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Joel Ayau

Chinese Musicians Worry Elite Juilliard School Might Be Lost In Translation

Lincoln Center, a gathering place for classical music lovers in New York. (Robert Mintzes/Wikimedia Commons)

In June of this year, The Juilliard School, an elite performing arts conservatory, announced plans to partner with governmental and educational entities in Tianjin, China, to explore the creation of an educational institute there. With the assistance of the Tianjin Innovative Finance Company, the Tianjin Municipal Education Commission, and the Tianjin Conservatory of Music, Juilliard seeks to establish an institute, focusing initially on classical music education and performance, which hews to the same high standards as its famous campus on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. 

In many ways, this is a natural development following recent trends that have emerged not only at Juilliard, but in the classical music world at large. Much has been written about the rapid growth of classical music study in China; a 2007 New York Times article noted a massive increase in students of classical music, the production of instruments, and schools and performing arts centers during the past generation. China has been tapping its reserves of man-power and economic might to create a new generation of musical talent, which has gone on to find a home in conservatories, orchestras, and opera houses all around the world.

The Juilliard School enjoys a reputation as the most elite institution of musical learning in the world, and the name carries even more weight in China, with its obsession of admission to “name schools.” Juilliard has experienced an increase in the number of students enrolling from China every year since 1995. Opening a branch in China seems to be the next logical step in this evolution. Juilliard’s President, Dr. Joseph W. Polisi, stated that, “We envision the Institute will be an elite center for performing arts education serving all of East Asia, a destination for all performing artists worldwide, and a hub for all of Juilliard’s activity in this region.”

However, in interviews with Tea Leaf Nation, several Chinese alumni from Juilliard and other top schools of music indicated that bringing Juilliard to China is not as simple as building a new facility and inviting big-name faculty. These musicians noted many differences between the musical worlds of China and the United States, identifying obstacles that this institute would have to overcome to truly fulfill its mission of teaching music at a high level in China. 

The most common reaction evinced hope that this institute would reflect the ideals and learning environment of the United States, even with its location in Tianjin, a manufacturing hub and China’s third-most populous city. Yuan Ma, a graduate of Bard College and Masters candidate at the Yale School of Music in violin, noted, “The classical music environment in the [U.S.] is so much more current and fast-changing. It would be good to have teachers from the United States and a refined music-school system to help Chinese conservatory students get rid of the old-fashioned style, and to bring them [into] more direct contact with the newest stream of classical music.” 

It is unclear how the make-up of the teaching faculty will influence the pedagogical flavor of the institute. Rosemary Reyes, Manager of Global Initiatives at Juilliard, told Tea Leaf Nation that the Tianjin faculty will be drawn from an international pool, including a number of Juilliard alumni based in China or willing to move there, and may also include current Juilliard faculty members working on one- or two-year contracts. 

Students also commented on the perception that the classical music world in China has become corrupted by a large influx of money over recent decades. One recent Juilliard graduate, who chose to remain anonymous, decried the collapse of integrity in the relationship between Chinese teachers and students. “When we were in school, the teachers were more focused on teaching, and it was a more pure environment. Now, schools and teachers are more motivated towards making money.  Instead of accepting students who are more talented, teachers can be tempted to accept those that come from richer families, and to teach them multiple lessons each week. When I was in school we got extra lessons, but there was no charge for it.” She also reported stories of music teachers also selling instruments on the side, and pressuring students to purchase those instruments during lessons.

Another interviewee, who requested to remain anonymous out of concern for his future employment opportunities, shared a story of coming face-to-face with this corruption. This recent graduate of an American conservatory returned to China to try to find a teaching job. When he had an interview and an audition for a teaching job at a well-known conservatory in China, he was told that in order to secure the teaching position, a bribe of 400,000 RMB (about US$64,000) would also be required.

Outside Juilliard, LED displays tout upcoming performances. (Robert Mintzes/Wikimedia Commons)

Besides the difficulty of creating an environment where high musical standards trump economic concerns, another major hurdle remains: Creating and nurturing an appreciative audience for classical music. On one hand, there has been a frenzy of concert hall construction in many parts of China, with enormous venues by big-name architects springing up in every major city. Yet the tradition of classical music appreciation has yet to truly permeate a culture relatively new to the medium.

As Shijun Wang, a recent Masters graduate from Juilliard, put it: “There is no classical market in China. We all know that. The problem is that only a few people like it. I don’t think any high-level [institution] can solve this problem. Instead, what China really needs is a project of building interest towards classical music and introducing the basic aspects of why classical music can be so beautiful.”

It should be noted that even in the U.S., many cultural institutions invest as much in outreach projects and “listener development” as they do performance. Ms. Reyes said that the efforts of the Juilliard Institute in China will initially focus mostly on training-based programs, and not outreach, although Julliard is very focused on outreach in other initiatives around the world, including Brazil and Mexico. 

Noted pianist and composer Peng-Peng Gong, currently a piano and composition student at Juilliard, offered a more optimistic view of the project. “I have yet to see anything negative, and I think this could be a good opportunity for Juilliard to expand its reputation to the one place that is burning with classical music potential.” On the other hand, he notes the prevalence of “stage moms” intent on making their child the next Lang Lang, China’s preeminent pianist, who might blame the school or faculty “if their kids meet any obstacle along the way.”

A few alumni also questioned the choice of Tianjin as the site of this initiative, rather than the twin cultural powerhouses of Beijing and Shanghai. Ms. Reyes noted that Juilliard was initially approached with a proposal for Tianjin, and mentioned that Tianjin is located near Beijing but does not have to compete directly with an established school like the Beijing Central Conservatory. One student asked, “Would the students still be required to take mandatory classes on subjects like the theories of Chairmans Mao, Deng, and Jiang?”

One common theme united the opinions of everyone interviewed: The proposed Juilliard Institute in Tianjin has great potential to help classical music blossom in China and throughout Asia. The institute plans to emphasize chamber music and orchestral training in its curriculum, two areas sorely lacking in Chinese arts education. At its best, should it overcome its many obstacles, the Julliard Institute in Tianjin presents a chance for great musical thought from one high-level institution to nourish a whole generation of Chinese musicians. 

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Joel Ayau

Joel Ayau is a pianist, author, vocal coach, professor, translator, and Sunday school teacher. He lives in Arlington, VA.
  • Finnish music lover

    Listener development! This is exactly what I have been wondering: how to train chinese audience in concerts so that they start to focus, concentrate on performance?… Instead of constant noise making, whispering, photo making, caughing, walking in and out during performance, mobile phone ringing…mothers take their too young children to concerts, they think children enjoy, but no. They become anxious and noisy. And mothers let their children to carry on this awful behaviour or they walk out during the performance, which also is very disturbing. So far my classical music concerts experiences in China have been total worst in the whole planet. I can’t take it any more: I pay for a subtle experience, but face this kind of crazy activity.( I have had hundreds of satisfaying concert experience in Europe and US.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=776048760 David Ramsey

      Whether or not you prefer to listen to concerts with silent audiences is your business, but the same goes for these Chinese concertgoers who so irked you. They’re adults, and I don’t think that they would appreciate hearing that they are in need of “development” or “training,” especially from a Westerner. Do not forget that there was a time when such “constant noise making” was par for the course in Europe as well.

      And I find it hard to believe that *all* concertgoers in China are noisy. I think you’re just going to the wrong concerts.

    • Sam

      Surprisingly, Russia is just as bad. Beautiful performances at the Bolshoi and Marinsky Theatres ruined by non-stop flash photography, noise and unruly children.

      • Finnish music lover

        Really? So sad, that even in Russia this happens. Chinese and Russian music organizers don’t know, that for children there are spesific concerts, where they CAN run and laugh and scream…should we arrange in China a course of minimum standard concert (opera, symphony orchestra, chamber music, recital) behaviour, with a tip: ‘not for children who are not able to sit still for at least 1 hour’…if some body ask why on earth?! Because of the nature of the music- the way it is created and performed: long span concentration!

  • Finnish music lover

    Listener development! This is exactly what I have been wondering: how to train chinese audience in concerts so that they start to focus, concentrate on performance?… Instead of constant noise making, whispering, photo making, caughing, walking in and out during performance, mobile phone ringing…mothers take their too young children to concerts, they think children enjoy, but no. They become anxious and noisy. And mothers let their children to carry on this awful behaviour or they walk out during the performance, which also is very disturbing. So far my classical music concerts experiences in China have been total worst in the whole planet. I can’t take it any more: I pay for a subtle experience, but face this kind of crazy activity.( I have had hundreds of satisfaying concert experience in Europe and US.)

    • David Ramsey

      Whether or not you prefer to listen to concerts with silent audiences is your business, but the same goes for these Chinese concertgoers who so irked you. They’re adults, and I don’t think that they would appreciate hearing that they are in need of “development” or “training,” especially from a Westerner. Do not forget that there was a time when such “constant noise making” was par for the course in Europe as well.

      And I find it hard to believe that *all* concertgoers in China are noisy. I think you’re just going to the wrong concerts.

    • Sam

      Surprisingly, Russia is just as bad. Beautiful performances at the Bolshoi and Marinsky Theatres ruined by non-stop flash photography, noise and unruly children.

      • Finnish music lover

        Really? So sad, that even in Russia this happens. Chinese and Russian music organizers don’t know, that for children there are spesific concerts, where they CAN run and laugh and scream…should we arrange in China a course of minimum standard concert (opera, symphony orchestra, chamber music, recital) behaviour, with a tip: ‘not for children who are not able to sit still for at least 1 hour’…if some body ask why on earth?! Because of the nature of the music- the way it is created and performed: long span concentration!

  • syrup

    Sorry, classical music is in terminal decline.

  • syrup

    Sorry, classical music is in terminal decline.