East meets West: Connecting with Chinese students
Currently, an estimated 40 million students are learning piano in China, and the number continues to grow. In this age of the China boom, there is also a burgeoning interest in the West, leading more Chinese to study abroad than ever before. Now practically any active piano teacher, regardless of where she teaches, is likely to interact with Chinese students at some point. This inevitably begs a number of important questions. As teachers from the West, how do we most effectively work with students from the East? How do we meaningfully connect and communicate with them? What do they expect to learn from us and hope to accomplish?
First of all, we should acknowledge that a number of stereotypes exist in many Western mindsets regarding piano students from China. It is often assumed that they are inherently focused and driven, their parents are unyieldingly strict, and their singular goal is to attain victory over the competition and become the best at all cost. Another rampant belief is that these students have a greater capacity for technique than musicianship, as if something is programmed into their genes that endows them with an innate propensity for technical development. These stereotypes, however, are exactly that—sweeping statements that only mask individuality.
After I moved to China, my understanding of Chinese piano culture and student mentality expanded profoundly. An intricate world gradually unveiled itself, full of distinct personalities and diverse aspirations. I have had the fortune of working with a wide range of students—from those with the unwavering goal to become concert pianists, to those who merely want to have the pleasure of learning music. They exhibit diverse work ethics, abilities, and aptitudes. What has largely fueled the stereotypes mentioned above has little to do with the students themselves, but rather with the history and environment of China.
One of the most significant turning points for the arts in China was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s and 70s. During this time, many elements of Western culture were restricted and suppressed by Mao's China in an effort to strengthen and preserve the country's Communist ideology. When China emerged from this period, Western art forms such as classical music were seen as a way towards a path of higher education and achievement. With the common people left in economic depression, however, purchasing an instrument and starting lessons were not casual endeavors. If children were enrolled in piano, they were expected to take it very seriously. Adding to the pressure, families at this time were under the rule of China's new one-child policy. Naturally, parents put their hopes and dreams into their child's future and kept a strict eye on their progress. This generation, not surprisingly, turned out some major international successes, including Lang Lang and Yundi Li.
The current generation of Chinese piano students has experienced their country in a very different light. The one-child policy has relaxed, the country has a much wider exposure to the outside world (and a larger international presence within its borders), and China has established itself as one of the world's leading economic powers. This new generation has grown up with significantly more possibilities and opportunities, and many parents are now seeking a broader educational experience for their children, often with the goal of studying abroad for college. This has led to a surge of amateur piano students, with parents striving to provide a well-rounded foundation for their children's futures, whatever they may ultimately pursue. There are also more students who change disciplines during their study, sometimes leaving the field of music after years of lessons, or reaching for a music career later in life.
There are many who still approach piano training with the utmost fervor and dedication. I met one such student in Chengdu. I knew he wanted to become a concert pianist, but it wasn't until I visited his home that I realized how serious he and his parents truly were. They lived in an apartment directly across the street from the Sichuan Conservatory. Their space was small, perhaps 300 square feet. The first thing I saw when I walked in the door were two pianos: an upright against the wall and a baby grand in the middle of the room. No TV, no couch, virtually no space for anything but the pianos. It was clear that the center of his life was piano and only piano, and his parents were giving everything to support him.
Another father began taking his son to Chengdu for piano lessons with my wife and me to prepare for entering the conservatory. This sort of arrangement is not out of the ordinary, but I was astonished to discover that they traveled nearly 1,000 kilometers by train each way for every lesson! Examples such as these certainly reflect the image of a strict and uncompromising approach to training, but it is important to remember that neither of these students was being forced into this lifestyle. They loved piano, and their parents encouraged them with all their hearts.
In my experience, I have found that Chinese piano students, no matter their level or aspirations, are seeking a deeper musical understanding from Western teachers. This is not because they lack sensitivity or musical capability. The reason is simple: they are training in a Western art form, but they are not from the West. They don't live in a world full of Western musicologists, composers, and performers. They did not grow up steeped in Western culture, surrounded by Western history, religion, and customs. Chinese students, parents, and teachers alike are realizing this more and more, and are making greater efforts to reach outside to broaden their knowledge and experience.
For those working with Chinese students, my advice would include the following: Do not assume that they want to be trained like a machine into technical superstars. Encourage them to open up and build confidence. Guide them to discover the beauty of music, the meaning behind it, the joy it can bring. Show them your passion, share your knowledge, and, as any good teacher, help them grow until you are no longer needed.
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