What We Can Learn from East Asian Education

Dear #classicalmusic fan,

It’s not necessary to dive into political discourse, so let’s look at Education as impartially as we can, shall we?

Simultaneously, as the West continues to make moves in removing music education from public school curricula, many countries in the East are trying to figure out how to include it.

Indeed, in China, every single child plays an instrument in their classroom at some point in their life – every day of the week for at least one academic year. In the UK many years ago, every single child would sing almost daily (but not anymore), whereas almost every child in East Asia who attends school now learns how to sing well and in a group (according to Katherine Czehut in her Harvard Doctoral dissertation “The Achievement Gap, Revisited: An Empirical Assessment of What We Can Learn from East Asian Education” in 2012). A few years back the USA started to focus on STEM which must have been one of the worst decisions any public official could have agreed to.

Recent efforts to reintegrate the Arts and make the curriculum more like STEAM are not making much headway.

Music is one of humankind’s most fundamental forms of communication, and especially helps us express emotions that we fail to articulate using words. Politicians in the West seem to want to suppress knowledgeable growth of such essential communication (with disastrous behavioral outcomes), while decision-makers in the East seem more enlightened and are figuring out ways to allow everyone an equal opportunity to explore music.

The dramatic transference of classical music’s cultural relevance even caught the attention of the New York Times a few years back in “Classical Music Looks Toward China With Hope” by Kahn and Wakin.

Politics and Education: two Establishments that are hot topics people love to yell and scream about, so let’s leave that point there, shall we?!

Admittedly, not many of my compositions include an East Asian influence, but there are a few that use the Pentatonic scale/ tonal system as a foundation.

Of the 55 pieces I’ve made available on Soundcloud, pick a couple at random to listen to (for free) and decide whether or not they have an “Eastern” musical influence.


How the record companies got us all confused

Dear #classicalmusic Fan,

This is a controversial point, especially for many aficionados such as Academics and the Establishment Elite.

First, a little context:

After 35 years performing and teaching on 4 continents I have learned how to differentiate between the formal historical period of music history which academics refer to as the Classical period (a little after the literature and visual art Classical periods in world history), which is basically from about 1750 until 1820 or so, and the contemporary commercial boxing-in of formal forms of music the big record companies couldn’t put under any other label, so they called it all classical music.

Remember walking through aisles of CDs, tapes and even LPs in a store? Yeah – that’s where the modern definition of classical music came from: Jazz, Rock, Pop, Easy Listening, New Age, World, and… Classical – even though they included Baroque, Romantic, Renaissance, Twentieth Century, and so on within that one label.

And that’s how society got confused.

Theretofore: In my writings, “Classical Music” refers to the historical period of music’s growth during the years 1750-1820 (approximately), and “classical music” refers to the music we now lovingly refer to as orchestras, opera, choirs, string quartets, solo piano, recitals, …all that formally organized sound still being created and passionately shared.

Yes, classical music includes Classical Music!


Now on to today’s lesson:

Sticking with that modern definition of classical music, then, there are within it a multitude of Genres.

In music, a genre can be defined as a particular style or form of composition. In other words, pieces of similar styles and forms can be categorized together into one genre.

Like… Opera.

But even then sub-genres can exist, such as Comic Opera, Ballad Opera, Dramatic Opera, etc.

As far as classical music is concerned, genres today include things like Orchestral, Symphonic, Concert Band, Choral, Liturgical, and hundreds of others.

Being aware of the genre of a particular piece, concert or ensemble goes a long way to renovating your experience of classical music concerts, and even gives you an advantage over most of your peers.

Careful… you’re on your way to becoming an expert!

Especially after you have completed my training on “How to Make the Most of Classical Music Concerts.”

Download your copy here:


Time, Location, Bewilderment


What barriers are there to enjoying live classical music?

What barriers are there to enjoying live classical music?


Time is perhaps our most precious and simultaneously wasted possession. (Click to Tweet)

Location, location, location. All cliches are born out of truth. (Click to Tweet)

Bewilderment drives our fears and prevents us from living life to the full. (Click to Tweet)


Over the past couple of weeks one of my projects has been soliciting from folk in various stages of life what interferes with their enjoyment of live classical music. On one level it has been a fascinating journey – mostly due to the participation of folks in the USA, UK and Australia – but is has also been a little satisfying due to its predictability.

There was one surprise:

Money is generally not an issue.

Yes, there were several comments about the cost of concerts, but interestingly many of those comments were from people who, upon further investigation via phone or Skype, frequently attend non-classical concerts at $100-$400 a ticket, and yet they were complaining about a $60 for a symphony orchestra? That, to me, just highlights the value some societies place on “live” music.

Interestingly, money was actually in LAST position of all five classical music concert attendance barriers that were identified.

Too much time

23% of global survey respondents identified time-related issues as interfering with their ability to attend classical music. As I have said before, I do not blame them! It can often require a commitment of 5.5 hours to attend a classical music concert, which is nigh impossible for a full-time worker with a family. There are other alternatives, though, and I am working with some individual performers to develop a program that rectifies that.

Too far

Another 23% of respondents indicated that classical music was literally our of their reach, some citing travel distances that take them four hours to see a concert. Indeed, one of my wife’s friends who operates an organic farm in Colorado is two miles from their neighbor’s house. Church is a day trip, and trekking the family to see a live classical music concert is not a high priority. On the other hand, she is a fan, so if there was something closer then her children would have a very different educational upbringing.

One idea is to host your own concerts. In the UK I used to watch a farming family host events of all sorts, including live music, and even in their remote location over a hundred people turned up. Why? Because there was nothing like it quite as accessible. to them. They all chipped in to pay the performers and had a great party to boot. Hosting a local concert also significantly reduces the time required to travel to a concert. (Lesson: Be a part of the solution!)

What should I expect?

Finally, another surprise was that there was a third equally-placed #1 barrier to enjoying live classical music events. I call it “Bewilderment.” This is when someone does not know enough to justify attendance. Whether it be as specific as the history and context of the repertoire being performed, or simply hearing stories about audience etiquette and not knowing what to expect, how to find classical music, or fear of how to behave.

Agreed: the classical music industry does a poor job at sharing information with those outside its club membership. What fascinates me between classical music concerts and the rest of the music industry is that the most popular acts make an album (or, these days, release a series of singles) and then perform that album, with perhaps one or two extras thrown in for fun. On the other hand, most classical music concerts present different repertoire that maybe they have never played and their audience has never heard before. Why are the same old classics played over and over again, and well attended? People know them. People like them. Humans like what they know, and are willing to explore new things once they trust the presenters of what they know.

Again, in the pop world a concert will mostly be familiar songs from the recent album, but the performer may introduce one or two new songs they have “just recently written.” It’s new, but the audience are behind them.

Not knowing what to expect at a classical concert is a cause for concern, and in the USA particularly the audience etiquette conventions are quite a deterrent to the general populace the classical music industry is trying to embrace.

Sorry: Not Interested.

For you fellow data nerds, the fourth most popular response was that there are no barriers to their enjoying live classical music. These folk tend to live in cities, a handful are in the industry full-time, and others were simply not interested.

Not so different, after all.

The issues identified in this survey on behalf of ListenUp.Ninja, with an almost completely different audience, are remarkably similar to the issues identified by my own readership during last year’s Annual Reader Survey: Time, Life Balance, Education. (My readers are also interested in Leadership and how to share their passion with others).

So, now I have two online programs in development:

One for performers (Overcoming Decline), and one for non-performers (ListenUp.Ninja).

Which one is for you?

A not-so-new genre: the Oprical?

Classical Music Exchange

What we call Classical Music, isn’t.


The debate regarding what to call Classical Music thrives as vehemently as ever.

If you are not aware, there is a specific historical period of music called “Classical” which is when Mozart, Haydn, and a younger Beethoven were composing music in the late 1700s. Even the twentieth century marvel Prokofiev had a stab as a “Classical” Symphony, writing it as though Haydn were living in 1918.

So why do record stores and others class all types of formal, non-pop, orchestral, chamber music as “Classical?” Nobody knows, but the term is stuck. To me, purists’ efforts to limit use of the term to just music composed between 1750-1830 (or thereabouts) demonstrate the kind of exclusionary elitism that turns people off. Yes, we can educate, but we can’t even do that before we’re talking to someone. And to do that, we must speak their language first – language they understand.

  • A concert band is often called an “orchestra,” which is different (Generally, an orchestra includes string instruments whereas a concert/ wind/ symphonic/ military band does not.)
  • A concert is sometimes called a “play,” which is different (Generally, a play is a theater production without music.)
  • An opera is sometimes called a “musical,” which… well, here the line is a little more vague.

The Italian term “Opera” simply means “work” in the English and US languages. You’re right: it could refer to anything, but general Western convention has it referring to large-scale works of non-stop music, complete with staging and costumes. It’s just become convention similar to the way we refer to Classical Music.

Les Miserables - a musical, an opera, or an oprical?

Les Miserables – a musical, an opera, or an oprical?

On the other hand, less than 75 years ago we began to experience more lively operas that included much more dialogue, and these have become known as “Musicals.” With the USA’s preference to refer to something by its Corporate identity (we don’t photocopy because we Xerox it. We don’t send something by courier, we Fedex it. We don’t bathe in a hot tub, we relax in a Jacuzzi. And so on…) , musicals are usually referred to as “Broadway shows” whereas in London they are still musicals that are performed in the West End, and elsewhere. (I’m not sure if Australia or other countries have such collective theater districts – please enlighten me!)

Anyway, approximately 30 years ago or so, some folk started writing musicals that were non-stop music, with only a little dialogue, if any . Consider “the musical sensation” Les Miserables, for example. Non-stop music. Isn’t that an Opera? There is no evidence to suggest it has ever been called an opera – it is far too popular to be associated with the grandure of the Met, Royal or Sydney Opera Houses, apparently.

But it isn’t a musical, either. It is not full of short pop-like songs interspersed between a play’s dialogue.

It’s a sort of cross-over between an opera and a musical.

An Oprical!


Photo: “Classical Music Exchange, Notting Hill, W11” by Ewan Munro is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

This makes me so angry

Opera audiences in the ROTW are not declining as they are in the USARecently, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published another year’s worth of audience attendance analysis. OK, so audiences are still declining for a whole variety of reasons, primarily:

  • Lack of time
  • Inaccessible venues
  • Couldn’t find someone to go with.

These are all things that performers can deal with.

What got my goat this morning was this statement by Sunil Iyengar, Director of Research and Analysis at the NEA:

“Highly educated Americans are going (to arts events) at much lower levels than they did 10 years ago.”


My response:

Highly educated in WHAT?

For decades we have been drilling the arts OUT of education, out of people’s lives, and removing exposure to them for kids. I don’t care where you are from (the NEA report cites Hispanics as having a “historically low rate of arts participation,” [Of course, El Sistema blatantly disproves this in Venezuela]) if someone shows you the thrilling importance of the performing arts, you naturally end up appreciating them. Depending on the extent and passionate approach to that exposure, those on the receiving end are usually awed and inspired to get more of it.

What happened to all those gawky-eyed children in the ’60s who sat enthralled and amazed at Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts? Where did they go? Did they expect people to just keep giving them the arts, or might it have occurred to them that they actually should be giving the next generation the same kind of exposure?

It’s the same with anything.

Math, Science, Technology, Languages… you name it, someone somewhere usually inspires someone else through passion and exposure.

Remove that exposure, or degrade its importance to the fundamental communication of human emotions, and BAM! No-one is interested.

And that’s why Iyengar’s unapologetically P.C. statement makes me very angry.

It is reiterated by Principal Nolan in “A Dead’s Poet Society” with this scoff:

I always thought the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself.

At these boys’ ages? Not on your life! Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.

Pitiful. And now we are now seeing the fruit of this approach to education, yet we still seem surprised. Or even worse, choose to ignore that it is wrong.

The consequences of removing the performing arts (and I mean performing arts, not competitive music as a sport) from everyday life, from our children’s lives, is continuing to produce an expressionless and creatively moribund society.

And that makes me VERY angry!

Share your passion:

Does this make you angry? Or do you think I’m over-reacting? I’d love to hear what your thoughts are as to:

  1. Why arts audiences are declining,
  2. Whether or not Education has any influence on the decline, and
  3. Are the arts really something humans can do without.

Be as specific as you can so that the conversations can inform and direct debate.

Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter. Hundreds of passionate people visit my sites for weekly insight and inspiration, so thank you in advance for adding your voice to the conversation.