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Why piano-mania grips China’s children

A group of young Chinese pianists take part in an outdoor recital involving160 pianos

(AFP/Getty Images)

In Mao’s China, pianos were destroyed as despised symbols of the bourgeoisie – but now an estimated 40m children are learning the instrument. What has changed? Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore investigates.

Keng Zhou holds a prestigious position as dean of the International Piano Academy at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. But he first learnt to play in 1973 not on a gleaming grand piano but on an instrument’s battered remains. The legs had been sawn off for fuel and its cover removed to create a makeshift table. For years in Mao’s China, Western classical music was viewed suspiciously as a tool of imperialism and the piano a despised instrument of the bourgeoisie.

Like many intellectuals of the era, Keng’s father – a pastor who was given his piano by an American – was sent to the countryside to perform back-breaking work with the peasants. When he returned to the city he wanted to bring music back into his children’s lives. “My father said it is better to learn one instrument: my sister took vocal lessons, my father took violin lessons, and I took the piano,” remembers Keng, now 51. There was just one problem: during the Cultural Revolution many Western scores had been destroyed. Unperturbed, Keng’s father borrowed some surviving sheets from a friend. “He copied them by hand – one piece took him a week to do.”

Four decades later and times have changed. Today China is experiencing piano frenzy with an estimated 40m children now learning to play. The instrument is increasingly in vogue among China’s burgeoning middle classes, who have the money to splurge on steep lessons and expensive fixtures. Spurring them on is the phenomenal success of the Chinese superstar concert pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi, the latter of whom is currently on a 30-city sell-out tour of his homeland. Tickets for the Beijing leg were snapped up within minutes. “So many parents say: ‘I didn’t have a chance to play but my kids need to play piano,’” observes Keng. “Now it is easier for people – now you just need to be able to afford it.”

While the European market for pianos is shrinking, China’s is booming. It is now both the world’s largest piano producer and consumer, with the country accounting for 76.9% of the global piano output in 2012 alone, according to market analysts ResearchMoz. But China is not just making pianos. It is also buying them. For many owning a Steinway, the Rolls-Royce of pianos, is a status symbol. Displaying a grand piano in the living room projects not only culture and learning but also wealth: only the largest homes can accommodate them. Prices can also veer into the extreme. Last year a commemorative edition Steinway grand piano, named Charm of the Dragon, sold for 6.9m RMB ($1.1m). “I have seen show homes with grand white pianos,” says Wray Armstrong, CEO of the Beijing-based Armstrong International Music and Arts Enterprises Ltd. “It certainly looks good [but] it was strictly for show.”

Keys to success

At the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where tuition costs per year run into the tens of thousands of Renminbi, classical music wafts down the corridor on a balmy autumn evening. It is seven in the evening on a weekday but most of the practice rooms are full. Wang Ming Gang, a shy 21-year-old student, practices the piano here for up to four hours every day. With a businessman father and a mother who works in the civil service, Wang’s parents are wealthy enough to help support his dream of becoming a musician.

Originally from eastern Shandong province, Wang’s parents sent him to Shanghai because it is seen as both a financial and cultural centre. He considers himself lucky. “My friends from my hometown will not choose to study piano,” says Wang. “It is very expensive. Economic pressure is key. Another reason is that playing piano is not easy – it is not like you study two or three years and you become famous. My parents didn’t give me any pressure, this road is my own choice.”

That is not the case for Su Fan, a 25-year-old postgraduate piano student from the southern boomtown of Guangzhou who has been playing for over a decade. “My parents encouraged me to study because the piano was a dream of my mother since she was very young. But she didn’t have the chance to study,” says Su, speaking at the Conservatory. “My grandfather forced his daughter to study science. At that time people thought that by learning science you could get a good job.”

Su, who sports a gelled fringe, square hipster glasses, and a pink T-shirt, has ambitions to be a piano teacher. It is, he admits, “not a wealthy job”. But he wants to further the pursuit of the piano in China: “I want to teach more students to know the piano. To spread my musical dreams and ideas.” To facilitate this Su works part time as a teacher, where he charges students up to 300RMB ($49) for 45 minutes. Over the past seven years he has seen an explosion in the number of students he tutors: from just a couple when he started to more than 30 per week today. He now has so many he often turns them away.

Practice makes perfect?

Despite this, Su believes the piano is far from established. “Most of the students are from wealthy or middle-class families. Even though China has progressed economically, most families [still] only think about the high price of rice, the high price of social welfare,” he muses. “It needs generations of hard work. Quality development needs accumulation. It cannot happen overnight.”

“The piano might have been seen by many as a route out, as a way to college, as a way to the US, even as a way to get to Beijing from the countryside. As a way to a better place in society,” Armstrong adds. Success stories such as Lang Lang’s have proved an inspiration for pushy parents keen to add to their children’s resume. The piano prodigy learnt to play while living in relative poverty in Beijing; he grew up in a rented room, sharing a toilet and sink with five other families. Today Lang Lang has an international rock’n’roll lifestyle and has performed for dignitaries including President Obama at the White House.

In spite of its popularity other challenges for the piano persist. Scandals involving bribery and corruption have plagued some of China’s conservatories of music. Demand is also growing too fast with many less accomplished teachers unable to keep up, according to Keng. And critics of China’s teaching methods say they place too much emphasis on rote learning with little room for creativity. “The Chinese want to force their kids to practice piano,” says Keng. “It is too old a method. It needs to be more about enjoying playing the piano. For most students it will kill your hobby and kill your enjoyment.”

Still, Keng believes that classical music in China has come a long way from when he was a child learning keys on a broken piano. “I think it is a very great, very bright future. Before [parents] wanted their kids to become Lang Lang or Yundi, to become a superstar. Parents have started to change this idea. Now they want their kids to just know classical music and to have the piano accompany their whole life. I hope more and more kids can love to play from their hearts.”

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