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    Has China’s Piano Craze Played Itself Out?

    Demand for piano lessons is falling, but music education still has value.
    Feb 24, 2024#music#education

    Earlier this year, a small story made headlines in China: the cooling down of the country’s piano market. Two of China’s largest piano manufacturers — the Pearl River Piano Group and Hailun Piano — recorded year-over-year revenue drops of over 20% in 2023, with armchair analysts on social media attributing the decline to uninterested children, tired parents, and an economic downturn that had “crashed” the dreams of the middle class.

    As a pianist and piano teacher, that felt hyperbolic. The piano market — long the subject of a crazed boom in China as parents tried to burnish their kids’ extracurricular resumes — is simply coming down to earth.

    China’s piano craze was a curious artifact of the post-reform era. Amid rapid economic growth and the rise of China’s middle class in the 1980s and ’90s, piano lessons became a tool for social mobility and marker of class status. At the time, even poorer families were spending thousands of yuan on pianos and lessons for their kids, sometimes at the cost of more material upgrades to their quality of life, like large home appliances or even a new house.

    Just as this boom in piano lessons was fueled by economic development and the rise of China’s “culture fever,” its decline stems from deep social and cultural changes.

    The current generation of parents were those very students during the initial stages of the piano craze. Now that they’re grown up, they are taking a more practical and personal approach to nurturing the artistic talents of their kids, rather than pushing them to learn an instrument for its own sake.

    This means they are not as insistent that their kids learn piano as their own parents were, nor do they view the piano or their piano-playing children as a marker of social status. To them, it’s merely an instrument, nothing more.

    Today’s parents also have access to a much more diverse world of musical instruments, and the piano is by no means the only or the best choice for learning music. Parents looking to give their children a musical education or cultivate their talent with an instrument have options that are more niche, more portable, cheaper, or more expensive than the piano. In a sense, the piano craze of the ’80s and ’90s contained the seeds of its own destruction. By influencing and broadening the artistic horizons of a generation of people, it also created demand for other instruments. Many people learned about the wider world of music through the piano, and in the process, the piano lost its vise-grip on the popular imagination.

    Finally, changes in China’s education policy have also contributed to the end of the piano craze. The ability to play piano once gave students extra points on the college entrance exam, but that was scrapped in 2018. Almost instantly, learning to play piano went from a necessity to a hobby.

    Overall, I believe that the piano’s fading popularity marks the market’s inevitable return to rationality. Although this may be difficult for some in the piano industry to accept, it is also a sign of stability and maturity in China’s music education market. As piano educators, we should face this change head-on and explore more diversified, innovative teaching methods to adapt to the times and the changing needs of parents and students.

    In particular, now that we’re no longer teaching to a test, piano teachers can hopefully offer more personalized instruction to students. Once learning piano becomes a more deliberate process, then piano competitions — a source of constant headaches for judges due to their repetitive programs, the poor fundamentals of participants, and tuneless interpretations — should likewise improve.

    More importantly, we should rethink and bolster the value of music education itself. It’s time to focus on cultivating students’ love and understanding of music through piano, not just their technical ability.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Wu Haiyun; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: Children during a piano class in Chongqing, July 2023. Yang Min/VCG)