In a large, white classroom in Harlem, New York, 30 kids sit in front of their electric pianos playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star together. They’re 10-years-old and as they come to the end of the lullaby, they spontaneously applaud themselves.
They have these lessons twice each week at PS46, always using their own piano and always under the instruction of a dedicated piano teacher. They will continue to have them for the next three years, with curriculum time dedicated to it.
Those that work at the school will tell you that these sessions are changing these kids. The catchment is an area of deprivation where 75 per cent of students are eligible for free school meals and more than 50 per cent do not hit state test standards. Since introducing the piano curriculum, students that did not come to school now attend every day, children have begun engaging with learning like they never had before and there was a transformation in the attitude, motivation and application that all students demonstrated in class.
“It makes us feel much more proud of ourselves,” explains fifth-grader Lindell Raison. “[The piano lessons] give us inspiration, hard work and dedication.”
The programme, Keys of Inspiration (see box, opposite), runs in six schools in the US and positive feedback like this makes the man who came up with the concept, who financed it and who is pushing for the programme to be further expanded, feel two distinct emotions.
First, he’s happy that a conviction he has – that music is transformational educationally and personally – is being proven.
But secondly, and more acutely, he feels disappointed that the education system does not see the worth in music that he does. And budget cuts, he fears, will make the problem of getting music into schools even worse.
“Music tuition looks easy to cut,” he says. “That’s because people don’t understand why we need music. It’s not about learning to play an instrument. It is about opening minds, cultivating imaginations, learning to communicate. It can influence every aspect of your life.”
He should know. Music has taken 33-year-old Lang Lang from a one-bedroom flat in Beijing, one that contained just a bunk bed and a piano, to a private jet that transports him between headline shows around the world. He is widely seen as the greatest living classical pianist, he has been credited with inspiring 44 million kids to play piano in China and he is a UN Messenger of Peace.
Education, as you may have guessed, is a major focus and he has some ideas about music and education – about character and resilience and creativity – that provide an interesting reflection on the government’s plans for schools in England.
Feel the rhythm
That Lang Lang believes that music tuition is essential to schooling is to be expected. What is more interesting, however, is how he thinks that schools are getting music tuition wrong. Teaching children about music is not just about playing an instrument, he insists, or about detailing theory. Instead, it’s about understanding music as an art.
“You need to let children interpret for themselves,” he explains. “You need them to have their own vision of the content – it’s about more than what is on the page, it is about feeling the music.
“If you only have technique, you feel empty. You can’t deliver. You have the language but you cannot speak it. It’s frustration.”
Just as irksome for Lang Lang is that the broader benefits of music teaching are not appreciated by some schools.
“As long as music tuition is done properly, you will see students learn how to focus, learn how to commit, learn how to be creative,” he says. “It teaches you logic. It can be very mathematical. And if you have a child struggling with a text, it can help to express that text through music, to use music as a medium of interpretation.
“If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, teacher, whatever the profession, if you can take the same process of making music, that dedication and willingness, you will succeed.”
He believes that there are also benefits for the pastoral side of a school’s responsibility. Hard-to-reach children need a medium where they can express themselves and encounter positive re-enforcement – there are few better ways to do that than music, in his opinion.
“As a UN ambassador, I see how music can bring children out of themselves, help them deal with their own issues or issues they have experienced,” he says. “You go to the most dangerous, gang-ridden areas, and you find charities creating orchestras. The kids that were once selling drugs, that were violent, they are suddenly playing instruments and they play beautifully and they feel part of something, they have a passion for something, they want to achieve and society gives them positive feedback.”
The practicalities of art
Instead of orchestras and music, he says that too many schools opt for passive appreciation that does little to stir the emotion needed to have a real impact. This was why he set up Keys of Inspiration and why he is so intent on expanding the programme.
“Too often, you see schemes where kids are taken to a gallery or concert,” he says. “And you expect them to get something from that just by showing it to them? Really? No, you have to sit them down. Get them involved. Physically touch the keyboard, physically draw the picture.
“These students don’t feel loved. They feel like society has left them. So they give up. Then you give them a music lesson. Then you let them explore the positive energy of playing with others. Of collaboration. They feel loved.”
Just 48,184 students took GCSE music in England last year. In 2014, it was even lower. For comparison, more than 75,000 students opted for drama and more than 760,000 took a Maths GCSE. Whether the difference is down to student appetite or schools’ capacity to teach music is obviously debateable, but clearly the benefits that Lang Lang talks of are either not widely known, or not believed.
If it is an appeal issue, Lang Lang says that this may be down to poor teaching. “The trouble when teaching arts subjects is that there is a huge personal element to it,” he says. “Some people won’t like your style. As a result, what makes a great teacher in the arts is heavily dependent on the individual student. To get around this, teachers cannot treat every single student with the same approach.
“People give up on things because the idea that they have of how things should be does not come about. The blame for that goes onto the subject – I hate music, or I hate mathematics. But the problem actually lies in the individual, in the teacher or in the teaching methodology. It is not the subject’s fault, but music usually gets the blame.”
Surprisingly, he is not an advocate for a rote-learning approach. As a child, he sometimes practiced for eight hours per day. Whatever the subject, he doesn’t think that such an approach works. He has written a series of music books, The Lang Lang Piano Method, to put across his own pedagogic ethos.
“Rote learning of anything is too dry, too technical,” he says. “Fun is essential. You need to find ways to connect. In the books, there is always a painting with the music, to help with the emotional connection. And we always have a concert piece at the end, the ‘mission’. We need to provide an end product, a higher purpose. This is the way kids work now, it is interactive. We have to accept that.”
‘Neighbours threw bottles’
Lang Lang’s own schooling had little fun involved. His father gave up a job in the police force to take him to Beijing to be taught piano. His mother, meanwhile, stayed in their hometown of Shenyang to earn the family money; he and his father moved into a small flat with only a bunk bed and a piano.
“No one understood music in our apartment block. Beethoven? What was this? Neighbours would get annoyed and throw beer bottles through my window when I practiced,” he says.
His father, he says, was too “extreme” when it came to the piano.
“It was a massive amount of pressure. When I did not get into the school of music, he said it was my fault. He told me to jump out of the window,” he reveals. “I tried to give up. I was nine-years-old. I felt pain every time I saw the piano. I would cry.”
And yet today, he is the most celebrated living pianist in the world. The sheer resilience, the character that it must have taken to get to this point is something that Nicky Morgan must wish she could bottle and send to every student in the country. Character education, after all, is her personal project.
It turns out Lang Lang has some interesting thoughts on this issue, too. Resilience is not something you can teach, he says, nor is it a trait that you can force upon a child. Instead, resilience is about networks of support.
“It is not within the person that you find character, it is the external relationships,” he says. “It is the structures. It is the network. Build the network and you build the motivation, the character, the resilience. You need to find someone who they trust. A classmate, a teacher, a mentor. It’s that simple.”
He says that prevention is also key – the school system has to normalise failure.
“You have to give students a break. Too much tension, too much stress, it creates fear. And we expect students to succeed in that? Why? It does not work like that. Too much pressure is destructive,” he says. “You have to demystify fear. If you make a mistake, what is going to happen? Nothing. Life goes on. All the most successful people, they all failed. But you are only a true failure if you fail and never get up again. Then you are a failure.”
Typically, he takes this back to music and his mission to make the education system recognise the subject’s benefits. Not only do schools have to realise that music can build academic, social and practical skills, he says, they need to recognise that it can also save your soul.
“It’s music that got me through,” he says. “Music is not a place where you can put anger or hate. This is a loving thing. And it forces the hate out of you.”
Keys of Inspiration
The Lang Lang Foundation launched the Keys of Inspiration programme in 2013 in two schools in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a three-year programme that provides pianos, resources and teaching staff to public schools with more than 75 per cent of students eligible for free school meals and where 50 per cent of students don’t reach state test standards.
Students meet in large groups two or more times per week in the Foundation-funded “Piano Lab” within the school and learn and play piano together. The emphasis is on collaboration, fun and building self-confidence as well as core musical skills.
There are six schools in the programme, with a further five joining next year.
Lang Lang – a life in music
Born in Shenyang, China, in 1982, Lang Lang was inspired to play piano after watching the cartoon Tom and Jerry. He attended Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music and picked up a series of prizes for piano before joining the world-famous Curtis Institute of Music, based in Philadelphia, US.
Aged 17, he was called upon to make a dramatic last-minute substitution for the famous Andre Watts to perform in the “Gala of the Century”, playing a Tchaikovsky concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Since then, he has gone on to become the world’s best-known classical pianist. He plays sold out concerts across the world and has performed at the World Cup (Rio 2014) and the Olympics (Beijing 2008 opening ceremony). His Liszt 200th-birthday concert was broadcast live in more than 300 movie theatres around the United States and 200 cinemas across Europe and was the first classical music cinema cast to be headlined by a solo artist.
In 2009, he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and he is now a UN ambassador for peace, as well as running The Lang Lang Foundation, a music charity.
The first three publications in his new series of piano tuition books with Faber, The Lang Lang Piano Method, were launched in March, with the next two being launched in September.