amy Chua’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’.

Chua’s book is an account of what she calls her ‘Chinese parenting’ of her two daughters, raised in the US with her Jewish husband. Notably, music education, even more than academic achievement, is the tool she uses to implement her famous ‘tiger parent’ strategy of pushing her daughters to work hard and never fail. And of course, when I say music education in this context I mean classical music education. Her eldest daughter plays the piano and her younger daughter violin. Not only that, but they learn through the Suzuki method, a mode of music education which, despite being devised in 1950s Japan as a model of citizenship education (Yoshihara, 2008), has been exported to the US and Australasia and become an key tool for middle-class intensive parenting.

I learned piano and cello through the Suzuki method myself, and credit it for my excellent skills in playing by ear (as pupils learn without music for the first few years), as well as my uncanny ability to play the piano while thinking about something entirely unrelated (a result of the repetitive drilling of repertoire that Suzuki relies on). What’s particularly interesting about Suzuki is that it requires a parent – in practice, usually the mother (Yoshihara 2008) – to learn the instrument alongside the child, to attend all lessons and supervise daily practice. This is not promoted in the interests of parent-child bonding, nor to allow the parent to develop their musicality as well, but because it is seen as the best way of supporting the child’s musical progression. I’d love to see some research into middle-class parenting and Suzuki – I haven’t come across any, and my theory is that the Suzuki method forms a prototype for ‘intensive parenting’ whereby the parent invests high levels of resources – time, effort, money – into developing the child for the adult they will become, rather than for the child they are now (Lareau 2011).

The ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ is an important book in this context because it shows the link between classical music education, middle-class ‘intensive parenting’, and David Cameron’s worldview that ‘character’ will lead to success. The link between Chua’s and Cameron’s ideas is very clear. Chua’s invocation of ‘bad families’ in the book (eg. p. 180) is a less subtle statement of Cameron’s ‘Troubled Families’ rhetoric and policy. Chua’s book also has a relentless stream of Cameron-esque material about the importance of hard work. However, Chua goes places with this that Cameron would never dare; her panegyrics to hard work are mixed in with assumptions about classical music as leading to ‘cultivation’, refinement and depth. Chua writes about wanting to ‘make sure that Sophia and Lulu [her daughters] were deeper and more cultivated than my parents and I were. Classical music was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.’ (p.22). She describes how for her, the violin ‘symbolized excellence, refinement, and depth – the opposite of shopping malls, megasized Cokes, teenage clothes, and crass consumerism‘ (p. 207). While she writes with pride about her Chinese ancestors’ ‘high cultural tradition’, this appears to come within a hierarchical understanding of the superiority of Western/European culture: ‘[The violin] symbolized history. The Chinese never achieved the heights of Western classical music, but high traditional music is deeply entwined with Chinese civilization‘ (p. 208). The common theme here is ‘civilization’ – Chinese culture has it, but European culture has more. Her aspiration for her children to learn from the best classical music teachers and to win all the competitions they enter is tied up with this understanding of classical music as symbolising the heights of what it means to be European. This is also a classed understanding; it is about joining the Western bourgeoisie or upper-middle class, and reproduces discourses about the ‘masses’ as lacking this aesthetic judgement or restraint.

For Chua, these attitudes are intertwined with qualities that have been documented in empirical studies of parenting as being associated with middle-class parenting, for example prioritising the future adult over the present child, and prioritising individual achievement over close family ties (eg Lareau 2011). Chua describes how she ‘often said to the girls, “My goal as a parent is to prepare you for the future – not to make you like me”’ (p.49). This encapsulates the ethos of ‘intensive parenting’ pithily and perfectly. Classical music education fits with this ethos because both the instruments and the repertoire are extremely difficult, particularly the more prestigious instruments such as the violin. All of the hours of work (and Chua describes six hours practice a day as a routine occurrence) are about investing in a future self, rather than for the pleasure of enjoying music and the ways of being social that it brings about in the present.

Another striking similarity between middle-class identity and classical music education is encapsulated in Chua’s repeated statement in the book that ‘I like authority figures. I like experts.‘ (p. 123). She appreciates being able to defer to the expertise of the prestigious teachers who she takes her daughters to, and when they judge her daughters as being truly talented, she revels in their judgements. Of course, aesthetic judgements of excellence are always about more than just the aesthetic, as much sociological literature has explored (a great recent example is Lisa McCormick’s book on classical music competitions, which describes the ways in which aesthetic judgements on the basis of appropriate appearance among other unspoken rules help to constitute a winning performance (McCormick 2015)). However, expertise and authority are always consecrated and given their power by existing institutions, and it is those in positions of power in society who also run most institutions. For Chua, ‘the violin symbolized respect for hierarchy, standards, and expertise.‘ (p. 208). This is the voice of someone who is doing pretty well out of hierarchy and expertise. No wonder she wants to invest further in it.

Finally, the emphasis on competitive individualism is common to David Cameron’s character education, intensive parenting, and classical music education as described by Chua. She argues that the Chinese parenting approach is weakest when it comes to failure; it just doesn’t tolerate that possibility. The Chinese model turns on achieving success. That’s how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated.’ Her daughters enter endless classical music competitions and always seem to win them, in her narrative. Similarly, Cameron emphasises the importance of competition in his speech, and suggested more sport as a way towards this goal. He sees competition as ‘the precise opposite of an ‘all must have prizes’ culture that permeated our schools under the last government. The link with intensive parenting is through individual achievement, which feeds easily into a competitive ethos.

How far should teachers and parents go in order to achieve this success? When does pushing your child or pupil become emotional or physical abuse? In a speech by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey last year, he talks about the teacher in the recent film Whiplash:

‘For my part, I tried to learn the drums as a child. Disappointingly for me, but possibly to the enormous relief of our neighbours, the drums and I didn’t get along. Why? To be honest I can’t remember, but I confess that I felt a pang of recognition when I saw the film ‘Whiplash’ a couple of weeks ago. Have you seen it? It tells the story of a talented young drum student, Andrew Weiman, whose talent secures him a place at a prestigious music academy. His teacher, the frankly psychopathic Terence Fletcher has very high standards indeed. Standards that he imposes with a ferocity that includes hurling a chair at the unfortunate Andrew when he loses the tempo, and any number of other ‘motivational’ inducements. Perhaps it was the absence of a Terrence Fletcher in my life that stalled my progress. Thankfully, I’ll never know.

What’s odd about this extract is Vaizey’s recognition that Fletcher, the teacher, is a psychopath, but also his apparent acceptance of such methods as necessary to reach the ‘standards’ that the Tory government appear to hold dear. My colleague Ian Pace makes the link between the ideals represented in this film and the culture of abuse that has been exposed in many classical music education institutions over recent decades. Similarly, Amy Chua’s daughter Lulu points out the dangers of the ‘Tiger Parenting’ approach, saying ‘I know too many kids who have cracked’ under this kind of pressure.

The problem with the emphasis on ‘character’ education, and the ideals of classical music education and middle-class ‘intensive parenting’ that feed into it, is that it they locate the problem and the solutions in the individual, their behaviour and their culture, rather than the structures. In line with the individualizing nature of educational and social strategies aimed at working-class children and families, such interventions involve a displacement and negation of broader social structural problems such as high levels of inequality, a stratified education system, and low pay and insecure labour conditions for working-class people. They ignore the material inequalities that lead to a ‘class ceiling’ in the job market, as Sam Friedman and his colleagues (2015) describes it, whereby it is much harder for working-class young people to get into professional jobs. The lesson that working-class young people learn is, in the words of one young woman in Kim Allen’s research, who graduated with a first-class degree but has still been unable to find stable work, ‘I’m learning that effort doesn’t always equal the result’ (2015, p. 9). Hard work and effort are much more likely to lead to rewards if you are already privileged in the first place. This is the truth that new policies around ‘character’ education are designed to conceal.


Allen, Kim. 2015. ‘Top Girls Navigating Austere Times: Interrogating Youth Transitions since the “crisis”’. Journal of Youth Studies 0 (0): 1–16. doi:10.1080/13676261.2015.1112885.

Chua, Amy. 2012. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks.

Friedman, Sam, Daniel Laurison, and Andrew Miles. 2015. ‘Breaking the “class” Ceiling? Social Mobility into Britain’s Elite Occupations’. The Sociological Review 63 (2): 259–89. doi:10.1111/1467-954X.12283.

Lareau, Annette. 2011. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. 2nd ed., with an update a decade later. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McCormick, Lisa. 2015. Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yoshihara, Mari. 2008. Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Music education, David Cameron and the ‘Tiger Mother’

6 thoughts on “Music education, David Cameron and the ‘Tiger Mother’

  1. corrinaconnor says:

    Very good post, thank you! I think research into parenting and Suzuki lessons would be fascinating, and very revealing. What you say, insofar as it being a means of intensive parenting, is especially interesting. From my perspective, as a teacher and as a student, this can go both ways: there are people who certainly use ‘Suzuki’ as a status symbol, not only because of the prestige associated with their children learning an instrument, but also because of what it says about them as parents. From my own experience, and that of some colleagues, it’s often the case that these parents are about as far from the Tiger Mother model as it’s possible to be, in some ways. They want the achievement, but they don’t want to put in the work themselves. This – or so it seems to me – is as potentially damaging to the child as having an ultra-Tiger Mother who is always there, always pushing. And why? Because learning Suzuki repertoire and the technique required for it (especially for strings – I can’t comment on other instruments) is very dependent on having parental involvement, as it’s much more demanding in the early stages, than, for example, Fiddle Time. So, the child whose parent operates on the helicopter system, can suffer the experience of not ‘advancing’ or improving. In an education system where there are frequent group lessons (either in their teacher’s studio, or in a group of studios) as well as workshops and other events, the child who is doing incorrect bowing, who has learnt wrong notes, etc, will be discouraged. Certainly the feeling of being out of place or inadequate is one that has stuck with an acquaintance of mine who was in this situation: her parents did not participate in her practice enough, and so these ‘mistakes’ crept in. It’s almost the exact opposite of ‘investing’ in the future of the child.It’s as bewildering as the constant pressure to ‘advance’ from a Tiger Parent, and the resultant ‘cracking’.

    Anyway, that’s very long and rambling comment, which I hope showed my agreement with you! In the current climate, your statement that ‘Hard work and effort are much more likely to lead to rewards if you are already privileged in the first place. This is the truth that new policies around ‘character’ education are designed to conceal.’ is more true in the arts than in any other field.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this Corrina! Very interesting to hear about the problems with the opposite of the Tiger Mother as well. Would you say that in this situation it is possible for the teacher to mitigate this effect of being out of place because of doing it wrong? i.e. if the teacher minimises correction or is careful about how they do it in the group? Or is this just an inevitable effect of pupils all doing the same thing, and the group effect that this brings about?


      1. corrinaconnor says:

        Sorry to have missed your reply! I believe that the teacher can certainly mitigate the effects, with tact and discretion. And, I also believe that every situation, no matter negative it may initially seem, can be turned into a positive. If a child is upset about not knowing correct bowing, for example, we can decide that always doing the ‘correct’ bowing will be a priority for the next lessons, and reward good bowing etc. I also like to talk about the fact even in orchestras, as a teenager or adult, correct bowing is important, and a crucial part of being in a musical ‘team’. Obviously if the child is not getting the parental support they need, actual criticism won’t do any good at all. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

        In fact, a pupil attended one of the Philharmonia’s education concerts at the SouthBank recently, and his first comment was ‘All their bows went the same way!’ I think that the team metaphor really helped him, and it’s a way of dealing with the problem that invokes esprit de corps, rather than a disciplinarian demand for uniformity.


  2. Nora says:

    I think you have completely misunderstood character education. Please read more about character education before critisising it! And, as a Suzuki mum, I believe that Suzuki method has promoted parent-child bonding and developed my musicality.


    1. Thanks for your comment Nora. I agree that Suzuki can certainly promote parent-child bonding and develop parents’ as well as pupils’ musicality. And at our conference in July we will be examining the ways character education might be implemented in a different way to how it is currently being done, so maybe that will be of interest to you. But do tell me how you think I’ve misunderstood it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s