I recently attended an art lecture held by the National Center for the Performing Arts, at which CCTV anchor Bai Yansong shared his views on classical music. Not a musician, nor an educator, Bai understands why most ordinary Chinese people feel classical music is a distant and high-brow art form.
"I did not enjoy classical music until my 30s. I did not enjoy it because I did not understand it," Bai, 42, said.
Right from primary school, Bai said, Chinese students like him were taught there is only one right answer to a question. This does not work when it comes to music, he said. Music is hard to describe or interpret in words, and different people have different feelings about a piece, equally valid.
If people of Bai's generation were focused on formal education at the expense of the arts, today's generation is headed in another direction. Now, parents often send their kids to after-school activities like learning an instrument, but more often than not it is so they earn extra points when they apply for a place in higher education - or because they think their child could become the next Lang Lang.
Contests such as the 10-level national piano tests encourage the teaching of challenging pieces that can show off good technique. After intense training, smart 6- or 7-year-olds can play Mozart and Chopin brilliantly, but there is little feeling or passion in their music.
It is the same in art. We usually start by imitating. Adults like to value a child's painting by judging whether or not it looks like the object being painted. Many little painters have won awards for their vivid imitation of a master's piece.
A friend told me, on Christmas day, a foreign guest visited her daughter's painting class. The teacher put a picture of a Christmas tree on the wall and asked the kids to paint it for the visitor. All the kids did a good or passable impression in just a few minutes. The guest was amazed. But when she covered the picture and asked them to paint a new tree, one kid complained: "We can't see the tree, how can we paint it?"
Are our kids not creative enough? No, they are. But they are trained to copy instead of imagining.
When I went to Brussels to report on the Europalia Festival last October, I met a group of kids who were taking art lessons in a museum. A dozen 4- to 5-year-old kids were scattered around the room. Some sat around a teacher reading an art book, others just lay on their stomachs scrawling.
What an interesting class! They seemed to be playing rather than studying.
"Since the beginning of time, children have not liked to study. They would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play, you will find that what they have mastered is child's play," said Carl Orff (1895-1982), the German musician and educator who created the Orff Method, a way of teaching children about music that engages their mind and body through a mixture of singing, dancing, acting and the use of percussion instruments.
The Orff approach helps children learn at their own level of understanding. Improvisation, composition and a child's natural sense of play are encouraged.
At the lecture, Bai invited a 10-year-old girl to play Schubert's Improvisation and Grieg's To Spring. The girl's playing touched everybody. Sitting in the crowded lecture room, I could not see outside but as she played an early spring scene unfolded in my mind.
When a listener asked the girl what grade she had passed she responded: "I have never taken the national 10-level test. I just enjoy playing and the piano is my favorite toy."