Passion for the piano

Updated: 2013-12-20 10:07

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily Europe)

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More young Chinese are taking piano lessons but are they doing it for love or because their parents tell them to?

Wearing a tailored black suit and white shirt, Wu Junlin bowed courteously to the appreciative audience, just like any other international pianist.

But up close backstage, he looked his age, a youthful 17. His young face was flush with excitement and covered in perspiration after receiving congratulations from piano teachers he admires.

This was the biggest day of the teenager's life, as he had just won an opportunity to play in the Steinway International Festival in Germany next year, where he will be able to meet many of the West's best musicians.

Wu had just defeated more than 6,000 contestants from 25 cities in China to win the final of the 77th Steinway & Sons International Children and Youth Piano Competition (6th China Regional Competition) in Xiamen, Fujian province.

"I started learning piano when I was 6, and have been learning Western melodies and techniques ever since," Wu says. "I think Western music has many varied elements, and I'm very excited about learning from some of the best musicians."

Although Westerners' passion for playing the piano has declined in recent years, mainly due to the prevalence of electronic instruments, the Internet and a range of other leisure activities, Chinese children and young people have developed such great passion for the instrument that China has become the most dynamic piano market in the world, says Feng Yuankai, deputy secretary-general of the China Musical Instrument Association.

Passion for the piano

The association says that in 2012, China made 380,000 pianos, which was 77 percent of global production and worth 6.8 billion yuan ($1.12 billion; 814 million euros). The country imported 106,800 pianos in 2012, which was a year-on-year increase of about 16 percent on 2011, and it exported only 50,000 pianos.

"China has about 5 million children and youths learning the piano, and about 80 percent of the pianos sold in China each year are for them," Feng says.

Production has been stable for the past few years, but demand for high-quality pianos has increased, he says. In 2007, the average price for a piano in China was about 13,000 yuan, but in 2012 it was 18,000.

Imports of higher-quality pianos - mainly from Europe, the United States and Japan, have increased. By the end of the third quarter of this year, China had imported 88,525 pianos, a year-on-year increase of 11.8 percent and 2.5 times the number in 2007.

"Some parents spend millions of yuan on a piano, to make sure their children get the best sound from the beginning," Feng says.

The improvement in the financial situation of many Chinese in the past 30 years has made the piano, which used to be a luxury item for most people, more affordable for many families. This is the main reason for its current popularity. The piano, which is seen as an elegant instrument, has become parents' first choice for their children, Feng says.

As well, more children and youths are doing well in international competitions and some become famous pianists, such as Lang Lang and Li Yundi, who have also become role models for China's legions of young piano players. Such success stories make parents even more passionate about their children's piano lessons.

Every year, there are hundreds of large piano competitions in China, which are organized by professional institutions, governments and companies. Wu says that before winning this biennial event, which is run by the 160-year-old German-based Steinway & Sons, he had entered more than 20 contests.

Almost all Chinese children who learn piano will be asked to take part in a grading test, and now more than 300,000 do so every year, Feng says.

Werner Husmann, president of Steinway & Sons Asia-Pacific, says the skills and techniques of young Chinese pianists have improved greatly since Steinway started its operations in China a decade ago.

"I think what everyone in the West sees every year now is that if you look at international piano competitions and other piano events, it's very rare that you won't find Chinese contestants at least in the finals."

Husmann says this improvement is due not only to parental commitment but also to support from Chinese governments.

"Piano education in the West is not at the level I find in China: how much the government is funding it, and how much you can convince people they'll really enjoy playing piano," he says.

"Looking at the results and the skill level in competitions around the world, what China has done in piano education in such a short time is way ahead of other countries."

China has made music an important part of basic public education. And in private education there are colleges, high schools and primary schools that feature piano education. That is rare in the West, where learning the piano is more a matter of personal choice.

Wu Ying, dean of the piano department of the Central Conservatory of Music, says it did not have a piano department until 2001, but now it is an all-Steinway school.

"The college has invested a lot in equipment and technique, which are necessary to produce top professionals," he says.

However, while the piano market and related industries have welcomed this boom, experts like Wu find it a mixed blessing.

"We are happy to have some talented students who could be excellent professional pianists," he says. "But for other children, the piano is just a public entertainment and parents don't need to be too concerned about grading tests or things like that."

Li Min, dean of the piano department of the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing, says he once did a survey several years ago on why parents in China wanted children to learn piano. The most common reason was "to learn a skill that will be helpful for social competition", while the least selected was "children love music".

Li Jian, deputy chairman of the piano institute of the Chinese Musicians Association, says that in the West, decisions on whether to learn a musical instrument and what kind of instrument are based mainly on children's interests, whereas in China, parents usually decide. Some Chinese parents also push children to take a grading test to get a certificate, but they ignore the essential aspect that children should enjoy music.

"Many Chinese children can play famous and complicated pieces, but they don't really enjoy or understand music," he says. "They are really learning an instrument, rather than learning music."

Li, who has just come back from Europe to teach in Shanghai, says that when he listens to the same pieces played by people from different countries, he hears different feelings. In most performances by Chinese children, he hears very correct and literal interpretations, but he says it takes time and effort from all of society for love and understanding of music to be cultivated. Technical skills on an instrument are only a minor part of that process.

Passion for the piano

A contestant in the 77th Steinway & Sons International Children and Youth Piano Competition (6th China Regional Competition) in Xiamen. Provided to China Daily

( China Daily European Weekly 12/20/2013 page26)