China’s ‘Piano craze’

Piano learning in the context of schooling during China’s ‘Piano craze’ and beyond: Motivations and pathways.

A new article outlining the ways in which pursing piano lessons in China has landed in my search list. This is an interesting article for a number of reasons. The thing which grabbed my attention was the fact that learning the piano has many benefits going beyond the musical and academic. Furthermore, at many stages in learning the piano we have had to make tough decisions on whether to continue or not, often based around how much success we think we will have if we pursue piano lessons into the future.

I have never been to China and I would love to travel there someday. The culture is fascinating and the approach, application, and dedication to education in schools and universities can be enlightening for some. In my music teaching career I have seen many Chinese piano students who at such a young age are so proficient and capable at the piano, that sometimes it defies belief.

This article resonated with me as it articulates what many suspect but also adds to much I don’t know about the choices piano students have to make when thinking about their future.

Piano popularity on the rise in China

The location of this research is China. China during the 1980’s and 1990’s witnessed a popularity in learning the piano never seen before. This popularity continues to grow to a point where it is estimated that 40 million chidden in China learn the piano. The piano is considered a highly esteemed instrument in China. The motivation to learn the piano during this craze is interesting and it allows for us to understand that many motivations behind pursing piano lessons and the pathways arising from the study of piano.

The researcher undertook a large amount of fieldwork (interviews) for this study consisting of young and older piano students, music teachers, hobby pianists, and parents of children learning the piano.

Turning Points

Turning points were identified as to why a piano studentchooses to continue with lessons and there are several. The first is the initial decision to learn the piano (often at a young age). The next turning point is at the transition from primary school to high school. The third turning point is the time of moving from high school to university. The final turning point is after university and choosing to pursue a professional career involving the piano.

Schools in China are typically of three types: academic track, arts schools, and vocational schools. Academic schools require competitive entry to continue on. This creates time pressures for piano students who want to go to a good academic school. A decision is required either to put time and energy into the competitive entry to the good academic school or to continue with the time and effort for piano practice. The pursuit of piano lessons and education typically falls by the wayside when presented with pursing an academic track education.

In contrast, Arts track middle and high schools typically do not require competitive entry to students already within the arts school system, so time pressures are not as intense. These school typically devote more time to arts pursuits and students in these school continue to learn the piano and need not make the decision to continue or not.

Chinese universities also require competitive entry and so again, pianists have to make a decision whether to continue with lessons at this point or devote their time to university entrance exams if intending to pursue a bachelor’s degree unrelated to piano and music.

The Chinese education system requires students to consider their pathways early on to ensure they ‘fit’ or meet the requirements for each stage of the education system. This requires a difficult choice for those who want to pursue piano but also obtain a place at good academic schools and universities, when thinking about their futures.

Piano motivations

Piano was often cited as a good instrument to learn as it has several perceived advantages over other instruments. Some of these perceived advantages include its rich sound, Chinese people also consider it the king of instrumentswhich makes it so popular to learn.

Piano is also considered relatively easy to learn in the initial stages over that of say string instruments, which can take a lot more time to develop good intonation and tone colour. The piano can produce a good sound easily and this is motivating for young learners. Obviously the piano can be exceedingly difficult to learn at higher levels but it’s a good beginner instrument.

The piano also offers a good place to start in understanding musical and theoretical concepts such as harmony and developing good music reading skills due to the necessity of learning to read treble and bass clefs.

Parental influence

Parents have a lot of influence in the educational achievement and motivations of their children. Parents believe that the piano has many educational benefits for their children via the study of Western Classical music as they believe it will foster intelligence and therefore benefit their children in the future. In some instances, the cultural practice of Chinese parents is to choose their child’s futures and therefore can push their children into certain musical and academic pathways as a way of securing a good future for their child. Some children have a natural curiosity in learning to play the piano for their own enjoyment and parents will support this. Overall, at the primary school stages the piano is seen as a good hobby to pursue rather than a career path.

Societal influences

Chinese culture encourages people to work hard and be determined. It is believed that educational success is the best way forward in terms of social mobility. Parents are heavily invested in their child’s education for these very reasons. The pursuit of extra curricular studies in China is important and considered a key aspect of success. After-school piano lessons are common, as well as other artistic and academic pursuits. There is a sense of needing to keep up with others less a child falls behind in their improving their arts and academic skills.

The amateur grading tests

These piano grading exams are popular amongst the hobbyist piano student. It also provides a context for comparison with other children learning the piano. It is common for children to take these tests and to achieve the highest grades and best results possible. Some parents see this as important for their children to take these tests. Interestingly, other parents see the tests as wasteful as the same pieces are practiced over and over in order to perfect them for the examination, where many more pieces could be learned to broaden repertoire knowledge. The grading tests are a reference for parents to see how their child is improving.

Middle school and making a decision about piano

It is during middle school that an important decision regarding the pursuit of the piano is made. Whether the piano will be pursued as a career path or to continue as a hobby. Serious piano students need to decide if it is to be a career path and to go to a music special school and devote the time to practise and achieve at even higher levels.

Students who choose to commit to their piano studies are passionate about their instrument but also consider it as a carer decision which will provide adequate income and opportunities and flexibility, not necessarily as a performer but also consider the idea of going into teaching as a piano teacher.

It is also considered a way of escaping the extremely competitive and rigorous educational system of academic track schools which requires long days of academic study before, during, and after school. Professional arts schools allow academic time for practice, which would be difficult to do in an academic track school. The arts schools, although pursing academic subjects, hav more time devoted to the arts areas which allow for the practical development of students in their chosen pursuit.

However, choosing piano as a possible career comes with a risk. Going to an arts school can lock a student out of an academic career and university studies such as engineering, medicine and the like. Therefore, the decision to choose to pursue piano during middle school is actually a very big decision. Some believe that pursing piano as a career may not lead to a stale job or income. Piano requires a huge time investment and the rewards for similar amounts of time investment into studies may be better such as engineering or medicine.

High school decisions

Attending university is important and improves ones chances of getting a good job and elevate one’s social standing. It is during high school that students prepare for this exam. It is at this point the piano hobby may turn into a career and a decision needs to be made.

Some students who at this stage were aiming to pursuing an academic career and head for university see that maybe they wont get the university entrance mark they need and decide to pursue piano as a career instead were the university entrance mark requirements are lower. This lower requirement encourages many to pursue an arts-related university course when not academically strong enough to go to an academic university. Studying arts can still get a student into a top university albeit with a lower entrance mark required.

The cost of this path is that it is expensive to pursue many years of piano instruction. Also to prepare for the University Arts Entrance Examination is costly where an audition is required for each arts course. Whatever the decision, piano students who at this stage decide to pursue a career in the arts have already begin to consider career pluses and minuses and how their future may plan out.

Studying abroad

Some Chinese students choose to study music abroad in western countries and studying overseas offers many advantages and opportunities not available in China. However, it is also very expensive and stressful to study internationally. Classes in an unfamiliar language, few social connections, and enormous tuition fees are some of the difficulties to overcome. At the end of overseas study, many students end up going back to China for work as establishing connections and job opportunities can be difficult in a foreign country.

After graduation

After graduation, most piano students become teachers. There is no visible or for most, a viable performance career path. Teaching is a viable path due to the fact that piano lessons are a huge industry in China. The popularity of the piano has created a strong piano lesson demand and supply market, although there seems to be few avenues to pursue outside of this piano lessons and teaching cycle.

Although a satisfying pursuit for those interested in music and the piano repertoire, career satisfaction and employment opportunities may not meet expectations. Although this research surrounds piano lessons in China, the lack of career pathways may be a common theme worldwide.

© iteachpiano 2021

Bai, B. (2021, Articles In Press – 2021). Piano learning in the context of schooling during China’s ‘Piano craze’ and beyond: motivations and pathways. Music Education Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/14613808.2021.1929139 

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