Piano Education in China and Western Countries | Kong Jianing

Kong Jianing is a famous young pianist and professor of piano in Royal College of Music (RCM). In this Violy master class, he introduced the differences between the music education in China and that in Western countries.

Content of Kong Jianing’s lecture is as follows (edited in first person):

Good evening, everyone. My name is Kong Jianing. I am very glad to be here to share my views on music education in China and Western countries.

We all know that over the past 2 decades, music learning has been popular in China —- The country possesses the largest number of young music learners in the world. Also, we have cultivated world-famous talents who are outstanding in multiple fields.

However, many teachers and parents are still confused about the level of music education in China compared to that in Western countries, as well as in neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea. Since it is a large topic, I have selected some key points, and my sharing will be based on these points.

What is the World-class Music Education Like?

Few music players can become world-class performers. Therefore, in my opinion, the primary purpose of music education is not cultivating world-famous performers.

If I were to define the purpose of music education, I would say that the most important aspect is training the future audience.

If we take music as a kind of culture, we shall teach the children to appreciate and love music, which is the most significant thing related to music education. All music genres including classical music, jazz music, pop music, and world music can only be preserved when the learners know how to enjoy them. Only then can our musical culture be developed and retained.

Quality education and aesthetic are both related to the education of music. By learning music, the learners may find that music can cultivate their aesthetic, and help them improve their life quality.

Cultivating world-class performers is not the aim of music education. If we can create an environment where a large number of people love and understand music, talented performers will stand out naturally.

Over the past century, the Western countries, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have already formed an environment mentioned above. Considering China’s national conditions and traditional culture, currently, we lag behind these nations in music education. Classical music has developed in China for only a few decades. But over the past 20 to 30 years, the development has been rapid that some achievements have already been made.

From this perspective, we can discuss some topics related to beginners, amateurs, professional players, and some learning methods.

In my opinion, it is significant for us to take the purpose of music education as cultivating the future audience.

Differences between the Music Education in China and That in Western Countries: Attitudes of Music Teachers and Parents

I have lived in the United Kingdom for about 20 years. But before the age of 16, I lived in China. Since I spent the first half of my life in China and the other half in the UK, I can tell you more about the practical differences between the music education in China and that in Western countries.

From my observation, in the UK, parents who can afford their children’s music learning will definitely support the children to learn music instruments. Like parents in China, many parents in the UK buy pianos or violins for their children, or find music teachers for the young learners.

Plenty of families let the children start to learn instruments at the age of 4 or 5. But what is the major difference between Chinese parents and Western parents? Personally, I think that Chinese parents take the music learning very seriously. They hold the view that once there is input, there must be output.

This is the most distinct characteristic of Chinese parents. They think that once they have spent money on music instruments and music lessons, there must be some results then.

The output can be regarded as achievements. The achievements can be big or small. The parents who pursue small achievements think that the children must take graded music exams. In this way, the young learners can demonstrate that they have worked hard on learning music. The graded music exams can be regarded as the proof of music learning.

As for British families, they may let their children learn music just for fun. For example, the children can perform in front of the family members on Christmas day. British parents may say that their young learners feel happy to learn music instruments, but they may not focus too much on the so-called output.

In fact, many children in the UK also take graded music exams. The utilitarian idea is not typical for Chinese parents. British parents can be utilitarians as well. Some British parents will tell their children’s music teachers in advance that the young learners intend to take graded music exams, because the children can only enter the private schools with music scholarships if they hold the certificates of certain grades. Like Chinese parents, some parents in the UK tend to think in this way as well.

It is normal to have the thought that there should be output since there has already been some input. The key point is that we should confirm whether it is the only purpose involved in the whole process. We may find some subtle differences if we discuss the topic.

National conditions in different countries can vary a lot. From my observation, generally speaking, most Europeans are quite willing to pursue spiritually beautiful things.

Most Chinese parents neglect those spiritually beautiful things. It is common for me to see that some Chinese parents are very anxious about the development of their children. In other words, as long as the children decide to learn piano, whether they intend to become professional performers or amateur players, the parents are worried.

I mentioned in Violy team’s interview that

Parents play the most important roles in the children’s early education. From preschool period to elementary school period, during the children’s learning process including the process of learning instruments, parents are more important than teachers and all the other external factors.

No matter how talented the children can be, parents are vital to the children’s development. If the parents are extremely anxious, their children will definitely be affected.

The impact can be imperceptible. I know many British parents who require their children to participate in school shows, regional piano contests, and other events. The whole process is natural. Since we have learned the instruments, there will be some output for sure. But these parents are not very anxious about the development of their children or the achievements.

Therefore, in my opinion, a major difference between the education, especially children’s education in China and that in western countries, lies in the parents’ mindset.

Why Is ABRSM Exam Widely Accepted in Foreign Countries?

In recent years, the ABRSM Exam is particularly popular in China. Actually, the ABRSM Exam started in 1889, and has been existing in the UK for more than a century.

I am always asked whether the ABRSM Exam is related to RCM or not.

The answer can be yes and no.

The ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) was created in 1889 by the president of RCM and the president of Royal Academy of Music (RAM).

Now there are 4 schools included in the associated board, which are RCM and RAM in London, Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester, and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) in Glasgow.

The associated board is a separate organization which is not directly relevant to the administrators in the 4 schools. But the origin, name, and other elements of the associated board are closely related to the schools mentioned above.

Not only do the parents of piano learners let their children take the ABRSM Exam, but those learners of guitar, percussion, brass, woodwinds, cello, violin and other instruments also tend to enter the ABRSM Exam. Therefore, its universality and popularity are high. Also, the exam is officially recognized and certified.

Having been developed for over 100 years, the system of ABRSM Exam is very mature now.

Compared to the examiners of the graded music exams in China, the examiners of ABRSM Exam tend to be generalists, which is to say, the examiners who have a piano learning background may not be assigned to ABRSM piano exams. These examiners may need to grade the viola exams.

What can we know from the fact above? During the ABRSM exams, the examiners do not pay much attention to practical techniques like particular performing techniques used on the piano. Or we can say that in the examiners’ view, the performing techniques are not crucial.

If a violinist or a person who has a violin playing background needs to grade the piano exams, he or she is not familiar with piano techniques for sure.

So what do the examiners care about? They pay attention to the playing styles, music expression, and skills of dealing with music content, because these are common aspects related to music playing. People who have a music learning background are supposed to be able to tell if the music is played with emotion, if the playing style is appropriate, if the music content is properly dealt with, and if the notes and rhythm are played correctly.

An important difference between the graded music exams in China and the ABRSM Exam lies in the exam system. The system of ABRSM Exam conveys the importance of music education and understanding music, which is to say, the system does not require perfect performing techniques.

If a highly-skilled player and an unskilled player both perform a same piano piece of ABRSM grade 8, there will definitely be some differences on the music expression. Or we can say that a highly-skilled player can master the piece better. It is no doubt that the music expression will be much better as well.

Although the examiner cannot play the piano, he or she will be able to tell the differences between the two players’ playing.

I remember that there is something interesting related to the ABRSM scales. I was still in college when I just knew about ABRSM scales. At that moment, I also taught some amateur players, and tended to tell them the recommended fingerings. But actually, the learners did not need to follow the exact fingerings. They could just play the legato, and skip the certain keys correctly.

I wondered that if it is possible for us to play the C major scale with only 2 fingers. Theoretically, we can definitely use 2 fingers to play the scale. It is not necessary to follow the traditional fingerings of the C major scale. I thought it was so amazing. In China, we cannot tolerate wrong fingerings in graded music exams.

The ABRSM Exam is very interesting and historic, because it is designed for the amateur players to develop a hobby of music first, and then follow the scientific grading system. But many problems appeared after the ABRSM Exam was brought to China.

Over the recent 2 to 3 years, I met many part-time teachers who were confused about how to distinguish the music genres from one another.

It seems that everyone is so anxious. Actually, all people become utilitarians who are in a hurry to know everything about music. Some people may wonder how to learn some certain techniques fast so that they can tell the differences among Baroque music, classical music, Romantic music, contemporary music, etc.. They also want to know how to make these genres sound alike.

These problems cannot be solved easily by entering only 1 or 2 lectures. It takes a long time for the players to know well about these music genres.

The Selection of ABRSM Exam Pieces

We all know that the ABRSM exam pieces are changed every 2 years. The repertoire is very abundant. There are 3 sections (a, b, c) contained in each exam book, and each section includes 3 pieces. 9 pieces are contained in every book. Also, there are some selectable alternative pieces which are not included in the books.

The repertoire provides the teachers with a wide range of choices. Besides, the teachers are supposed to possess a wealth of knowledge and a rich imagination. They should know how to choose the pieces and help the students get good grades, which can be very flexible.

Teachers are not supposed to teach the certain selected pieces forever. But under the exam system in China, the teachers are likely to teach the same pieces for 10 or more years, which can be limited. What is the essence of music? The essence is to understand, love, and learn music comprehensively.

How to Arouse Students’ Interest? How Do Music Teachers and Parents Work Together?

At the early stage of music education, what should we do to guide the children in a balanced way? Since the parents and the teachers influence the young learners directly, they play the most important roles in guiding the children.

Personally, I have not done much research on child psychology, but I have taught many children. Also, I know some children under 10 who are very talented and smart, but their interests and passions have been killed.

I have taught some 11-12 year olds who were in grade 7 or 8 in middle schools affiliated to conservatories of music, or in grade 6 in affiliated primary schools. I could not see the passion in most of these students’ eyes, which is to say, they did not have strong curiosity or desire to learn.

The students I like, or those who are very talented and fun to me, tend to be passionate about everything including music, and have a strong thirst for knowledge.

When will the interests, passions, and curiosity be killed?

Once the teachers and the parents treat the young learners in a dogmatic way, the characteristics mentioned above will be killed.

For example, if we teach a child who has learned the piano for just 1 year to play the etudes written by Czerny, the sonatinas, Bach’s works, etc., and treat the learner in a most strict, boring, and unscientific way while teaching, the child will start to hate practicing the piano. Although the learner hates playing the instrument, he or she still has to practice it since the parents are the decision-makers in the family.

With the continuous bad experience, many people who have learned the piano in their childhood start to hate the instrument when they grow up. They do not even want to touch the piano, let alone listen to piano music.

There are tens of millions of young music learners in China, but most of them do not become professional players after learning for years. Besides, how many of these learners tend to visit concert halls regularly, go to concerts spontaneously, buy records, or download the music?

Sometimes I think the phenomenon is lamentable. It could have been better, but some certain problems appeared during the learning process, and the passions were killed.

From the teachers’ view, they cannot tolerate the students’ playing wrong notes, having wrong hand frames, and using wrong techniques. Therefore, teachers tend to treat their students in a strict way while teaching.

The most important thing is to find the balance between keeping the students’ passions and teaching them correct content which must be learned.

Many people hold the view that the education must arouse the children’s interest. It is not my opinion. Also, I disagree with the idea that the learning process must be boring. We can find the balance between interest and boredom.

To sum up, I think that we should transform the requirements, self-discipline, and efforts into positive things. The transformation may be difficult, but we can encourage the children to take the initiative to practice.

It is true that some learners hate the instruments they learn so much that they do not want to work hard. But I know that most children will not reject practicing as long as there is active encouragement or scientific planning.

I can share the process of my growth here. When I was a child, I was good at the academic subjects, and had little spare time to play. But practicing the piano has already become a part of my daily routine since I was about 7 or 8 years old.

When I was young, my daily routine included eating, sleeping, doing homework, playing the piano, etc.. As a result, now I play the piano every single day unless I am on my way to someplace, for example, being on board for 12 hours.

The parents and teachers, especially the parents, need to make practicing the piano become a part of the children’s daily routine. The part can be regarded as the combination of interest, habit, and self-discipline. Music should be everywhere.

Music is neither a means of proving yourself nor a way to show how excellent your family is. It is supposed to be a part of the life, which is ubiquitous. In my opinion, successful music education can definitely make music become a part of our life.

For the young learners under10 years old who do not intend to be professional performers, they are likely to practice their instruments for only 45 to 60 minutes each day.

If a third-grade student does not have the plans to enter middle schools affiliated to conservatories of music, or to become a professional player, it is sufficient for him or her to practice for only 1 hour every day, since what he or she needs is to participate in some graded exams, competitions, and performances. It is enough for the student to simply practice the fingerings, the playing techniques, and the pieces learned in the music lessons. But the young learner is supposed to enjoy the 1-hour practice instead of hating it.

1 hour is not a long time in a day. It is important for the young learners to make good use of the time slot and take the initiative to practice rather than hate the instrument.

Besides, families are different. Some children may need their parents’ company, and the parents need to help the children manage the time scientifically. If these things are not done, it is hard for the young learners to practice on their own initiative.

Are Hand Frames Really Important to Young Piano Learners?

Almost all parents are wondering whether their children are playing the piano properly, and whether the children’s piano teachers are teaching correctly.

For those who do not know music, the hand frames are not easy to understand. The hand frames are not like the academic subjects. Parents may be able to tutor the children in academic subjects, and understand the content of the textbooks, but they cannot tutor their young learners in hand frames, since they are not able to read music or tell the effect of playing. Therefore, many parents are anxious about the children’s piano learning. They are eager to know whether the teachers are teaching in a right way, and how their children play compared to other learners.

It is hard for the parents to understand the young learners’ playing, so they tend to pay attention to the children’s hand frames.

Are hand frames important or not?

It is a complex question. My answer is, again, yes and no. Hand frames are important, because piano teachers are obliged to teach their students to play with correct hand frames. But the hand frames can also be unimportant, since it is difficult for a piano player, especially a piano learner who has learned the instrument for only a few years, to develop 100% standard hand frames in a short time.

From this point of view, the hand frames should not be the only standard for evaluating the learners’ piano playing, which is to say, hand frames are not that important.

Here I would like to share more details related to the topic.

Piano teachers should take the responsibility to teach their students the correct hand frames, because one cannot play the piano well without right hand frames. I mentioned this idea in my former lectures as well. When we intend to play the piano, what we need to do is putting the hands on the keys. Currently, many articles contain the idea that the hand frames are not important at all, since there is a piano master who can play really fast with his fingers stretched.

In my opinion, the piano master’s hand frames should not be judged only by the appearances. It is hard to tell how the master uses the finger strength. Also, a strong personal style has been developed over years of playing.

For example, many people know that the famous Russian pianist Horowitz were able to play excellently with his fingers stretched. But if we pay attention to his palm joints, wrists, and ways of using finger strength, we will find that the pianist’s hand frames were scientific, classic, and correct.

The most natural and relaxing way to play the piano is to sit up straight while playing. In the meanwhile, our shoulders, arms, and wrists should be relaxed so that we can put the weight on the keys. Then we can have the most natural and scientific hand frames.

If we know more about the famous pianists of the last century, we will find that almost all excellent players can use the weight well. How to play well when we are relaxed? The palms and knuckles should be able to hold the weight.

Once the weight can be held, we can find the balance of the hands. If we take the palms as the cores, the hands are like seesaws, and the weight is put on the wrists. With strong finger strength, the hands can be kept in a balanced state.

Correct hand frames are so important that we cannot continue playing without them. Since even the tiny mistakes on the hand frames can lead to wrong playing, I will not share more detailed skills here.

It is significant for piano teachers to teach hand frames. Personally, I think it is wrong to believe that there are no fixed hand frames, or all hand frames work for players.

When the learners reach the level of top performers, and have developed strong personal styles, they can select the most suitable way of playing.

But whether the way of playing belongs to the Russian school, German school, or other schools, it should always be scientific. Otherwise, we cannot play the piano well.

On the other hand, hand frames are not that important, because they cannot be regarded as the only standard for evaluating the children’s piano learning. Why? As a professional pianist, I started to play the piano at the age of 4, and have practiced the instrument for over 30 years. During the process, I have learned from different teachers, and have tried different ways of playing. Finally I developed my own hand frames. It is impossible to require a learner who has learned the piano for only 3 years to develop their own hand frames like their teachers or I did.

Therefore, the whole early stage of piano learning is a constantly changing process. We cannot require a changing thing to reach the standard completely.

Besides, the hand frames are also affected by other things, for example, the relaxed state. Some people may find their forearms stiff when they intend to develop nice hand frames. With the so-called nice hand frames, they cannot even move.

The teachers are obliged to teach correct hand frames, the parents should cooperate with teachers in daily teaching, and the students are supposed to follow the teachers’ instructions. But the hand frames cannot be considered as the sole criterion for testing the children’s learning.

I shared many views today. As a music educator, every time when I give a lecture, I hope the participants can look on music education in a rational way instead of blindly worrying or being anxious. This is what all teachers and parents should pay attention to. I hope teachers and parents can treat the children’s music learning with a normal state of mind.

Music Q&A:

Audience: What do you think of lifting the fingers high when practicing the piano?

Kong Jianing: Lifting the fingers high is a way of practicing instead of a way of playing. It is widely accepted and opposed. The players are required to press down on the keys easily while playing. When I explain the details to my students, I tend to make an analogy with taking the elevator.

When you are touching the keys with your fingers without pressing, you can take it as being on the first floor. To go to the basement, you need to take the elevator, and the process can be taken as pressing down on the keys. When your fingers are lifted, you can take it as being on the second floor. Then it takes a longer distance to go to the basement.

Therefore, lifting the fingers high is not an effective way of playing. But on the other hand, the way is important since it helps the players train their palms. The strength of palms plays a significant role in piano playing. A piano learner who has learned the instrument for about 3 or 4 years need to know how to use the strength of palms.

The most effective way to train the palms is lifting the fingers high while practicing. For example, playing Hanon’s piano exercises can be helpful.

Besides, lifting the fingers high can help the player improve the finger flexibility. If the player needs to play the scales fast, the finger flexibility is necessary.

In my opinion, lifting the fingers high needs to be included in the daily practice of a learner who has learned for 2 to 3 years. In China, many teachers ask the students to practice lifting fingers after a few lessons. It is wrong. Lifting the fingers high requires strong strength and stability of the wrists. Also, the player needs to be able to hold the weight with the palms and knuckles before being trained to lift the fingers high. Or the training will be ineffective.

Audience: How should I practice before participating in competitions?

Kong Jianing: It is an interesting question. There are some tips for the students who intend to participate in competitions and performances.

The purpose of daily practice is consolidating what you have learned, while preparing for competitions and performances requires students to play through the pieces.

During the daily practice, the students are supposed to focus more on particular techniques and challenging phrases, so practicing some certain sections slowly can be important. But once the students are preparing to perform on stage, they need to create for themselves an atmosphere where they are already on stage.

The players will feel a little nervous if they imagine themselves to be playing in front of the audience. Then after the playing, they can find some phrases which are not played well. Later, they can make some corrections.

Before participating in competitions and performances, the students need to create an atmosphere where they are performing on stage, which can be very helpful.

Audience: Can you recommend some piano books for beginners?

Kong Jianing: I’m not an expert in piano books. Actually, there are a variety of piano books for beginners available on the market. You may search for them online.

Books written by Thompson, Faber, and Sebastian are all good for the students. With a combination of illustrations and words, the books contain the content of music theory, hand frames, and playing methods. Parents can read the books together with their children.

When the learners have learned for more than 1 year, they can start to play some simple pieces of different times including Baroque period, Classical period, Romantic period, contemporary period, etc.. The piano teachers need to select the pieces for the students. If the students intend to enter graded music exams, they can focus more on the exam pieces, and practice some other pieces as well, such as etudes.

Audience: How to express different kinds of music through changes of tones?

Kong Jianing: This is a highly technical question. I am seeking answers to it as well.

Different tones are produced through different techniques. Tones are different from the sound quality. Tones are related to the ways of dealing with music, while sound quality is connected with the ways of piano playing. Sound quality comes first.

Even without microphones, the sound of the piano needs to be heard clearly by the audience in the halls. A pianist should be able to make the piano produce the sounds which are easy to be transmitted. Therefore, as I mentioned before, the player needs to press down on the keys. Only in this way can the sounds be resonant.

Besides, the players need to press the keys in a better way instead of a quicker way. The speed of pressing the keys needs to be considered. Every key should be pressed down while playing, and the ways of playing should be controllable. Then the sounds produced are clear and resonant.

Once the sound quality is good, the tones need to be taken into consideration. Tones are related to the ways of dealing with music. For example, when you are playing Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, №1 in C major, you should make sure that the sound quality is good. Then you can consider if the tones are soft, and if the sounds produced are colorful. As long as the sound quality of each note is good, you can add some colors to the music you play. According to the musical emotions, you may make the tones brighter or darker, or make the sounds bigger or smaller.

Making adjustments according to the musical emotions is also an important skill. It is necessary to distinguish the tone from the sound quality. Tones can be used to convey emotions. The subtle changes of tones help the players deal with phrasing, music expression, musical characteristics, etc..

Audience: How do you like Mr. Dan Zhaoyi’s new books?

Kong Jianing: I have not seen the books yet. I know that many piano teachers have already started to use the books, and they are satisfied with them. Mr. Dan Zhaoyi is one of the most outstanding professors of piano in China. He has abundant experience in basic teaching. I think his new books are worthy reading for piano learners.

Thank you!

Thanks for Mr. Kong’s brilliant sharing! Please stay tuned for the next Violy master class.

Have a HAPPY practice!!

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