Didi Kirsten Tatlow is living in China, where her daughter is in second grade. When the music teacher told them, “We’ve chosen your children according to their physical attributes,” she considered it eugenics for music:
Teacher Wang proceeded to describe a program by which a group of 8-year-olds, selected purely on the basis of physical characteristics rather than interest, would build the best band in the world that would travel overseas and wow audiences with the flower of Chinese youth.
“For the best band, we’ve chosen the best students and the best teachers,” Teacher Wang continued.
Mr. Wang, whom parents addressed only as “Teacher,” (a sign of respect common here) stood before a giant white screen on which he projected a power point full of instrument images. “I’ve chosen your kids, one by one, out of a thousand kids.” Mr. Wang was referring to band C, the third in the school which trained the youngest students, some of whom would eventually rise through the ranks to band B and on to A, at which point they would perform at overseas gigs.
“I’ve looked at their teeth, at their arms, their height, everything, very carefully,” Teacher Wang said. “We don’t want anyone with asthma, or heart problems, or eye problems. And we want the smart kids; the quick learners.”
“Your kids were chosen not because they want to play this or that instrument, but because they have long arms, or the right lips, or are the right height, say for the trumpet, or the drums,” he said.
Two other non-Chinese, 8-year-old friends of my daughter were among the chosen. The Italian mother of one said her daughter had been chosen for saxophone because the girl was strongly built.
“The other girl playing the sax is a Russian, and she’s also pretty built up and strong,” said my friend. (I have omitted their names out of respect for their privacy and that of their children.)
My friend recalled that some of the parents had asked Teacher Wang why he was choosing children in grade 2 now, rather than earlier when they were in grade 1. Teacher Wang’s reply: “Because in grade 1 their teeth are falling out,” she said. My friend said that Teacher Wang had personally inspected each child’s teeth, as if, she said, “they were horses in the market.”
There was discussion of what kind of lips worked best for the trumpet.
And in a statement that shocked both of us profoundly, Teacher Wang said something about how Africans had long arms and so would be good at particular instruments, such as the cello.
The American father of the third girl said a dentist had visited the school to see which students’ teeth were best suited to play wind instruments. His daughter, braces-free, passed and is learning to play the clarinet.
My daughter, who has some wonky teeth and braces, is a drummer. Apart from the teeth, I can see why; she has the mad energy of Animal in The Muppets and loves what the Chinese call “renao,” or “hot noise,” excitement.
Next thing you know, they’ll start recruiting the tall kids for the basketball team and the tough kids for the wrestling team. Crazy!