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Pearl River's Factory in Guangzhou, ChinaWhen I was in the early grades, more years ago than I care to discuss, music was still an integral part of elementary education (at least in my district). We piped out This Old Man and The Itsy-Bitsy Spider to the pounding chords of a wheezy, ill-tuned upright piano. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to learn almost 20 years later that music education students at Kent State University were offered a class which included the rudiments of accompanying kids at the keyboard.

At about the same time, or perhaps a few years earlier, I read that the elementary school instrument of choice in China was the accordion, not the piano.

That wasn’t too difficult to believe. Accordions are relatively cheap. A new small vertical piano good enough for practice and casual playing will set you back a few thousand dollars. A modest accordion is perhaps one-tenth that amount.

Accordions are obviously much more portable than the smallest spinet. They may not be more portable than a cheap electronic keyboard, but for some people the accordion’s sound might well be preferable to the tinny plinks that many portable keyboards emit from their undersized transistor-radio speakers. Accordions also have the advantage that a teacher playing one can keep an eye on the class clown — which isn’t so easy for a teacher planted on a bench behind a tall upright piano.

That was then, this is now. Except for a staged concert, my web search didn’t turn up a single mention of the accordion in Chinese classrooms. The nation that produced pianist Lang Lang now produces his instrument, and in rather astonishing quantities.

For years, China has manufactured most of the world’s toys and electronic gadgets. Today, it also has the world’s most active piano manufacturer. The Pearl River Piano Factory, one of the first to export pianos to the US, built 100,000 pianos last year. To put that in perspective, only 95,000 pianos of all types, makes, and origins were sold in the US in 2005.

So where are they all going? Certainly many of Pearl River’s instruments ended up in our own music stores, wearing familiar American, European, or even Japanese names on the fallboard, and low numbers on the price tags. But eighty percent of the pianos from Pearl River and other Chinese manufacturers never board a container ship. They are sold at home.

China is possessed by some kind of piano fever. As piano sales trail off in the States, they explode in China. Piano shops and studios line the main streets of the cities.

This is the flowering of a demand that has long existed. Even 20 years ago, when Chinese pianos were scarce, buyers would quite literally queue up when a shipment arrived. Once, the piano represented western decadence. Today, under China’s authoritarian capitalism, there are many times more instruments, more dealers, and more consumers.

More pianos means more pianists. It’s estimated that at least 30 million Chinese children are studying piano; some sources put the number as high as 80 million. Their parents are motivated by stringent childbearing restrictions and deep-seated Confucian traditions placing a high value on education. They will make sure the children study, practice, and succeed.

If the pattern followed by the Japanese (and more recently Korean) piano manufacturers holds with the Chinese, we’ll see a change over the next decade or two. The Chinese instruments in the music stores will no longer hide their origins behind famous American and European names. Pearl River and such competitors as Taishan and Saganhaft will proudly stencil their own names on the fallboards. Indeed, this is already starting to happen. Where it will leave the non-Asian piano builders remains to be seen.

And what of those 80 million piano students? Believe me, we will hear from them. Lang Lang and Li Yundi are just the beginning.

Further reading:

Keyboard Moment in China’s Cultural Evolution in The Australian

It Takes a Nation of Maestros in New Statesman

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2 Responses to “A Nation of Pianos and Pianists”

  1. Classical Music » Classical Music in China: A Closer Look » WKSU Says:

    [...] music is no longer banned as cultural pollution, it seems to be growing apace in China. Recently I noted here that China is home to the world’s largest piano manufacturer — and that it sells most [...]

  2. Classical Music » Meet Lang Lang » WKSU Says:

    [...] Young star pianist Lang Lang is unquestionably a distinctive artist. In another way, though, he represents the evolving musical culture of his homeland. China is now the home of the world’s most active piano manufacturer — and as many as 80 million piano students (see A Nation of Pianos and Pianists). [...]

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