Unlocking music appreciation with 88 keys

Lu Feiran
There are more than 30 million fledgling Mozarts taking piano lessons in China. The keyboard is the favored musical training for parents who want children to learn an instrument.
Lu Feiran

Zhang Qing bought an 80,000 yuan (US$11,272) piano for her 11-year-old son eight years ago, when his fingers were too short to stretch over even half an octave.

“I heard that three is the best age to start playing piano,” said Zhang. “That’s the age Mozart began to play. I believe it’s the best way to nurture a child’s intelligence and taste in art.”

By some estimates there are more than 30 million fledgling Mozarts, like her son Zhou Juechen, taking piano lessons in China.

The keyboard seems to be the favored musical training for parents who want children to learn an instrument. The Chinese Musicians’ Association estimates that 80 percent of children in the world learning to play piano live in China.

Young Zhou, who has been taking piano lessons for eight years now, barely remembers his early days on the keyboard. His teacher initially taught his mother the notes because he couldn’t read sheet music. In fact, he could barely play the keys for the tedious finger exercises all beginning piano students have to endure.

By the time Zhou entered primary school, his mother switched from outside classes to a private teacher who came to the home.

Like most other piano students in China, Zhou participated in grading examinations. He finally acquired a Grade 8 certificate, which means he could play “The Art of Finger Dexterity,” by Austrian Carl Czerny (1791-1857), a pupil of Beethoven’s who is perhaps best remembered today for books of piano exercises used by almost every piano student.

With Grade 8 done and dusted, what’s next for Zhou?

First there is practice toward the challenging Grade 10 examination, which means tackling and mastering some of Chopin’s etudes. And then perhaps a bit of fun on the side.

“I might want to play some songs I love instead of the music my teacher assigns me,” he said.

At least Zhou is still playing piano. So many young people pushed to learn the piano by parents never go near a keyboard again after obtaining their Grade 10 certificates. The high initial investment results only in a piece of paper worthy of passing mention on a resume.

According to a report issued by Kuaipeilian, a major online music-teaching platform in China, a family spends between 20,000 and 150,000 yuan to buy a piano. A one-hour piano lesson costs between 150 and 1,000 yuan. A Grade 10 certificate requires about six years of practice and 60 class hours a year.

Still, piano fever persists. In 2014, according to the Chinese Musicians’ Association, nearly 80 percent of the 480,000 pianos made in the world were sold in China, and most buyers were families, rather than schools or other institutions. In addition, China has become the world’s biggest manufacturer of pianos.

Playing piano is not new to China. It can be traced back to the mid-to-late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) but didn’t come into its own until the early 1900s. Even then, playing piano was still a “noble” activity because years of warfare had left common people without the money or time to cultivate what was considered a “luxury” pastime.

In the 1930s, the island of Gulangyu in the southeastern city of Xiamen became a mecca of piano virtuosity, with more than 100 musical families living in less than a 2-square-kilometer area. The island attracted famous musicians from both China and overseas, and visitors marveled at the melodic sounds filling the streets of the pedestrian-only island. Today, little has changed. Dubbed the “island of music” by the musicians’ association in 2002, Gulangyu hosts the only piano museum in China.

The origins of the more modern piano fever in China began around 1980, with the extreme popularity of French pianist Richard Clayderman. He has released numerous albums of adapted popular music and easy-listening popular renditions of classical works. In China, he came to be known as the “piano prince.”

As a result, piano education mushroomed in big cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing.

“That was a time that families of better means had their children learn to play piano,” said Xu Beiying.

“I signed up my daughter for piano lessons, but in the end, it was me who fell for the instrument.”

Xu says her daughter quit the piano long ago, but she persevered and eventually became a mentor to piano students after she retired.

“I often reflect on why I wanted my daughter to play piano,” she said. “Like many other parents, I wanted her to have some ‘specialty’ that might help her in the future. But I failed to grasp at the time that she had no interest in playing piano.”

Xu said she doesn’t want to teach children whose parents are aiming only for the grade certificates.

“To be honest, it is very, very boring to practice designated pieces repeatedly,” she said. “I can understand why anyone might lose interest and why some kids never touch the piano again after passing the examinations.”

Still, Xu said she believes musical training is good for children to instill in them an appreciation of the arts. It doesn’t have to be the piano. Other instruments, such as the ukulele and guzheng, a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument, are actively searched online.

“With the popularity of the Internet and mobile devices, children and their parents have broader minds and more choices than we did 30 years ago,” Xu said. “Maybe one day the piano fever will subside.”

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