I’ve noticed that music education has been in the news again, and there always seems to be plenty of negative press surrounding what the government should or shouldn’t do relating to this topic. I have just returned from Hong Kong where I’ve been working for the past month and it’s been fascinating comparing our system with that implemented in China.
I was extremely fortunate to have been selected to be an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Music Festivals and was subsequently invited to adjudicate at the 65th Hong Kong Schools Music and Speech Festival which is held annually. This was my first official adjudicating job and it was quite thrilling to be thrown in at the deep end.
The Festival is a big event in HK and is intrinsically linked to the education system. Children are expected to learn an instrument and participation in the festival is anticipated by parents and music teachers; if a child obtains a festival certificate, it contributes to their school work portfolio and is a desired attribute for school entrance exams and university places too.
There are those who think this doesn’t encourage a love of music and is driven purely by exam marks and high grades. There is an element of truth here, however, surely it’s better than the complete apathy and disinterest in music as an academic subject by many, which is what we have now in the UK?
Classical music and music education is viewed quite differently in China. Concert pianists Lang Lang , Yundi Li and Yuja Wang (to name a few) have really helped promote piano playing as a cool, trendy hobby and one which can benefit each child if certain levels are attained. Parents buy into this as well; if their children can learn to play an instrument successfully, it is viewed as a useful intellectual accomplishment.
More pianos are sold in China than anywhere else in the world. The piano industry is huge and piano teachers are exalted. It’s an incredible achievement to have 140,000 competitors every year participating in the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival. I was part of a team of 47 adjudicators, all from the UK, US, Canada and China. Piano classes especially are large, with sometimes as many as 60 competitors in each one, and it was quite a feat just sorting out the winners at times. I probably adjudicated several thousand piano entries. Not all competitors were talented, as is to be expected from such large numbers, but all had to adhere to strict entry rules like playing from memory (those who didn’t were immediately disqualified).
China takes music education seriously. It employs our British exam system (mainly the ABRSM, Trinity College London and the London College of Music exam boards) and apparently has now overtaken the UK in the number of instrumental entries each year. The results of their music study are impressive. All children will be able to read music, play an instrument, and most are encouraged to learn at least two instruments, participate in music exams and music festivals (so will have been exposed to plenty of performance practice) and consequently classical concerts are well patronised. Young families frequent concerts and recitals regularly; they don’t view them as ‘high-brow’ or obsolete. Isn’t this what we should be aiming for here in Britain?
China has the huge advantage of being a wealthy country and they are building on this reputation all the time. However, the secret to their success is primarily in the way they view classical music and music study; it must be included in the school syllabus and it must be practised and admired as something worthwhile. Most children won’t use it as a career option but they will hopefully develop a love of and interest in music which will perpetuate this art form for future generations. Unless we adopt this kind of approach our classical music scene will continue to die.
I feel immensely privileged to have judged so many different types of piano competitions (from elementary to professional levels) and I was treated with complete reverence so typical of the Chinese hospitality. We have so much to learn about music education here in Britain. When are we going to get started?
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.