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Putting enjoyment before exceptionalism will draw more people and money into music, says former US head of Kawai pianos

Brian Chung calls for changes to the priorities of music education

Brian Chung, a London Guildhall School of Music and Drama alumnus, who ran Kawai America for over thirty years, gave an impassioned talk at the US Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) conference about changing the priorities of music education to attract more participants and better government support.

One of a number of events promoting Recreational Music-Making (RMM) at the conference, Chung’s discussion attracted a lot of positive response from attendees and he spoke to MUSIC:ED afterwards. He and his friend, Brenda Dillon of the National Piano Foundation and Frances Clark Center, had been banging the RMM gong for over 20 years after seeing a talk by Carl Bruhn of Yamaha, drum-maker Remo Belli and the drummer and integrative medicine doctor, Barry Bittman. ‘They gave a joint presentation about what the future would look like if we changed the approach and reached out to more people. Brenda and I thought this could be the start of something big,’ Chung said. ‘But we found out that the way we had been taught to think doesn’t change. So, 20 years later we’re here, gaining momentum but ever so slowly.’ Undeterred, Chung and Dillon co-wrote the ‘Recreational Music Making Handbook’, published by Alfred Music, and started focus groups with young music teachers to sell the idea of RMM.

In his conference talk, Chung used the analogy of soccer in the USA to explain the RMM theory. After failed attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to establish the sport through imported star players, success came in the end through a grass-roots movement, especially with young school-kids. Now, millions of young Americans play soccer every week and the women’s national team has won the FIFA World Cup twice. ‘Sports coaches get all sorts of accolades,’ he said. ‘Professional music teachers need a great deal of respect for what they’ve invested, but if we’re never going to earn that respect, we need to bring more people in.’

The supporters of RMM argue it could be the same for music as it is for sport if we upturn the hierarchal pyramid that puts all the focus on the pinnacle of musical achievement. ‘People say if we invest more in excellence it would raise all boats for music-making. It would elevate everything,’ Chung said. ‘I don’t buy that. There are too many other things in society that are pulling people elsewhere. So, I think the people who really want to be part of what we’re doing are already with us. The thing that could really help us to cross the chasm is to attract the people who always wanted to play music but don’t feel like they have permission. We need to welcome them in, so they not only enjoy playing music, but they become audiences, they teach their grandchildren, and you end up with more excellence.’

‘Let’s focus on making music natural for people who are never going to be great. Teachers here in Houston make around US$80-85 an hour teaching piano, which is a pretty good wage, but they could make more teaching recreational music-making because most of that is taught in groups. Most achievement-based teachers are introverts. They spend 10,000 hours alone becoming really great, so they’re not really inclined to do group classes. But if you have ten students at US$15 per lesson, you’re making US$150 an hour. Most people want to be in a social environment playing with others. The number of people who play guitar together is much more than those who play solo. So, it’s more lucrative professionally.’

‘I’m looking for generational change. I’m looking for people open to the idea of a third of a studio’s students being there just for fun.’

He references Will Bailey who, with Debra Perez, was an early adopter and proselytiser for RMM. Together they launched the Musical Moments programme, which gives lesson plans and advice to music teachers seeking an alternative to traditional achievement-based methods.

But Brian Chung admits there is still a long way to go before the elite of the music education world agree that targeting big numbers instead of singling out the virtuosi of tomorrow will make music a more vital part of everyone’s lives and attract the level of governmental and institutional support that sport does.

‘Brenda and I started a focus group of younger teachers back in 2005.’ Two of them are now at the forefront of Recreational Music Making: Nan Baker Richerson and Emily Book McGree, who with Rebecca C Bellelo are all now university professors and continuing the struggle to get more of those at the top of the musical tree to concentrate on spreading the roots.

Meanwhile, Brian Chung has retired from Kawai, and is concentrating on his first loves, playing and teaching piano and writing.