Clavier Companion - July/August 2017 - 4
Who will save the guitar?
In recent years, there's been a lot
of discussion about the state of the
piano teaching industry. We know that
piano sales have declined dramatically, but
has there been a decline in the number of
people studying piano? In the absence
of thorough data, we can only look to
anecdotal evidence, which seems to be highly variable. I
hear from teachers who have trouble filling their studios,
and I also hear from teachers who say that business is
better than ever.
A common refrain-perhaps even a conventional
wisdom-of the last three decades has been that while
interest in piano may be down, more kids are playing the
electric guitar. I've heard many people suggest that the
piano-teaching industry might look to its counterpart in
the guitar world for ideas on attracting more students.
Imagine my surprise when I walked by a recent cover of
Guitar Player magazine with a headline that screamed,
"WHO WILL SAVE THE GUITAR? STUDIES SHOW TEENS
QUIT PLAYING GUITAR AT AN ALARMING RATE."1
In the well-written article, editor Michael Molenda outlines
many of the concerns that I'm sure piano teachers share.
It is hard to get kids to commit to a long-term pursuit.
There are too many distractions in today's world. We are
very much an instant gratification society, and learning
an instrument is far from an instantly gratifying endeavor.
Kids don't have role models that inspire them: playing
the guitar is not as "sexy" as it was in earlier decades,
when the greatest guitar gods (think Hendrix, Page, and
Clapton) roamed the earth and reigned supreme.
A major theme of the article is that playing the guitar is
too intimidating. Students want to sound like their rockstar heroes, but the long path to achieve virtuosic skill is
daunting. I wonder if we have the same problem in piano
study. Does piano study seem too inaccessible, to the
point of scaring people away?
There has been much talk in recent years about the 10,000
hour rule. This idea originated in research by Anders
Ericsson and others,2 but it gained widespread notoriety
when Malcom Gladwell referred to it in his book Outliers.3
An oversimplification of the concept (which has been
pointed out and challenged by Ericsson and many others)
is that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice to
become an expert at a given skill. While many of us who
have practiced for years saw validation in this idea, we've
also got to consider that it can be an obstacle. As Ericsson
points out, "...many will see it as a stop sign." If piano study
is perceived as too difficult, many will not even try.
Do we, perhaps without realizing it, send messages
that discourage people from studying piano? Do we
unintentionally make it seem too difficult and turn people
Achieving a high level of skill on the piano is very hard work,
and it does require sustained effort over a long period of
time. We shouldn't deny that fact or pretend that it isn't
true. And we should do everything we can to push those
students who aspire to high standards of performance. At
the same time, we should take care to help our students
understand that this high level of achievement is not the
only goal in piano study. There is much joy that can be had
along the way, and there is much that can be celebrated at
every step, even the "simplest" ones.
Performing Chopin Études from memory is a wonderful
goal for some students, but acting like this is the goal for
every student will discourage and frustrate many. Are we
doing enough to encourage students who will never reach
this level, and are we providing them with experiences
that they can enjoy and cherish? Do we allow their musical
experiences to feel whole and complete? When students
perform beginning pieces beautifully, with musical
expression, they should not walk away feeling inadequate,
feeling like they are "just" beginners, feeling like there are
still years to go before they will be "real" pianists.
Who will save the players?
The article in Guitar Player freely admits that there are no
easy answers, and nobody knows exactly what might turn
around a declining population. While we might not know
precisely what might spark more interest, I believe that we,
the teachers, are the who. It is incumbent upon us to be
encouraging, supportive, and dedicated to all students at
all levels. Doing what we can to make early-level students
feel accomplished is important. I, for one, would be more
than happy to live in a world with more piano players of
all skill levels.
Molenda, M. (March 2017). Planet of the axe. Guitar Player 51 (3), 48-53.
Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.Th., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate
practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review 100
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown,