China's 'piano fever'

Posted: June 08, 2008

BEIJING - A cacophony of piano music spills from the 14 lesson rooms at the Piano City music store as a big digital clock in a waiting area counts down the time on lessons.

On this Sunday, more than 100 students will file in and out for music lessons, including 11-year-old Jesse Cheng.

Her parents say families in China are keen to train their children in music, especially piano or violin, to give them an edge in life. "This may be helpful in the future," said Frank Cheng, who owns an information-technology company.

With the growing affluence of China's middle class, more parents are willing and able to plop down $1,500 for a starter piano and $15 a week for lessons.

"We call it 'piano fever,' " said Liang Maochun, a professor of musicology at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music. "And the fever is not just hitting Beijing or Shanghai. It's even in smaller cities. Families who can afford a piano will buy one."

Piano fever is just one aspect of an overall resurgence in classical music here.

After trying to ban Western music during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended 30 years ago, China seems to be making up for lost time. It is producing top-quality students for elite conservatories in the West, building symphonic palaces in such cities as Shanghai and Beijing, and boasting such world-renowned performers as pianist Lang Lang.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, which in 1973 became the first American orchestra to perform in the People's Republic of China, has reaped the benefits of this trend. The orchestra wraps up its 20-day Asia tour today, after sold-out performances in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

James Undercofler, the orchestra's president, called China's rising interest in classical music "unbelievable." After years of being denied access to it, China is in a period of discovery, he said: "The music seems to speak to deep emotions in the Asian people."

China, he said, joins South Korea and Japan as a major audience for the orchestra; Asia now "is just as important for us as the European market."

The interest in classical music begins at places like Piano City.

According to Music Trades magazine, published in Englewood, N.J., an estimated 40 million children in China take piano lessons, and 50 million study the violin. Piano sales in China - the strongest in the world - amount to 200,000 a year, and could double by 2012.

Chinese parents urge their children to excel at instrumental music with the same ferocity that American parents theirs to perform well in soccer or Little League.

"Music, in the Chinese mind, is the most sublime thing you can do," said 21-year-old Yuja Wang, a graduate of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music and already a highly regarded pianist in the United States.

While not every child will grow up to be Lang Lang or Yuja Wang, the expanding number of music students is feeding into a broader appreciation for classical music.

Consider the evolution of the Beijing Music Festival.

Yu Long, a conductor and cofounder of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, started the 20-day event in 1998. Back then, he said, it would have been hard to interest Beijing audiences in contemporary Chinese composers; now, they're a regular part of the festival. The program routinely features new works from Chinese and international composers, including Tan Dun and Philip Glass.

Last year, the festival attracted Charles Dutoit and Christoph Eschenbach of the Philadelphia Orchestra as guest conductors. Both conducted Lang Lang - Dutoit with the China Philharmonic and Eschenbach with the Paris Orchestra.

To understand just how far China has come, look back to the 1973 visit of the Philadelphians. At the time, no one was allowed to listen to or perform Western classics. The orchestra put on programs of Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, Brahms.

There was deep hope that the tour would herald a loosening in society. Instead, as soon as the orchestra left another crackdown on Western composers began, with Beethoven and Schubert singled out for attacks.

Sheila Melvin, who cowrote Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese, said the irony was that the Cultural Revolution only spurred a later interest in Western classical music because while the composers were banned, the playing of the instruments was encouraged.

Mao Tse-tung's wife, Jiang Qing, preferred the sound of Western instruments to Chinese ones, thinking them more robust and muscular. In the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution, the government permitted the performance of only eight model operas. Those eight were performed everywhere and all the time - in factories, on communes, in neighborhoods. And all those opera troupes, fanning out across the vast country, needed musicians.

Melvin said it was only natural that at the end of the Cultural Revolution, as the controls on Chinese society were relaxed, people began to explore music more. Those who had grown up on model operas passed along their interest in Western instruments to their children.

Today, Chinese parents see status in having their children master the piano or violin. And they see the sheen of celebrity that has accompanied the huge international success of Lang Lang, the 25-year-old superstar, who has an Adidas shoe endorsement and his own line of baby grand pianos.

"The Chinese like celebrity," Lang Lang said in an interview before his performance here Monday with the Philadelphia Orchestra. "And when they see a pianist making an impact on the public, they think, 'That's cool.' Otherwise, they think it's boring."

Cai Liangyu, a professor of musicology at Beijing's Central Conservatory, said the government's education policy had encouraged the study of music: Students who graduate from high school with a "special ability" such as playing classical music have an edge when applying to college.

"This is very important for some parents," Cai said. "This is a way for students to get into college, and later to have a better ability to get a job."

At Piano City, a chain of 15 music stores that also offer instruction, those thoughts are not far from the minds of the parents who take their children for weekly music lessons. In each store's showroom, families looking to purchase can choose among more than a dozen types of piano and twice as many models of violin. They can invest $2,000 in a "Jiang Jie" upright - the product of a Chinese-Korean venture - or spend $750 for a violin. Both are within the means of a middle-class family.

Zhang Fengguo, a 28-year-old piano teacher at Piano City, will teach 15 students on a typical Sunday. "People recognize that by learning how to play the piano, you can develop a child's intelligence," he said.

His next student is an 8-year-old boy who traveled a half-hour with his mother get to his lesson. Ge Lan said he was her only child. All his friends play instruments. "If they are not learning how to play the piano, they are learning how to play the saxophone," she said.

Her biggest challenge with her son's music training would be familiar to any American parent: "It's hard for him to be quiet and practice," she said.


Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

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