How to Raise a Concert Pianist–Chinese Immigrant Style

I should preface by saying that I am not a concert pianist in the sense that I do not give concerts for a living.  I did, however, compete extensively in state, regional, national, and international piano competitions growing up.  When I was 15, I performed on From the Top on National Public Radio and won a scholarship to study classical piano at the New England Conservatory of Music for college.  I guess this post could also be titled “How to Get Your Child Into Music Conservatory for Piano,” “How to Turn Your Kid Into a Piano Prodigy,” or “What Really Happens When Your Parents are Chinese and Want You to be the Next Lang Lang.”

A little background:

My dad’s mother was a violin professor at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music who wanted her offspring to follow in her footsteps.  When my dad was a year old, an unfortunate accident involving a coal stove and a couple of his fingers rendered him useless as a future pianist or violinist (piano and violin were the only two instruments worth pursuing, in my grandmother’s opinion), so by the time I was born, my grandmother had had 35 years to hone her expectations.  My mother, currently a violin instructor, had taken lessons from my dad’s mother and fully supported her ambitions for me.

For a while, they had trouble figuring out which instrument to inflict.  I solved the problem at age two, when I came home one day from day care, climbed onto the piano bench, and picked out the melody of a song I had learned from my day care teachers.  My grandmother immediately asked her half-brother, who was chairman of Sichuan Conservatory’s piano department at the time, to take me on as a student.  When he said he wouldn’t teach me until I turned four, my grandmother and parents decided they couldn’t stand waiting a year and a half and took it upon themselves to teach me at home.  They sat me down at the piano for 20 minutes a day and taught me basic songs and technique.  Even though the sessions never exceeded 20 minutes, I didn’t always want to learn.  For that, my dad had an easy remedy; he simply spanked me until I changed my mind.

When I turned four, my grandmother marched me to the chairman’s house, where I began weekly hour-long lessons.  He was strict, impatient, and knew exactly what he wanted to see.  Each week, he assigned exercises by Hanon and Czerny that my grandmother memorized.  To make sure I learned them perfectly, she planted me at the piano from four to seven PM every day and drilled me through the exercises with a ruler in her hand.  She and my parents maintained this regimen after we moved to the US the following year, where, after a brief period of teacher-shopping, we found a professor at the local university who agreed to take me and with whom I stayed until I went to college.

When I was seven, I won a local competition against kids twice my age, and from there, I progressed to harder competitions, placing in every one.  In addition to the standard student recitals, I performed for all sorts of events in venues I would never have visited otherwise.  I played for Christmas concerts and Sunday services at churches I had never been to, I played for noisy Chinese New Year celebrations, and once, when I was eight, I played in an international city planning festival for which I was featured on TV.

And I practiced, practiced and practiced.  On weekdays, I practiced from the moment I came home from school until dinnertime.  Until I turned 12, my mother sat next to me during the entirety of my practice sessions and watched my every move.  As I got older and my repertoire grew, dinnertime was pushed from seven to eight to nine o’clock.  And on weekends, starting in fourth grade, I practiced at least six hours a day.  This meant that I never had time to watch TV, join Girl Scouts, or play with my friends after school.  Time away from the piano was time wasted, and it was with this conflicted sense of urgency and deprivation that I entered my teenage years.

Few things are worse than being a teenager and a concert pianist-in-training.  The hours you spend at the piano are long and often discouraging, and people think you’re weird for never having time to do anything.  Your social life consists of showing up at school, turning down parties left and right, and hearing about parties you didn’t go to.  You disappear for days at a time for out-of-state competitions, and when you come back, you might not have much to show for it.  Then you do it all over again.  And you can’t change your life; unlike sports, orchestra, or math club, where you get to see and interact with people your age, piano requires you to function in complete solitude, and your success is directly proportional to the amount of time you spend working alone.

To complicate things, I actually started to like the piano when I turned 14, and over the next four years, it became, in white people parlance, my passion.  I researched competitions and selected my own repertoire, practicing six to eight hours a day to make things presentable.  I recorded myself so I could analyze my shortcomings over and over.  I listened to Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, and Vladimir Horowitz CDs to figure out what they were doing.  To supplement my private education, my mother signed me up for music theory and master classes at the local univeristy, where I took at least one music course every semester during high school.  Now I had a multi-level problem: not only did I have to conceal my music habit from the world at large, I had to hide the fact that I liked it.  I liked it so much, in fact, that I gave myself tendonitis while practicing for my Juilliard audition senior year of high school and had to quit entirely.

So, here I am, a washed-up former concert pianist wannabe with 14 years of training and nothing to show for it.  In college, I always knew that I’d had what most people would consider an unusual education, but it wasn’t until recently that I stopped being ashamed of it and realized, moreover, that there are people who actually want to do to their kids what my parents did to me–but don’t know how to go about it.

Well, I do.  So, for what it is, here is my instructional manual for growing your very own concert pianist.

10 Steps for Raising a Concert Pianist, Chinese Immigrant Style

1. Find a good teacher. 

A good first teacher will have two things: a track record of producing successful students and experience teaching children.  The best instructor for your kid may not be the one with the highest official prestige (such as a faculty position at a university), though often official recognition and high teaching quality go hand in hand.  To locate a good instructor, research the names of kids winning local piano competitions and find out who their teachers are.  Get information about the teachers by contacting them directly, stalking them online, and talking with parents whose kids are currently learning from them.  When you speak to the teachers, let them know you mean business simply by telling them that you intend to make your kid practice hours every day.  Piano teachers love driven parents who aren’t afraid to pressure their children.

2. Buy a good piano.

Ideally, your kid should have a brand new Steinway grand piano from day one.  However, since a Steinway grand runs anywhere between $30,000 to $190,000 (depending on the size), this might not be financially feasible.  Therefore, it’s perfectly ok for your kid’s first piano to be an upright, provided that it has a crisp, full sound that doesn’t boom or echo and all the keys and pedals work properly.  You should test pianos extensively before buying to figure out which brands you like and what you should pay for them.  I played on a $3000 Pearl River upright for a good chunk of my childhood, and it suited me well enough.  I also recommend Boston or Yamaha for their quality and reasonable prices.  After you purchase the piano, you need to find a piano tuner to recalibrate the instrument twice a year and make repairs when necessary.

That said, you should keep in mind that your kid will eventually require a high-quality grand piano, preferably by age 10 if s/he is exceptionally talented.  At that point, I would not recommend buying anything less than a Steinway.  Anything else, including Yamahas and Bosendorfers, are simply sub-par.  My parents bought me a brand new Steinway Model B when I was 12 for $40,000, and it’s one of the most exquisite instruments I have ever played.  An expensive Steinway is what every serious pianist needs and deserves.

This probably goes without saying, but in addition to owning a decent piano, you need a quiet, distraction-free practice space.  It can be the living room or the basement, but it has to be a place with low traffic that can be kept quiet during practice hours.

3. Start early–age five or younger.

After you find the right teacher and the right piano, you need to hit the ground running–or practicing, as it were.  Nothing can substitute for early age; even a one-year delay makes a huge difference.  Age four or five is ideal; seven is borderline, and eight is too late.  Piano is an extremely competitive instrument, and serious Chinese parents will make their children practice daily well before they turn five.  These children will be playing fluidly by the time they’re five, which means that if you wait until your child turns six before his/her first lesson, you are already years behind.

Also, piano is a strictly experience-based activity; the earlier you start, the more time your child will have to get comfortable with the instrument.  Any classical musician will tell you that no matter how stupid a student is, s/he will still sound more “natural” at the instrument than a smarter student who started much later.

4. Practice, practice, practice.  And practice more. 

For 14 years, piano was not just something I did–it was my life.  Period.  I practiced seven days a week, including Christmas, New Year, and my birthday.  Similarly, piano should be your kid’s first priority.  You and your kid should live, breathe, and dream piano, and nothing should ever infringe on practice time–not schoolwork (which should still be done), family, friends, sports, vacations, laziness, poverty, or bad health.  When I was seven, I had a fever and developed this mysterious pain in my right leg that turned me into a paraplegic for two months.  I stopped going to school for a month and a half.  My parents took me to specialists who conducted MRIs, X-rays, and therapy.  At one point, my parents thought I had polio.  Still, my mother carried me to the piano every day, where I put in my hours.  She drove me to my weekly lessons, spanked me when I refused to practice, and held me to the same standards as if I had been healthy.  To her, it wasn’t cruelty; it was simply what she needed to do to make her kid successful.

Here was my practice schedule growing up:

.                           Hours Practiced Per Day                          Hours Practiced Per Day
Age in Years   During the School Year on Weekdays     During the Summers and Weekends
2-4                                     0.3                                                             0.3
4-6                                      3                                                                3
7-12                                    3.5                                                             5-6
13-15                                  4.5                                                             6-10
16-18                                  6-8                                                            8-10

This schedule might seem daunting, but I know for a fact that kids in China practiced much more than I did, especially during the first 10 years of study.  My parents and grandmother always lamented that I got away with practicing only 3.5 hours a day during my elementary school years while Chinese children my age were pulling 6 hours a day.  And the difference at that age is apparent–6-hour kids progress much faster and sound more virtuostic than their 3-hour counterparts.

5. Enforce flawless technique.

If your teacher is good, s/he will focus entirely and maniacally on technique during the first two years.  (If your teacher refuses to talk about technique or doesn’t seem strict about it, you need to find a new teacher immediately.)  There’s a whole method for how to touch the keyboard, distribute your weight, and hold and move your fingers before you play a single note.  After you start working on exercises, the only way to establish solid technique is to play everything as slowly as you possibly can.  Then play even slower, raising each finger in isolation before striking down on the key.  One. Note. At. A. Time.  Play each exercise 10 times at that speed.  If you can’t maintain a steady rhythm, use a metronome.  You can speed up gradually, but not before you feel completely comfortable doing things slowly, fluidly, and accurately.  The goal is eventually to make your scales, chromatics, and arpeggios run like glissandos.

Your kid will hate this, but it’s a necessary process that will require you to watch your kid practice for hours on end and make sure s/he is moving correctly.  The reason for this is that the slightest technical hitch in the beginning will lead to a garbled mess when things speed up.

My piano teacher in China started me off with exercises by Hanon and Czerny.  Hanon’s The Virtuoso in 60 Exercises is mandatory, as are Czerny’s The School of Velocity and The Art of Finger Dexterity.  I hear the Suzuki method is also effective, though I can’t vouch for it because I’ve never been exposed to it.

6. Find fun, challenging repertoire.

Aside from drilling the all-important exercises, your teacher should assign interesting and challenging songs for your kid to showcase at recitals and competitions.  A good teacher will explain each song as a story before going into more detailed explanations of dynamics and phrasing.  In the beginning, the pieces will be very basic (think “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) but with time and practice, they will become more complicated.  Regardless of their difficulty, you should find professional recordings of the pieces so both you and your kid can gain a clear idea of what they should sound like.  It is also up to you to make sure your kid plays a piece perfectly before letting him/her advance to harder pieces.

Here is a rough and very incomplete syllabus of my repertoire growing up:

Year of Study           Repertoire
1-3                            Czerny etudes; Suzuki songs; Clementi sonatinas; easy Mozart                                                 variations
3-5                            Scarlatti etudes; Haydn and Mozart sonatinas; Bach inventions;                                             Schumann waltzes; easy to moderate Debussy pieces
5-7                            Chopin etudes, mazurkas, and nocturnes; Bach preludes and partitas;                                   Beethoven sonatas; moderate to difficult Prokofiev pieces
7-9                            Liszt and Scriabin etudes; Beethoven concertos and sonatas; Bach                                         partitas; Chopin ballades and scherzos
9-13                          Liszt concertos and Hungarian Rhapsodies; Prokofiev and Ravel                                             concertos, sonatas, and toccatas

7. Define your goals. 

Decide early on what you want your kid to accomplish, both short-term and long-term.  When planning your goals, be very ambitious but realistic.  Your kid is not going to win the Van Cliburn competition at age 10, but with talent and practice, s/he will be able to produce a breathtaking rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

In the beginning, it’s best to make small, short-term goals.  When I was five, my technical objective was to perfect a scale, a chromatic, and an arpeggio each week.  When it came to learning songs, my parents created mini-goals.  For example, I would spend one week learning pages 1-3 of a Haydn sonatina; the next week, I had to practice pages 1-3 in addition to learning pages 4-6; the week after that, I had to play pages 1-6 without a hitch.  In this way, I was able to progress systematically.

As your kid advances, you and the teacher need to choose repertoire for concerts and competitions.  This process should take place months or even a year before the event.  Find out what the event requires, decide which pieces to play, figure out how much time your kid will need to perfect each piece and how much s/he will need to practice per day, and work accordingly.  I found it helpful to practice event repertoire in cycles; if an event required four pieces, I would focus on two of the four pieces one day and, on the next day, focus on the other two pieces.

I don’t recommend practicing for the sole purpose of winning competitions, not because winning is unimportant, but because it can take focus away from the music.   Plus, you should never be completely invested in something you can’t guarantee.  What you can guarantee is the quality of your kid’s performance, so instead of practicing to win, focus on helping your kid practice well and perfect his/her repertoire.  In most cases, you’ll find that this will naturally lead to good competition results.

8. Maximize performing experience.

One of the scariest aspects of being a concert pianist is giving concerts.  Performing live scares the crap out of most people, so your kid needs to learn to play for audiences as early and often as possible.  Research all the competitions, recitals, and auditions that your kid qualifies for, and sign up for all of them.  Make sure your kid practices hard in the months preceding each performance, and let him/her know that failure is not an option.  You will find that if your kid works hard enough, performances turn out to be very gratifying, and on-stage mishaps will not occur.

9. Inspire with good examples.

Your kid needs to see from an early age what world-class pianists are capable of and what s/he should aspire to.  For a kid, nothing is more inspiring than live performances, so you should to take your child to as many symphonies, operas, advanced student recitals, and solo and chamber concerts as you can afford.  If you live too far away from a major city, you can still get your kid to listen to CDs and watch concerts on TV.

10. Take the occasional break. 

By “occasional,” I mean once a year, and by “break,” I mean practicing less than usual for a two- or three-week period, not going cold turkey.  Your kid should be allowed to take these breaks only after the first 10 years of study, because technique, which solidifies in the first 10 years or so, is perfected only through nonstop practice.  I took my first break at age 15, when I went to a three-week academic summer camp across the country.  I was used to practicing 6 hours a day, but the practice rooms were available for only 3.5 hours a day.  My technique deteriorated slightly, but the break gave me mental space to gain more insight into the pieces I was working on.

11. Know when to quit.

This step isn’t supposed to be part of the process.  Considering I spent the entirety of this post preaching persistence, I’m hesitant to talk about quitting.  However, no amount of practice and instruction can overcome a blatant lack of ability.  If your kid is musically untalented, you need to be able to recognize, accept, and adjust your standards accordingly.

One way to identify a dearth of talent: if you followed steps 1-10 for at least 5 years and your kid hasn’t placed in a single local competition by age 10, there’s a good chance that s/he simply doesn’t have what it takes to be a concert pianist or even a good pianist.

Another reason to quit: at the end of the day (or 10 years, rather), if your child is at least 14 years old, has achieved a high level of proficiency, and still hates piano–not just verbally, because kids will complain about anything–but genuinely derives no joy from practicing or performing, you need to reconsider your priorities, because your kid’s apathy will only become more apparent with time.

About awesomebitch

Intolerant, elitist, and awesome.
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3 Responses to How to Raise a Concert Pianist–Chinese Immigrant Style

  1. Pingback: 10 Things My Chinese Parents Made Me Do | awesomebitch

  2. Caroline says:

    I don’t know any 2 year old that can attend and be still learning anything for 20 minutes. There must have been a lot of spankings. Where I live, the child would have been taken away on the ground of child abuse.

  3. Rex says:

    What a wonderful article!!
    Perfectly what I was looking for. I have 10 year old, taking piano lessons since he was 7, loves composing music. I never need to tell him to practice keyboard. He can practice himself for hour and two. I think he is doing good. But do not know really? How should I know? He never been any computation. Please let me know how I can know?
    We wanted to by electric piano. Which one do you suggest?
    Thanks in advance.

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