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    Out of Key: Why China is Stepping Back From Piano Lessons

    The keyboard used to reign supreme in music lessons for the young. But costs and shifting cultural interests have led more students to embrace traditional Chinese instruments like the 'pipa' and bamboo flute.

    Zhang Weiwei ended her 11-year-old daughter’s piano lessons in January after three years of practice, citing costs and her child’s lack of enthusiasm.

    The fifth grader had been taking lessons from teachers at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and had managed to progress to the fifth of 10 levels of certification before quitting.

    “Piano lessons were more of an investment in nurturing a hobby for her, but they didn’t have any practical application in terms of academic achievement and required a lot of energy on her part,” 40-year-old Zhang tells Sixth Tone.

    Her daughter’s weekly lessons cost 500 yuan ($70) for 45 minutes. Then there were outlays for music books, taxi fares to and from classes, and grade exams. Zhang figures she splashed out 30,000 yuan a year for her child to learn the piano.

    Piano lessons for children were all the rage not too many years ago, but that trend seems to have withered, while lessons in traditional instruments like the Chinese zither, bamboo flute, and the pipa (a Chinese plucked string instrument) are gaining popularity.

    Earlier this year, Chinese media reported that the piano industry — from makers to music schools to student enrollment — has experienced a significant decline in revenue and interest.

    The report says pianos that were once selling for 50,000 yuan can now be purchased for as little as 5,000 yuan. Many piano teachers have suffered a substantial reduction in earnings, and music companies have been forced to lay off staff.

    The status of the piano in modern Chinese life has quickly become a hot topic on social media.

    “The cost of a piano notwithstanding, you can’t afford lessons if you buy one,” one netizen commented on the microblogging platform Weibo. “The apparent recession of the piano industry is actually a general trend of returning to rationality,” another user posted. “It marks the end of an era of easy profits.”

    The piano entered China in the early 1600s when Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci included a clavichord in his gifts to the emperor. Interest in the instrument spread beyond the court over the ensuing centuries. In the 1870s, Shanghai already had a piano factory, and by the early 20th century, piano playing was considered part of proper upper-society education.

    The more modern public zeal for piano playing probably dates back to 1992, when French pianist Richard Clayderman undertook a popular tour of China. And the pop status of Chinese pianist Lang Lang in the new millennium only reinforced the concept that a piano in the home was a sign of culture and refinement.

    In 2013, China’s piano production and sales accounted for 80% of the global market. The small isle of Gulangyu off the coast of Xiamen in eastern China came to be known as “Piano Island” because it had the nation’s highest per-capita population of piano owners.

    In some regions of the country, high schools began offering extra academic points for piano proficiency, prompting parents to heavily invest in piano lessons. However, when the extra points were removed in 2018, piano education started to collapse.

    Sixth Tone interviewed 13 piano institutions and studios in Shanghai. Two-thirds reported a decrease in student numbers, attributing the decline to factors such as consumer belt-tightening and workplace layoffs.

    A piano teacher surnamed Shen says many businesses involved in piano lessons were offering group classes or low-end programs, neglecting the true essence of piano education.

    “I view the current situation as a positive development,” Shen says. “It’s a cleansing of the industry, driving piano education back to its roots.”

    A Shanghai piano teacher surnamed Jin, who began giving lessons here in 2017, says the shift to online teaching in the previous years soured many parents on music education. The result has been fewer students, she says.

    However, the decline of the pandemic has done little to improve the situation, she adds. The number of new students in 2023 didn’t exceed 10, she says, whereas previously, 10 people a month would come to trial classes.

    “I haven’t heard of any of my friends’ teaching institutions closing down yet, but they are all struggling to stay afloat,” Jin adds.

    Affected by stagnant income, in recent years, she says more parents are opting to rent pianos, which costs about 300 yuan a month, instead of buying instruments worth tens of thousands of yuan.

    “Parents used to think that if their children no longer played the piano, the instrument could at least be kept as a stylish part of home décor, but that’s become less common,” Jin says.

    Parents now seem more reluctant to force disinterested children to learn the piano. “Previously, parents pushed their children to practice the piano, causing their children to develop resistance,” Jin says. “These days, parents don’t want to argue with their children about piano practice after a long day at work. They don’t think it’s worth it.”

    In addition, some of Jin’s students — those aged 5 to 10 — face heavy school workloads and often do homework until 10 p.m., leaving them with little time to practice.

    “I have a first-grade student who said that school pressure weighs him down,” Jin says. “It’s not that he doesn’t want to learn the piano, but rather that he doesn’t have the time to practice.”

    Jin currently teaches about 30 classes a week, down from 40 in 2019. That has reduced her monthly income by about 4,000 yuan.

    Another piano teacher, Wu Yifan, began teaching piano at a company-owned school in 2016 in the southern city of Guangzhou. “It’s normal for students to come and go,” Wu says, “but recently, the piano company has not provided me with any new students.”

    By contrast, Wu has noticed an increase in students interested in learning traditional Chinese musical instruments.

    Indeed, a musical instrument institution where Fang Xueqin teaches guzheng, also known as the Chinese zither, has seen a steady increase in the number of students even as piano students tail off.

    “Many parents feel that piano is too common, and they want their children to learn niche instruments,” Fang tells Sixth Tone.

    The shift in interest in music education is reflected in data from the Shanghai Musicians Association, which shows that the number of people taking guzheng exams surpassed the number of people taking piano exams in 2023.

    According to Fang, the growing interest in traditional music can be attributed to the recent surge in the popularity of Chinese folk culture, often referred to as guochao, or “China chic.”

    On the video-sharing platform Bilibili, many young folk musicians upload their unique interpretations of traditional music, allowing classical melodies to reach wider audiences. These online personalities have amassed large followings.

    Fang says she sees no end to the current interest in Chinese folk music as more young adults embrace traditional culture.

    “Today’s young people are generally more confident about their cultural identity,” Fang says. “This has led them to embrace folk music through various channels, and it has also encouraged the creation of more high-quality content in this genre.”

    Zhao Ranran, 35, has taught the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese instrument, for over a decade. She currently has around 100 students.

    Most parents are choosing to enroll their children in folk music due to the portability and affordability of the instruments, compared, say, with pianos, Zhao adds.

    Performers have shown that traditional instruments can lead to stardom. Renowned pipa player Fang Jinlong started appearing frequently on variety shows and went on to become a big hit online.

    A surge of interest in traditional folk music followed. The Shanghai Chinese Orchestra’s “New Oriental Chinese Music Scene,” for example, has been hugely popular due to its creative combination of traditional Chinese music with modern electronic and multimedia elements.

    Additionally, there has been a shift in the landscape of music competitions. In the past, Western music competitions in China dominated, but last year, numbers of professional folk music competitions appeared “out of nowhere,” Zhao says.

    Wang Shuyang, a parent and violin player in the northern city of Qinhuangdao, wanted her son to start learning a musical instrument when he was still in kindergarten. After piano and violin lessons flopped, the Chinese bamboo flute won out. The youngster has been taking lessons, costing 250 yuan a week, for about six months.

    “We view it as a hobby, not a possible choice of profession,” Wang, 38, explains. “At the moment, he is excelling in his studies and enjoys playing the flute very much. He is dedicated to practicing for an hour every day.”

    Zhang, the Beijing mother who ended piano lessons for her daughter, says she has no regrets about all the money spent on lessons, chalking it up as “part of life.”

    For music teacher Zhao, the shakeup in the piano industry is a plus for music education.

    “What endures are the children who genuinely love music,” Zhao says. “Only by allowing art to return to its essence can we truly appreciate the value of learning instruments.”

    (Header image: VCG)