Brian Chung | BC - Where Do We Go From Here?

 

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Delivered at the MTNA Leadership Summit in Cincinnati, Ohio on September 8, 2001.

 

This evening, we’re going to think about our place within today’s culture.  We will examine the role of music making as it exists within a context of steady and inevitable change.  And, in the end, we will consider some possible answers to the question, “Where do we go from here?”

Let me say in advance that most of the thoughts I will be offering to you tonight all involve the desperate need for more music makers.   In other talks, I’ve made reference to the thousands of people who, each day, are choosing to do something else besides play music.  Over the years, we have continued to lose them – to sports, computers and all manner of fun alternatives.  Collectively, I’ve called these people “the lost millions.”  You know they’re out there.  You see them every day… just not in your studio.

Most people in the profession have agreed that getting these lost millions “back into our world” will require some significant changes on our part.  But can those changes really happen?  Is there a chasm between “talking about change” and really “producing change?”  As I look at our situation, there is something not quite right – a possible “disconnect” that could be holding us back.

On one hand, we agree that we must have more music makers.  But, on the other hand, most of you have a full schedule of students, plus a waiting list.  Do you see the paradox?  We need more students, but we’ve got too many!  We definitely need change – but why change when everything appears to be going so well?  It’s like telling someone with a full stomach and fully stocked refrigerator that he needs to go out right this minute and buy more food.  Where’s the motivation?

Could it be that part of us keeps talking about the need for change; but deep in our hearts, we really don’t see the need or the urgency for it?  Only you can answer that.  But in case it’s true, I thought I should begin with some compelling reasons why embracing change to create more music makers is so important to our future.

THE LOST MILLIONS ARE REAL

First of all, it is important to recognize that we really are losing people.  Statistics show that there are fewer and fewer people under the age of 35 playing music.  And I’m certain you have all experienced the student dropout problem that has plagued the profession for years.  If we could reverse this trend and create/retain more music makers, what would we gain?  Three things come to mind – respect, satisfaction and a better world.

Greater Respect

If you’re tired of playing second fiddle to the sports coaches, the answer is simple.  Attract more players.  More participants means greater popularity for your field.  When millions flock to a particular activity, that popularity elevates the status and esteem of all those involved, players and teachers alike.  When playing tennis hit its zenith back in the 1970’s, everyone associated with the sport felt respected and proud – from the players to the coaches to the racquet manufacturers to the racket stringing specialists.  The more we can attract the lost millions, the more popularity we will bring to this art form, and the more respect the world will have for you and me and what we do.

Satisfaction

Let me take that further.  What if many among those lost millions, the ones who are right now spending countless hours striving to become great rock climbers or terrific golfers, were to embrace music with the same vigor, and learn to play really well?  Can you imagine the tremendous satisfaction you would derive not only from the chance to work with more and more talented, motivated people – but also to have more students who could fully appreciate and admire the skills and the dedication that you bring to their art?   How does it feel to realize that some of those who would have been your best, most satisfying students to teach are playing soccer today?  You never met them – and sadly, you never will.

A Better World

If respect and satisfaction aren’t reasons enough… how about these?  More music makers means more funding for the arts.  It means larger, more appreciative audiences for our music.  It means more responsible citizens in our communities.  It means fewer kids on drugs (if you’ve seen the poll that shows music as the number one “anti-drug” for teens).  In short, having more music makers means a better world.

These are the things to be won in the “battle for the lost millions.”  The sad reality of all that we have missed by letting those millions drift away without a fight should distress every one of us.  So, at the outset of this talk, please agree with me that, despite those waiting lists, the pursuit of more music makers is a cause worth fighting for.

CULTURAL CONTEXT

So, where do we go from here?  Before we can decide where to go, we should first understand where we are.  To help in that assessment, let me try to describe the typical 21st century student:

He/she is extremely busy, overwhelmed by homework, chronically tired, barraged by attractive alternatives, highly tech savvy, entrenched in participation sports, heavily oriented toward group activities and has very little spare time.  He/she is listening to rap, hip-hop and boy/girl vocal bands, has little appreciation for classical music, seldom hears piano music of any kind, has no young piano heroes, and has very few opportunities to perform.

Am I pretty close?  With that description as the context for our discussion, let’s ask the question, “What must teachers do to reach the current and future students of the 21st century?”

In previous talks, I’ve stated with great urgency that we need to make music making fun.  The student I have just described doesn’t need one more thing in life that is all hard work.  I firmly believe that “making learning fun” must be our top priority.  However, saying that is much easier than actually doing it.  It’s like saying you should go out and live better lives, without offering any ideas as to how you should go about it.  Let me try to be a little more specific with the following recommendations.

Recommendation #1 -- Personalize Fun

Have you ever had a situation that you thought was extremely fun, but others around you did not?  Conversely, have you ever been in a situation in which everyone around you was having fun, but you weren’t?   We have all had experiences like that.

Why does this happen?  Because everyone is different.  That’s why there are a zillion cable channels on television and so many diverse radio stations on your AM and FM dials.  Preferences are personal.  And so is “fun.”

“Personalizing fun” means making your teaching fun for each individual student… not to you (the teacher), not to students in general, but to that particular student.  I hope I’m wrong in saying this… but I’m not sure we always know if our students are having fun.

How can you know if they’re having fun?  Ask them.  If they say they’re not, ask “Why not?”  If they say, “I don’t know,” then ask them what things they do that ARE fun.  Let them help you discover their concept of fun.  Once you’ve found it, use your natural creativity to link their concept with your teaching.  The more tools you have in your arsenal, the easier it will be.

Must it ALL be fun?  No.  But at least some portion must be fun to make the hard work bearable.  If they’re having fun, they’ll keep going – and they’ll tell their friends.

Recommendation #2 – Foster the Perception of Fun

Not only does our teaching need to be truly fun… but to gain more music makers, it must be perceived as fun.  The reality of fun and the perception of fun are two different things.  And sometimes, perception can be stronger than reality.

Here is an example.  When I was eight years old, my parents made a wonderful new kind of meat for dinner.  I tasted it and excitedly asked my father what it was.  He replied, “Teriyaki steak.”  With that, I proceeded to gobble up every bit of it that my little body could handle.  It was marvelous!  Afterward, I thanked my mother for the delicious teriyaki steak.  To which she clarified, “Oh, that wasn’t steak.  That was beef tongue.”

I was horrified!  My mind immediately flashed back to the unsightly mound of unidentifiable flesh (complete with taste buds) that I had seen earlier in the refrigerator.  To this day, nearly four decades later, I have never sampled another piece of beef tongue and probably never will.  That is the difference between perception and reality. Even though I know it tastes great (and even though I’m a big boy now), my perception of it has kept me away for a lifetime.  

Can you see the connection with our music?  Even though the reality may be fun, the perception alone may prevent kids from embracing music making.  In focus groups with third grade students, children were asked about their perception of music lessons.  Many shuddered and immediately said, “Too hard!”  Now, why would they say that if they had never taken a lesson?  It’s because someone ­told them it was hard.  That warning made them afraid.  The perception is their reality.

How do we change this?  The answer ties right in with Recommendation #1.  When you make learning personally fun for your current students, they will tell their friends.  Friends are the most credible source of information for potential students (unfortunately, you and I are not nearly as credible).  When we convince one person that music making is fun, we may actually be convincing many others at the same time.  Don’t underestimate the power of perception.  Rather, utilize it to create more music makers.

Recommendation #3 – Encourage the Dream of Fun

The music may actually be fun.  It may even be perceived as fun.  Why, then, would people still resist?  Because there is still hard work involved.  Let’s face it.  Becoming a good musician takes work.  But the one thing that can keep students going is “the dream.”

I am a pianist today because of a song called “Alley Cat.”  From first to fourth grade, that one song made me “cool” with my friends.  Later, in sixth grade, I could play the Ritual Fire Dance… but did that make me cool?  No.  For my friends, I played “Born Free.”  In seventh grade, was it Beethoven’s Appassionata?  No, it was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  You see, my dream was not necessarily my teacher’s dream – or my parent’s dream.   My dream was to be cool in front of my peers.  It made all the work worthwhile.  People will accept hard work if there is a payoff.

This principle applies to other activities besides music.  Do you think high school football players really LIKE everything about football?  Do they relish the “two-a-day” practices in the sweltering heat of August, the injuries, the exhaustion, the tremendous amount of time invested?  No!  Most of them, if they’re honest, will tell you that they hate it.  Then why do so many young men do it?  The answers are status, popularity (spelled “g-i-r-l-s”) and camaraderie.  Those are some of the payoffs... the dreams.  They make the hard work worthwhile.  

Are we helping to create dreams for our students today?  Are we creating practical dreams that allow them to play for friends and special occasions?  Can your students play “Happy Birthday To You” or Christmas carols at the holidays?  Can they play any pop tunes that mean something to their friends?

Do your students have visionary dreams… which I like to call “Eddie Van Halen” dreams?  Millions of young men became guitar players over the last 3 decades because they wanted to be like Eddie Van Halen.  We had pop piano heroes in the 70s and 80s such as Elton John, Billy Joel, Keith Emerson, Stevie Wonder, Carole King and others.  But besides Alicia Keys, can you name one pianist today who is popular with young people?  Sadly, today’s music heroes aren’t playing keyboards.  (Author's Note:  Norah Jones and Vanessa Carlton were relatively unknown when this address was given.)

Without heroes, we need to help our students create visionary dreams.  Perhaps it is playing in their church worship band or giving a mini-concert at a birthday party?  Maybe we need to change the form of recitals and make them “celebrations” in which the kids play what they want and invite their friends?  We need to help create venues where our students can be “cool.”  And if we’re not regularly asking them about their musical dreams, we certainly should be.  They need our help and encouragement to live out their dreams.

Recommendation #4 – Generate Fun in Groups

Quick!  Name a ­popular activity today that normally begins with one-on-one instruction.  It’s hard, isn’t it?  Most activities start in groups.  School bands play together, choirs sing together, guitar players learn chords together.  In the piano world, however, we learn alone, practice alone and play alone.  In some ways, it’s one of the world’s loneliest activities.

Given a choice, why would a gregarious child want to choose piano when he or she could choose any number of activities that could be done with friends in a social setting? If we’re going to reach the lost millions, we have to expand group teaching!

Group instruction makes sense not just for students, but for teachers, as well.  Let’s think it through logically.  Say you were starting fresh, with no pedagogy tradition.  If you wanted to maximize your income, would you begin with individual or group teaching?  Probably group.  If you wanted to reach more potential students, or wanted to more quickly identify gifted students, or wanted to have a wider impact in your community – which would you choose?  Probably group teaching.  If there were one thing that could turn the tide of the lost millions in favor of the piano world, it is group teaching.

Does it all have to be group?  No.  But couldn’t a portion of your schedule be dedicated to group teaching?  And couldn’t we tell today’s pedagogy students that group teaching must be part of their future plans?  Also, keep in mind that groups don’t have to be large.  I know several successful teachers who teach in groups of three, with marvelous results.

MTNA and the National Piano Foundation have partnered together to create the “Group Teacher Training Project” – a program that offers exceptional seminars and video materials about group instruction.  I encourage you all to take advantage of these resources (call MTNA for more information).  If you haven’t already embraced group teaching, please give it a try.  I believe that our future depends on it.

Recommendation #5 – Create Fun Through Technology

Let me go on the record saying that I’m a firm believer in using technology for teaching music.  It can be a prime ingredient in bringing fun to your studio.  I see it as an essential tool of the craft in the same way that computers assist at the office and microwaves help in the kitchen.  But let me approach this “technology thing” from a different direction.

How many of you have a personal website?  I know several 12-year-olds who do (elaborate sites that they built themselves).  How many of you have had problems running your computers only to have a young teenager press a few buttons and solve everything?  Who are the biggest users and experts on the computer in most homes?  Children.  A few years ago, the country of Finland hired 5000 young people to “teach the teachers” how to use computers.  A school district near Seattle did the same thing.

In his book, Growing Up Digital, author Don Tapscott refers to this phenomenon not as a “Generation Gap” but as a “Generation Lap.”  Using the track & field metaphor, he observes that the “Internet Generation” has lapped their parents, surging far ahead in their understanding and acceptance of technology in everyday life.  While parents see emerging technology as “something new” that requires fundamental change in the way that we think and act – children see it as “the way life has always been.”  They have fully assimilated the technology as a natural part of the communication and culture of their generation.

In light of this, maybe we need to rethink our approach to technology.  Perhaps it’s time for us all to stop for a moment and listen carefully to what the younger people have to say in their own language.  And if we really tune in, they may be able to teach us how to better use technology to reach their generation.  It’s possible that their ideas will literally ­pull the technology right out of our hands and into their music.   This may mean letting some of our students become our teachers.  But, if we’re willing to listen, it may amaze us to see what we can learn. 

Recommendation #6 – Prepare for 76 Million People Looking for Fun

“Baby Boomer” is the name given to 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, now representing 31% of the U.S. population.  They are the most well-educated generation in history, with 25-30% possessing four or more years of college.  One of them turns 50 every 7 seconds.  As a group, they will eventually receive the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.

The first Boomers will start retiring around 2011.  By 2025, there will be 50 million people over 65, retired and looking for fun things to do.  Will music making be one of those things?  Not if the golf and sport fishing industries, the RV and boating industries, the cruise lines, the ballroom dance teachers, the health clubs, the software developers, the travel industry and a host of other groups have anything to say about it.  We’re up against a mountain of alternatives – and we’ll need to fight hard to get a share of their attention.

We lost many of these people when they were children.  They melted into the lost millions.  Now, we’ll get a second chance.  But here’s an important question -- are there enough of us to teach legions of retiring Boomers?  Remember, most of you already have waiting lists -- and the number of people studying to be music teachers continues to dwindle.

What’s the solution?  Either we must aggressively enlist many more teachers into this profession (including some who are willing to specialize in group teaching) – or we must embrace “adult group teaching” with a vengeance.  If we lack the numbers or the energy to reach this generation, we will lose them – and consequently lose one of the best opportunities we have to change the future of this profession.

Recommendation #7 –  Value Participation as much as Performance

For some reason, performance has always far outranked participation in our value system.  The traditional thinking has been “we don’t mind having MORE players, as long as they’re GOOD.”  Where has that thinking led us?  To the reality of the lost millions… with music always playing “second fiddle” to sports and other pursuits.  Maybe it’s time for a new model in which simply being a player is as important as being a good player.  That will mean a drastic change in our definition of a successful student.

In the current performance model, successful students are those who achieve a particular level of proficiency as determined by their teachers or other adjudicators.  Successful teachers are those who can take students to that level.

In the participation model, successful students are those who derive long-term satisfaction and enjoyment from playing music at any level of proficiency as determined by the students themselves.  And successful teachers are those who can get students to that place.

Do you see the striking difference?  In the participation model, the student who is fairly mediocre, but enjoys playing music for a lifetime, is a success.  In the performance model, that same student (and teacher) could be labeled a failure.  My question is this -- does it have to be one or the other?  Couldn’t both models exist simultaneously?  And if so, wouldn’t people on both sides of the issue benefit?

Let’s consider the value of participation using the example of girls soccer.  Have you heard of Mia Hamm, the most well-known American female soccer player?  Did Mia Hamm make girls soccer popular?  I don’t think so.  In fact, did any of the women on the famed World Cup Championship Team of 1999 make girls soccer popular?   Certainly they made a contribution, but they did not make it happen.

I think the reverse is true.  What made those athletes popular was the pre-existing popularity of amateur girls soccer.  It was the 100,000 amateurs who came to the Rose Bowl to cheer them on to a Women’s World Cup victory.  Participation preceded performance.  Quantity preceded quality.

Soccer greats existed before Mia, but no one in America cared.  Ever heard of Pele?  He was arguably the finest soccer player who ever lived.  On the world stage, he was bigger than Michael Jordan in the prime of Jordan’s career.  Did Pele make soccer popular in the U.S. during his career?  No.  Americans couldn’t relate to him because they had no experience, understanding or love for the game.  Elite stars can be critical to the popularity of any activity… but not until that activity has first established a wide base of amateur-level support among the population.

Why is soccer one of the most popular youth sports in America today? Because 37 years ago, the soccer industry began to concentrate on building the base of mainstream amateur players.  Quantity preceded quality.

Why has the general quality of soccer risen dramatically at all levels across the U.S.?  The answer is “more mainstream players.”  Quantity brought forth more quality.

Why are the top American soccer players now competing with the best in the world?  Again, the answer is “more mainstream players.  Quantity inspired the highest quality.

And why do today’s American soccer stars get more attention here than Pele ever did?  Again, more mainstream players.  Quantity helped people appreciate quality.  Ironically, the people who should be the strongest proponents of quantity at the mainstream level are those who perform and teach at the elite level (where the emphasis is clearly quality over quantity).

Given these points, we must begin to see the mainstream student as the key to our future.  We must value participation as much as we do performance.  And we must be willing to honor those teachers who faithfully nurture the mainstream student as much as we honor those who teach the elite.

CONCLUSION

Well, there you have it… seven humble suggestions for improving our future.  But can we really turn the tide in favor of music making?

Let me conclude with an illustration of hope that comes surprisingly from youth soccer.  Thirty-seven years ago, soccer was a virtually non-existent sport in America.  Little League baseball and Pop Warner football ruled the day.  Whenever people discussed soccer (and that was rare), people would comment, “That’s that game foreigners play.”  After all, who would want to play a game where you can’t even use your hands?  If you would have asked people in the 1960s whether soccer had a big future in America, virtually all of them would’ve looked at you as though you were crazy.

Now, fast forward just one generation.   In that short period, soccer became one of this country’s most popular youth activities with millions of kids participating.  It is as big as (if not bigger than) Little League – an amazing success story.  And when soccer historians look back, they trace its beginnings to a small group of people meeting together back in 1964… talking, conceptualizing, deciding what needed to be done and then doing it.

Can we redefine music making in a generation?  I believe we can… if we will strive to make music-making personally fun for each student and simultaneously change the perceptions of their friends one-by-one… if we will help our students pursue their musical dreams… if we will focus on group teaching not only for children but also for eventual Boomer retirees… and if we will remember that “quality” matters most when “quantity” is there to appreciate it.

If, collectively, we will do these things, I believe that we will live to see a world where music making is once again at its rightful place at the forefront of our culture; where the members of this profession are honored not just for the instruction they provide, but for the invaluable contribution they make toward a better society; and a world where soccer coaches everywhere lament losing some of their best players to music (an activity in which players hardly even use their feet).

And when we get there, and people begin to reflect upon the amazing effort that led to a world filled with music makers, I hope that historians will trace its beginnings to the work of small groups like this one, way back at the beginning of the new millennium.

That’s my hope and dream for you.  Thank you for letting me be a part of it.

 
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