Hands barely spanning an octave to compete

Ma Yue
Piano is the favored instrument for parents who want their offspring to have musical education in China. But is rote learning really an expression of the soul of piano playing?
Ma Yue

About 80 percent of children in the world learning to play piano live in China, according to an estimate from the Chinese Musicians’ Association. The keyboard is the favored instrument for parents who want their offspring to have musical education.

Most young students take piano exams that determine skill up to a proficiency level of 10. The grading exams have set pieces that define what must be played. Overzealous parents often push their children to spend hours practicing out of a belief that music certificates will help them gain admission to the best schools.

But is such rote learning really an expression of the soul of piano playing? Some think not.

The U-Play Youth Piano Competition is a contest with a difference for non-professional pianists. According to Wang Fan, founder of organizer Fiiwa Education, U-Play is more than a competition.

Hands barely spanning an octave to compete

“The contestants will also receive professional guidance from pianists and music experts,” said Wang, noting that the organizer wants to create a beneficial experience for all entrants, even those who don’t advance to the finals.

“After the preliminary round of selection, participants will be invited to sign up for online lessons with professional pianists, who will help them improve basic skills,” said Wang. “Also, participants will be paired and take part in one-on-one or five-on-five online challenges, both for fun and practice. Children’s motivation for self-improvement often gets stimulated by competitions.”

A regional selection process will narrow the competition down to the best players. Because of restrictions related to the coronavirus epidemic, the competition will conduct its preliminary round online this year.

Piano students 25 years and younger can upload a practice video to the organizer’s app starting next Friday. Regional finals will be held from November 10 to December 5, and the final will take place in Shanghai from December 10 to 13.

More than 1,000 children from around the country took part in the competition last year, with 63 advancing to the finals.

Hands barely spanning an octave to compete
Ti Gong

The U-Play Youth Piano Competition is designed to stimulate children’s motivation for improving their skills on the keyboard.

The 20-member panel of judges includes Denis Pascal, professor of the French Academy of Music; Hugues Leclere, a French pianist and educator; and domestic piano educators like Sheng Yiqi and Fang Baili.

Some panel members will record teaching videos for the competition’s online platform, offering tips to competitors.

Many of the estimated 30-plus million Chinese learning to play piano don’t continue after they have achieved the upper levels of grade certificates. The long hours of practice they are often forced to endure simply destroy interest in the keyboard.

Unlike certificate-grade exams with their well-publicized required piano works, the U-Play Youth Piano Competition unveils the selection contents of its final only two or three weeks in advance. Some of them are the latest works by domestic composers.

“Some piano students would practice only a particular etude to win a competition, which is hardly our purpose,” said Wang. “One of our contest sections shows competitors a picture and asks them to describe it with music, which requires a more comprehensive ability on the piano.”

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