Memories of Music Lessons – Amy Tan’s short story, “Two Kinds”

For my next read in my Short Story reading project, I drew the eight of hearts.  The hearts suit is supposed to represent favorites that I’ve already read.  How did I decide on them?  Well, I always asterisk my favorite stories in anthologies and this one had an asterisk…  🙂

I guess this is actually the third time that I’ve read this story. It resides in one of my favorite anthologies, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories – edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which I received as a Christmas present in 1993.  I read this particular story for the first time in 1994.  Then, in October of 2007, my book club chose The Joy Luck Club to read, and this story is one of the interrelated stories contained therein.

**Note: This post contains SPOILERS, read no further if you want to first read this short story**
The story deals primarily with, as Joyce Carol Oates puts it, “a complex emotional relationship between a Chinese-born mother with a strong personality and her American-born daughter.”  That actually sounds a little boring.  For me, it brought back personal memories of my own childhood, when I was “coerced” into learning a musical instrument (violin in my case, piano in the case of this story).

The early part of the story explains how the mother is always on the lookout for stories about “remarkable children” in hopes of finding some field where the daughter will become a prodigy. At some point, when watching a young Chinese girl perform on the piano on the Ed Sullivan show, that medium becomes the latest route to prodigious-ness for the daughter.  Meaning well, the mother hires a fellow resident in their apartment building, one Mr. Chong, to give her daughter piano lessons. Sadly, Mr. Chong is deaf (“Like Beethoven!” he proudly says) and the daughter’s lessons suffer accordingly.  Her initial attempts are wonderfully described as “…some nonsense that sounded like a cat running up and down on top of garbage cans.”

(below: Author Amy Tan seated at the piano in ‘happier days’)

Things come to a climax when the unwilling student performs at a talent show. Confident with an inflated sense of her own skill – thanks in a large part to having a deaf teacher – she performs miserably, embarrassing her parents.  The daughter, relieved it’s over, thinks that at least that she would never have to play the piano again, but her mother – at the next ’regularly scheduled practice time – tells her to “turn off tv” and practice.  The daughter makes a stand and it “gets ugly,” with her saying cruel things to her mother relating how “as I said these things I got scared. It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of my chest, but it also felt good, as if this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.”  How many times has this parent-child confrontation taken place throughout history, and how many forms has it taken?  Great story, probably almost universally relate-able among readers.

How does this relate to my personal memories of music lessons?  Well, I’ll put that part below the fold if anyone cares to read on…

I don’t remember exactly when I started the violin, but it was likely as young as the third grade.  One odd thing about violins (maybe this is true for other instruments as well and I just am not aware of it) is that there are smaller versions of them for young musicians.  I think there are ¼ size, ½ size, and ¾ size in addition to the regular, adult instrument.  As you grew, you graduated to a larger-sized instrument.

I honestly have no memory of choosing/agreeing to learn the violin.  Knowing my parents, it may have been presented to me as if it were a choice, but strongly encouraged.  I probably thought, “Sure, I’ll learn that. Big deal.”  It’d be a break from the boring routine of class if nothing else.  Plus I picked it up fairly quickly.  Four strings, a bow, a scale of notes, sharps and flats, positions for the fingers.  It all felt pretty finite and learnable, or even master-able.  I was good at math and logical stuff like that.  I even excelled enough to become “concertmaster” of the city’s “All-City Junior High Orchestra.” (Likely not a highly sought-after post with lots of competition.)

(below: a small violin with tape around the fingerboard making some basic positions; I remember my early instruments looked like this for awhile)

There were also private lessons (Monday nights at the house of a somewhat humorless “Mrs. Denk”) and later my little brother was even recruited and played for many years as well.  I still remember sitting in the family station wagon during my brother’s turn at the lesson, listening to the car radio to the pre-game broadcast for Monday Night Football.  Now THAT was something that, as a young boy, I really WAS interested in.  Later, my parents also looked into buying a violin for me and eventually did, making it harder for me to “quit” something I didn’t particularly like.  After all, that was a big investment for them at the time.

Somehow, I dealt with the “nerd stigma” of carrying around my violin on certain days in high school, but I eventually stopped playing my freshman year in college.  I have no memory of enjoying it that much, ever.  Maybe I enjoyed becoming somewhat skilled at something, and being recognized publicly for that, but I was not a natural music lover.  What I learned of music in the years that I played, however, probably did greatly contribute to how much I enjoy listening to music created and performed by others, though, so I did get something out of the experience.  I marvel today that my parents were unaware (were they?) that I had no particular love for playing.  Perhaps they assumed that to have the level of “talent” that I had was not possible if I was just mechanically playing; I don’t know.  And maybe they offered me the chance to stop but I honestly can’t remember if they did or not.

The scene of the recital in this short story reminded me of one similar “embarrassing” experience – for my Mom at least.  At one performance, I was wearing some new, hard-soled shoes and, as often happens when one plays, was tapping out the beat of the piece with my foot.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, a combination of the hard-soled shoes and the old, resonantly sonorous floorboards of wooden stage on which we were performing led to make the tapping clearly audible and distracting throughout the performance.  My Mom told me afterward about it, and I can picture even today how she must’ve suffered through that performance in embarrassment.

My years of playing were not quite as painful as Tan’s character’s “hell,” (when the daughter learns that she was to have weekly piano lessons and practice every day, two hours a day she “felt as though she had been sent to hell.”) but I do not have many fond memories of them.

What musical instruments have my fellow bloggers dabbled in?  Should we form a band? (Amy Tan is actually one of several authors in a band that also features Stephen King; he writes about it in his book, On Writing)


  1. Melody said,

    September 27, 2011 at 9:10 am

    I started piano lessons in third grade, but that was my own choice. Actually, I begged my parents until they caved. 🙂

    Amy Tan and Stephen King in a band, huh? I don’t remember that in On Writing…maybe I need to reread it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jay said,

      September 27, 2011 at 10:38 am

      Maybe it was in Danse Macabre, but I definitely remember reading him discussing that. THere are other “famous” authors in the band too. Now my curiosity is piqued again too… activating research mode… 🙂


  2. Alex said,

    September 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    I skipped the review because of the spoilers, thanks for letting us know. I know The Joy Luck Club is everyone’s favorite by Tan, but I fell completely in love with The Kitchen God’s Wife. have you read it?


    • Jay said,

      September 28, 2011 at 6:16 am

      Hi Alex,
      I’ve heard of that title but never read it. I do want to read more by her though. I think she is one of the best.


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