While I was in Shanghai this summer, almost all my friends' children were busy preparing for the upcoming graded piano exams. As a result, many of my friends postponed our gatherings. I could sense that these exams were very important to them.
It is estimated that some 30 million children in China are learning piano. I do not know the percentage of those who take piano exams. The national number must be big, though, as in Shanghai alone about 30,000 children took part in the graded assessments this summer.
It is fortunate that these children are able to get exposure to musical art at an early age, since for our generation and those before ours, only the most talented or the elite could afford such a privilege.
However, when parents put too much weight on exams or even make passing them the ultimate goal of their children's piano learning, they miss the opportunity to cultivate in their children the appreciation of music.
Learning piano for the purpose of passing exams can easily erode children's interest in piano or even music.
Our friend's 7-year-old daughter was forced to practice the three required pieces for two hours daily during the four months before the exam. She had loved it, we were told.
However, playing piano is the last thing that she likes to do now. As a result, her parents have to make her practice with coaxing or or coercion.
They confessed that the endless repetition in the preparation for the exams was painful and that even they themselves, at some points, hated the music. But our friend added since every child was taking these exams, he did not want his daughter to "lag behind."
When most parents are keen to ensure their children get exam certificates, piano teachers have become complicit in the frenzy and are no longer teachers of music. We attended a piano party in Shanghai at a piano teacher's place, where 10 of her students played the pieces required for their exams. Frankly, the children were playing notes rather than music. In other words, they were not taught to understand the pieces and play them with their own expressions, but were taught to pass the exams.
Despite their expensive piano lessons, many children do not have basic music etiquette. At the piano concerts that we attended in Shanghai, I was impressed by the number of piano prodigies in the audience. I was, however, not impressed by their manners. Many of them seemed to be unaware of how to show respect to the performers and fellow listeners.
I feel strongly about all this because my 7-year-old son is also learning piano. He has just been admitted to the Precollege of Manhattan School of Music.
As parents, we want to create the best opportunity for him to develop his talent and pursue his interest. Yes, he needs our encouragement to practice, but when we hear him play with confidence and his own expression and see how much he enjoys theory and ear training, we know we are doing something right.
I only hope that parents would not attach too much importance to piano exams, rather, they attach importance to their children's experience of learning.
The author is a freelancer based in New York.