Parents, take note: love of music can't be forced

Kelly Yang says that pushing our children to take music and dance classes will never foster the passion necessary to truly excel

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 2:39am

Every day, dozens of children scramble into the narrow lifts of my office building after school. Like most Hong Kong kids, they don headphones over their gel-styled hair. Unlike most, they're not heading to an English or maths lesson. They're going to hip hop class.

We may not be the hometown of Psy but, in Hong Kong, interest in street dance and popular music is exploding. About 200 children take classes at Dance Union @ Sunny Wong and the number is increasing exponentially, the programme director says.

Perhaps it is the growing influence of music videos, the infatuation with celebrity or the dream of becoming a pop star that is fuelling this trend. For whatever reason, it is not uncommon to see children as young as four practising hip hop five to six hours a day in the company's Causeway Bay studio before a big performance.

Hong Kong is not alone. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Korean youngsters are spending hundreds of hours training in cram pop schools, in the hope of becoming the next big K-pop star. And at Nine Beats music school in China, there are currently 30,000 children learning drums, guitar and bass at the school's 120 locations. There, the children practise for over 10 hours a day. For many, it is something to put in one's portfolio as a way to stand out among a sea of grade 8 pianists.

Like so many other Chinese kids, I remember sitting at the piano as a child for a minimum of two hours every day, at the insistence of my mother. I played and played until my fingers hurt - and still, I was pretty awful. One day, to my great relief, my piano instructor gently whispered to my mother: "You know … maybe she isn't cut out for this." I'll never forget the look of hurt on my mother's face, like someone had slapped her. I tried to look disappointed, too, but inside, I was jumping for joy.

From that day on, my mother stopped pushing me to play the piano. For years, I stayed as far away as possible. Then, one afternoon as I was walking through a mall, I heard Mozart's Minuet in G Major, and something stirred in me. The next thing I knew, I was back on the piano bench again, except this time, every note I played, I played for me.

When it comes to music, to really play beautifully, you have to love it. Yet love is a hard thing to push - push too hard and it can turn to hate.

That is exactly what is happening in Hong Kong. According to King George V School music teacher Alexandra Carlile, while many kids in Hong Kong pass grade 8 piano or violin, most don't bother to continue with music. They may be technically great - and also possess a lot of discipline, as a result of years of being pushed - but more often than not, the love is simply not there.

That's really a shame, too, because there's nothing more beautiful than classical music. Play Beethoven's Symphony No 5 and watch as those four opening notes transport the audience. Even something as cool as hip hop and K-pop will soon lose its allure if kids cram for it but don't really love it.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com