The Wall Street Journal published an interesting and thought-provoking article that compares Western and Chinese parents (but referring to the latter as Asian). The title is presumably an unabashedly provocative poke at the American subculture of parenting in order to get our attention, especially given our North American PC-friendly straightjackets… er, uniforms, and racial sensitivity pills that are readily available on every public street corner. Yet, if one ever examines the program of any of Seattle’s local piano festivals (which you can readily verify during the upcoming February 5th Sherman Clay event, during which the Chopin Foundation presents its annual Chopin Festival), any observer will notice that approximately 90% of its participants are Asian. Moreover, when the observer decides to check on the NW Chopin Council’s website for the winners’ list, chances are that 95% of them will have Asian names. Yet, when you look at the list of performers who record for SONY, EMI Classics, those who come to perform in Carnegie Hall and who have active careers as pianists… well, the results are still quite different (though Asian pianists are gaining more prominence in the professional circuits in the last ten years).
Most of them are actually non-Asians.
How many of the little prodigies who win our little local festivals actually try to audition for the piano major program at the universities? Well, very few. Then why are they pushing themselves to that sort of work load at the piano?
Before we examine that, let’s first go back to the article…
In the first paragraph the author lists the after school activities that would commonly be considered time wasting ones, which include watching TV, playing computer games, or being in the school play. My father (obviously a Pole), must have had something of that in him too. Many parents of the students today at the Chopin Academy say, “Oh, we don’t have that much time to practice because we do this, and that…and we do the piano thing because my little Johnny really enjoys it.”
Obviously my parents in Poland were more Asian than Western. I neither chose my activities nor, after showing interest and talent in piano, had I the option of whether or not to attend the music school four times a week, which included—might I add—walking to the bus, waiting for it, being in a crowded and smelly public transportation for thirty+ minutes each way. Piano, theory, ear training, choir…all these activities in addition to my twice weekly lessons filled out my schedule. My father always had one ongoing recurring question regarding after school activities: “What will this give you in your life in the future?” I heard this over and over… I had no time for TV, only occasional parties, and staying as busy as possible with difficult tasks: extra math, extra piano practice, competitions, and always aiming to be the best.
Did I have fun? Yes, I had tons of fun in my music theory and ear training classes—and, here, I am not being sarcastic. My teachers were so fun and entertaining, I cried when I could not go to the class. One of my best friends until today is someone I met in my theory class (and we still remember the jokes from the class…). My mother and I spent about 90 minutes every day commuting on public transportation, often in -20 degree Celsius temperatures, snow and rain (yes, I know, the cliché ‘uphill both ways’…but it was true!). I have to admit I can’t stop smiling when some parents here complain about a “long commute” in their luxury SUV’s of 25 minutes…
The question is: can kids have fun doing something challenging or difficult? Yes, if the environment is supportive, if the atmosphere is still fun at least to some degree. There is still a great difference, however, between my intense Eastern European music studies and the Asian way of practicing for competitions—I was not subjected to five different competitions when I was 8. As a child, thankfully, I was spared the negativity of being a “looser”. I was practicing to be a pianist, not to score points and collect medals.
Let’s now get to another topic: how much to practice.
The author asserted a point of view that claims that if you just try hard enough, practicing three hours, you can be the prize winner—be the best, get an “A”, and all that stuff. Her children were never allowed to practice less than several hours. Well, X-number of hours does not guarantee absolute success. Life is not quite like that.
Yes, 80% of success on a stage as a pianist or violinist is, of course, work. Without any doubt, if you practice three hours, you will be better than if you practice 30 minutes. (Unless you are playing with some really bad technique… hmm, well, then less IS BETTER…) However, assuming that the basic and healthy technique is there, then, naturally, the kids who win the Chopin Festival, and Seattle International Piano Festival and all other festivals—naturally, they practice a lot. The more difficult festivals (such as the Chopin Festival) have 40-50 participants in one category. In order to be the best out of 50—one will have to practice a lot. I know 7 year olds who practice three hours a day, and with just a tiny bit of talent—they always will be better than those who practice 45 minutes. The more difficult competition starts when one enters the age category of 11 and above. Here, if you don’t practice two hours a day minimum… then don’t hold your breath. There are others who can and will practice 3+ hours!
What do those hours give us? They give us time to work on many pieces, and the more pieces we go through, the more versatile we get, the more fluent our note-reading is, the faster we learn the next new piece. Then, one’s pianistic vocabulary is larger. One’s hands are used to new tricks. If you played ten Sonatas by Beethoven in your life, then obviously you are better than someone who played just one. Then, the three hours of practicing gives us the possibility to spend one full hour on something really hard, such as an Etude by Chopin.
Regardless whether you are 11 or 25—you have to pay your dues with the virtuosic etudes. simply, one can’t play them well without at least one hour commitment. There is such a thing as “sweat equity” in performance too.
Obviously, if little Johnny enjoys horseback riding, and ballet (or, in Johnny’s case, soccer), and school plays, school government, painting, flute, guitar, and piano, and is driven around to 8 different activities… well, obviously Johnny does not have the mind, time or concentration to spend 1 hour on Chopin’s Etude or two more hours on Liszt, Beethoven, and scales. Certainly, some of our readers will have heard of the “10,000 hour rule”, the rule that if you want to become good at anything, you need to get in 10,000 hours. Well, math is simple… there are 365 days in a year… and how many hours you do each day? How long will it take to get those 10,000 hours? Will you be 16 when you get there or 45? The time is running out—ultimately, we are in competition with ourselves and with time.
There are a few issues here that come to my mind that really require addressing: one is the issue of talent, and the other is the issue of what we want to get from learning to play a classical instrument.
It is very hard to admit in our democratic minds that we all are born with different levels of talent. What really is musical talent? So many people can practice three hours and learn the notes and play with no mistake and then they don’t win any competition. The audience does not feel moved. Parents feel hurt and offended. Then, you will have little Jaimie play—perhaps even with some mistakes—and she will actually win a competition.
In order to win out of 50 participants in the category, one needs to have that special something called talent—that inner passion; that ability to make the instrument sing; to sustain the melody; to create something “between the notes.” Because the music is “between the notes,” it is not the notes in and of itself. The notes are just a framework of the musical idea, the starting point…
A good music teacher will always try to get that ability out of the student. (And here we have to come back to our previous blog—how many teachers have that talent themselves? For many of them teaching is just to follow the “method” book; to learn which keys to press on the piano, and that is it…) Musicality can be taught to a high degree, but something must be truly there in order to build more. How can one teach how to understand and convey that almost metaphysical element “between the notes” without at least some innate ability to do so?
I have to admit—I object to the idea presented in the WSJ article that states “you can be the best in anything,” which is to say, because your mom says so and because I will make you practice. This can—and will most likely—lead to frustrations, anger and hatred toward music. You can practice all you want, and if there is no special something between the notes, no pressure from any mom or dad will fix that. With practice, one can accomplish a lot—one can enjoy music forever. However, it is not a guarantee of any sure-fire competition wins.
And yet one should not get all that crazy about practicing as the be all and end all, because there is one more aspect of musical art—it is in most cases ‘human’—that which is inspired by love, pain, by nature, by trees, willows, oceans and all that surrounds us. Maybe playing all the notes perfectly with some basic musicality can make one win some local little festival, but ultimately, one must play about something. If one just sits at home, and is controlled in every step by the “helicopter” mother, one can never live. What will you play about? I hope the author’s children did not attempt to play any of Chopin’s Ballades or Liszt’s Consolations. If you have nothing to say—you can play all the notes right and never get to win.
And finally, an important question to ask yourself—what do you want to get out of those music lessons? Do you need to be the best out of 50 to justify it? According to the article, then, yes. But I have to disagree with the author very strongly on this point. Music performance is for us to enrich our lives forever. To sit at the piano and dive into the world of Chopin, or Schumann, or Prokofiev, or Bach, to forget about the mediocracy, boredom, and annoyance of the everyday problems that the world brings on us regularly. When you are good enough that you can play Bach’s Partitas, you enter the different level of consciousness. When you bring to life Schumann’s Kinderszenen—you live a life that is almost inaccessible to the large majority.
My father pushed me to practice saying, “You don’t know yet what a beautiful thing it is to be able to play the instrument.” …And he was right.
And that—the ability to live more lives through music—should be the goal of every parent as the ultimate goal of the music lessons. Long after the parents are gone, little Johnny or little Jaimie (maybe an accomplished lawyer or doctor by that time) will come home to his or her Steinway and forget about the stress at work via entering the world of Bach’s Partitas… and in the moments of life struggles, during depression, or relationship issues, the music will make it all better. And, at that point, who cares if you won the Chopin Festival at the age of 11?
In short, there is more to music performance than competitions. And yes, you have to practice 2 hours a day when you are 11 to stand any chances at those little festivals. You need to practice 5-7 hours if you want to go on to International Competitions. And you can just practice 30-45 min if you want to progress and enjoy the music for the rest of your life, which is… the most important goal for all of us. We can’t dehumanize music to a competitive-only purpose.