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Music Making and the Art of War
PTG 2001 National Convention Keynote Address

By Brian Chung

This evening I'd like to share my heart with you regarding a very serious challenge that we all face as fellow members of the musical community. You see, whether we realize it or not, we are at war. Not a traditional war fought with guns and ammunition--but rather, a cultural war... a battle to determine who or what will occupy the hearts and minds of people across this land.

What evidence is there that this war exists? You see it in events... when a staggering 100,000 people show up for the Women's World Cup Soccer Championship while in the same year only a few hundred show up for a major international piano competition... or when hundreds of people pack local stadiums to attend high school football games every week, while the local community orchestra struggles to fill the seats for its few concerts of the season.

You see it in people's preferences... when young piano students love spending hours and hours each day learning a complicated new video game, but complain about having to practice the piano for even 30 minutes a day to learn a new piece.

You see it in attitudes... perhaps when a "sports coach" walks into a faculty meeting and is treated with a certain "reverence" that, for some reason, doesn't seem to extend to the music teachers. Or when the hotel receptionist seems excited about your arrival when he or she thinks you're a tech with the local TV crew, but then seems disappointed when told that you're the piano technician. Or when your clients let their children play computer games or watch television in the same room where you're tuning their piano because they don't really understand or value the nature of your work.

And finally, you see it in comments... the mother who says that her busy second grade daughter had to give up piano lessons to make room for soccer and dance class with friends. And the kind of comment that really irks me the most--to hear a father say, "I wish my son was an athlete, but at least he's got music as a backup."

Think about your world. Do you see or hear any of these things? These are the signs of our cultural war. And, as "turf wars" go, we're not doing so well.

Let me get specific and define the elements of this war. First, what are we fighting for? The answer is "time." We're fighting to determine who will capture one of today's scarcest commodities... people's time.

Next, who are the participants in this war? On this side of the imaginary "line in the sand" are all of us who care about music making and the tremendous positive impact that it can have on our world. On the other side are the everyday icons of modern culture that compete for our spare time... and especially the time of our children. What are these icons? Here's a partial list taken from a Keynote Address that I gave at the World Piano Pedagogy Conference last October which some of you may have read in a recent issue of the Piano Technician's Journal. Many of these activities for young people didn't even exist twenty years ago--girls softball, boys baseball, T-ball, AYSO soccer, Club soccer, club basketball, USTA Junior Tennis, competitive swimming, water polo, volleyball, roller hockey, karate, ballet and tap lessons, gymnastics, cheer team, song team, dance team, computer-based games, Nintendo, Sega, PlayStation, Pokemon, web surfing, chat rooms, instant messaging, MTV, VH-1, ESPN, Fox Sports, UPN, the WB, dozens and dozens of cable channels, and every decent movie ever made on video and DVD... and that's just the beginning.

As young people get a little older (as most of us have), the list gets longer -- including such things as ballroom dancing, bridge night, poker night, bingo, spectator sporting events, golf, coaching youth sports, bowling leagues, aerobics classes, health clubs, adult soccer and basketball leagues, bicycling, motorcycling, boating, sailing, surfing, snorkeling, fishing, skiing, hiking, rock climbing, white water rafting, snow-boarding, camping, RV travel, ocean cruises, reading romance novels, photography, researching your investments, gardening, landscaping, and every type of home improvement you can imagine. You fill in the rest. Where do we find the time?

You see, those are the things on the other side of that line in the sand. It's us against all of them in the battle for people's time. And as our society has less and less spare time and more and more alternative choices available, something gets squeezed out. And too often, that something is us. It's learning to play the piano and all that goes with it, including maintaining an instrument.

Perhaps the most compelling thing I said in that address last fall was this: "Each day, thousands and thousands of people are choosing to do something else with their time besides play music." And when multiplied by months and years, these thousands have grown to become those whom I call the lost millions--the people we have never reached, and whose absence is simply ignored by us because, more often than not, we never realized they were gone.

So, we are at war... against a vast array of formidable foes. And my hope tonight is to enlist you in battle--to ask you to join in the fight to gain back some of the lost millions. But, after hearing all this, some of you might be thinking, "What does all this really have to do with me? After all, I don't teach students or sell pianos for a living. In fact, if all the piano manufacturers went out of business today, I'd still be fine for years to come. Why should I care about these lost millions you're talking about?"

Let me answer those questions from a couple of different perspectives. First, the pragmatic one... "How does this war affect your business?" For most of you, business is pretty good today. But will it always be that way? Is it possible that all those pianos out there will not sustain your business if people gradually stop playing them? What about the recent Gallup Poll statistics that show fewer and fewer people under the age of 35 playing music today? Or the data that show the number of people receiving music education degrees steadily declining over the last 20 years? Will the existence of fewer teachers mean fewer players and fewer pianos that need care?

And what about role models? When you survey the landscape of modern pop music, does it disturb you that there are no Elton Johns, Billy Joels, Bruce Hornsbys, Stevie Wonders, or Rick Wakemans among Generation Y musicians? In our lifetimes, there has always been a few players in pop music who have helped make piano playing "cool"--from Jerry Lee Lewis to Keith Emerson, even Paul McCartney. Not so for today's young people. Could the absence of these popular role models affect the number of players and eventually affect your livelihood?

Does it bother you that the type of music that people embrace between the ages of 16 to 25 tends to make a permanent imprint on their soul, and typically becomes their primary "reference point" or definition of music for the rest of their lives? Does it trouble you that rap and hip-hop, genres clearly devoid of pianos, may be the lifetime preference of an entire generation?

I find it personally troubling that my son's high school youth group at church has over 100 participants with 8 separate bands within the group... and none of those bands features a single keyboard player. And I must say that it startled me a few weeks ago when my 12-year-old son commented that he heard a popular tune on the radio with an acoustic piano in it and it sounded "kinda weird" to him.

Does any of this disturb you? It should. These are the signs that we are losing ground in our cultural war. And together these signs affect the professions we enjoy and our ability to make a living doing what we do. Change can and does happen. If any of us needs proof, we can ask the "harpsichord and accordion guilds." Have we become so arrogant to think that similar dramatic declines in popularity could never happen to us?

From the pragmatic perspective, there are warning signs in our culture. We cannot ignore them. Nor can we sit on the sidelines and hope that someone else will fight the war for us. We must engage in battle.

But let's look at the situation from a different perspective. What if you respond to me in this way, "Enough with the gloom and doom scenario, Brian. I'm doing just fine without those lost millions. The fact is, the piano is still pretty popular... and even if only a small percentage of the population decides to play there will always be enough players out there to keep me working until I retire."

Okay, suppose I accept that position. Even if you believe there is no immediate threat to our future, why should you still join the battle for the lost millions? Two words come to mind--respect and satisfaction.

Does it ever frustrate you that the members of this profession don't always receive the recognition and appreciation they truly deserve? One could argue that people such as computer technicians, high-end video equipment technicians, and concert sound technicians all have a higher perceived profile among the general population. But does your work require any less skill than their work? No. Is the training required to be really exceptional at your craft any less arduous than the path they take? No. In fact, your path is perhaps much more difficult. Then why do other professions seem to get more respect? The answer is popularity of the genre.

We all see what happens when millions of people flock to a particular activity. That popularity elevates the status and esteem of all those involved in it--participants, teachers and technicians alike. When playing tennis hit its zenith back in the 1970's, everyone associated with the sport felt respected and proud--from the racquet manufacturers to the coaches to the pro shop owners to the racket stringing specialists. Recreational players like me can remember fondly the days when tennis was the "in" thing. My point is this--the more we can attract the lost millions, the more popularity we can bring to this art form, and the more respect the world will have for you and me and what we do.

Now let me take that further. What if many among those lost millions--the ones who are right now spending countless hours striving to become great rock climbers or terrific golfers--were to embrace piano with the same vigor, and learn to play well, and eventually purchase superb instruments? Imagine the tremendous satisfaction you would derive not only from the chance to work on top quality instruments day after day, but to have more and more clients who fully appreciated and admired the work, the skill, and the dedication that your craft brings to enhance their art.

These are the things to be won in the "battle for the lost millions." Prosperity. Respect. Satisfaction. The sad reality of all that we have missed by letting those millions drift away without a fight should distress every one of us--for we have lost more than we could ever know.

So what do we do? We engage in the battle. But when I've said that before, people have thought to themselves, "Am I not already engaged?" Teachers may say, "I'm teaching... isn't that enough?" Instrument manufacturers and retailers may say, "We provide pianos... isn't that enough?" And you in turn may say, "I keep pianos well maintained... isn't that enough?" The answers are no, no and no. Those are the things we're doing now... and we're losing ground. In the war to regain those who have been lost, our conventional weapons--the things we've always done before--are not sufficient. To reach the lost millions, we must launch a radical offensive. We must have the resolve and determination to step beyond our normal boundaries--to employ new tools, or sharpen our existing tools into powerful weapons for battle.

But, in concrete terms, what does it mean to "engage?" Before I describe how it might look for you, let me describe my recommendation to the teaching profession. In a speech last March at the MTNA National Convention Gala, I made this point: One of the most important things we can do for our future is to make music-making fun. Ask any number of people why they chose those "other activities" I listed earlier. Virtually every answer will have something to do with fun. The people made it fun. The graphics were fun. The entertainment was fun. You know as well as I do--when given a choice between fun and work, people overwhelmingly choose fun.

As a young teenager, I hated mowing our family's small lawn with our traditional push-style mower. But oddly, I just loved the chance to mow our church's huge one-acre lot with the church's riding mower. Why? Because the riding mower was fun. Think about that. Either way, a lawn got mowed. One way, I hated it. The other way, I loved it. We need to find more riding mowers. Whether that takes the form of group lessons, or teaching with new technology, or exciting and innovative ideas in one's personal approach to pedagogy--it is critical that teachers help make music-making fun. Their futures, and ours, depend upon it.

That was my challenge to the teaching community. But what about the manufacturers? Are they (are "we") engaged? I like to think so. At least we're trying our best. In the effort to find more "riding mowers," the Piano Manufacturers Association International (PMAI) sent out "piano fun kits" to third-grade classrooms around the country in a program called "Let's Play!" a few years ago. Those kits reached over 2 million students. More recently, PMAI offered $10,000 in grants to teachers who submitted the most innovative new ideas for group piano teaching. At the same time, the Association invested heavily in a successful pilot program to develop an on-site "After School Group Lesson Program" for elementary school students. After receiving rave reviews from both parents and school personnel, we hope the concept will spread out nationally in the years ahead.

To further assist in the development of group teaching, PMAI has invested over $80,000 to sponsor a series of Regional Group Piano Teaching Seminars. Some of the nation's best and brightest group piano teachers will gather in Indianapolis this fall for the inaugural event in this series, the first new effort of its kind in over 20 years.

And I'm sure most of you know that PMAI partnered with NAMM and others to help make the Smithsonian's PIANO 300 Exhibit and the accompanying Gala Concert a reality. With over a quarter-million visitors (including many of you from last year's PTG convention), the exhibit has been one of the most successful of its kind ever to be presented by the Smithsonian. The videotaped Gala has been seen by millions on PBS stations. And with help from NAMM, PMAI and MENC, the PIANO 300 exhibit will be held over through September to allow many thousands more to enjoy this unique retrospective of the piano's impact on our culture.

PMAI efforts have not always been successful. But we are trying. And through these kinds of efforts, we believe that we are engaged in the battle for the lost.

So, what about this profession? What role will you play in this offensive? In offering a recommendation, let me extend my "battle metaphor" just a little further. Imagine that all of us together--technicians, teachers, retailers and manufacturers--are a unified army. In the assignment of roles, let's assume that teachers represent the front line infantry, and the manufacturers and retailers are those providing air and sea support.

In that context, what natural role could you see piano technicians playing? How about this one... you are the medics. A natural role, right? You are the ones who fix the problems and keep the rest of us going. This role, if you choose to accept it, is critical to our future.

Keep that illustration in mind, as I offer you the first of three recommendations to this profession. By definition, wartime medics are committed to healing wounds. As such, they need to be encouragers. They don't tear down or discourage their patients or their compatriots on the front lines. They build them up. They try to keep them healthy and able to fight another day.

The temptation in all sectors of our industry is for us to criticize one another. "The teachers aren't doing this! The manufacturers aren't doing that! Those retailers only care about one thing!" I suppose all these criticisms are natural and perhaps even appropriate at times. But in war, it does no good to discourage or tear down our fellow soldiers. It's true that we might not always agree or get along. But besides each other, who will help us win this war? I don't see any "cavalry" around the bend. As fellow members of the music-making community, we may not always appear to be friends; but in this war, we may be our only friends. We need to build each other up, not tear each other down. Recommendation #1--Be Encouragers.

Point two--when you launch a major offensive in war, even the medics take up arms and move to the front lines. Here is another vital role you can play. Our industry desperately needs your help to spread the message of the incredible value and importance of music making across this land. Yes, many of us are already doing that, but the key is repetition, anywhere and everywhere. And it's possible that you have a unique advantage over the rest of us in delivering that message. Whereas most of us receive customers into our various venues, you get invited into people's homes--a very rare thing these days. You get to walk around in their world, in the place where they live. And, given this privilege, you may have the chance to communicate the value of music more powerfully and more personally than any of us in this army.

Let me mention a great tool you might use to help spread the message. NAMM has put together a pamphlet called the "Einstein Brochure" that effectively outlines some of the wonderful benefits of music making. You can purchase them from NAMM for about 15 cents apiece. Would I be too bold to envision thousands and thousands of technicians across this country distributing this pamphlet and discussing it with clients in their homes... a pamphlet that will stimulate dialogue not just within families, but among friends, relatives and other members of the local community? What an impact that would have!

And if, perhaps, you see this idea of spreading the message to existing customers as "just preaching to the choir," let me remind you that the choir needs the message, too--rehearsed over and over and resonating down deep. For it is that choir, with the song well-learned and memorized, who will perhaps sing our praises the most powerfully to the world. So, grab a weapon, head to the front lines, and--Recommendation #2 -- Spread Our Message.

My third and final recommendation comes from an example set by the Pittsburgh chapter of the PTG. Of all the many celebrations of the piano's 300th birthday, perhaps the most significant to this assembly was one held at the Carnegie Science Center last fall. It was a wonderful one-day exhibit, with historic instruments, performers, and speakers. The event generated plenty of goodwill in the community and a great deal of local print and television coverage about the value of music. It is important to note that, although local retailers and teachers were actively involved, the inspiration and the major impetus behind this event came not from those groups, but from the technicians of the Pittsburgh PTG. And I commend them for their outstanding efforts.

As an "outsider" looking at this profession, I see your members collectively possessing many common attributes that are invaluable to our fight--chief among them are high intelligence, creativity, the ability to solve problems, and the willingness to step in and work hard when a job needs to get done. Would you agree? Given that assessment, are you willing to mobilize these great attributes and skills in your respective communities to find new and innovative ways to promote the value of this art form?

Would I be too bold in asking every PTG Chapter across the country to begin today developing its own event, its own unique "rallying point," to promote our cause? If this were to happen, you would be embracing my third recommendation--Mobilize for Music Making.

Recommendation 1--Be Encouragers.

Recommendation 2--Spread Our Message.

Recommendation 3--Mobilize for Music Making.

Author Malcolm Gladwell describes something called "The Tipping Point" in his book by that name. The "tipping point" is the place at which several related elements in society converge powerfully to a point where widespread, dramatic and often inconceivable change occurs. His examples

include Hush Puppies shoes that incredibly went from near extinction to vast popularity with a short two-year period; and New York City crime, which, after decades of steady and alarming increase, suddenly dropped by nearly two-thirds in the early 90s. These are instances in which a situation "tipped" dramatically for the better.

But there are other cases when, despite the presence of many key factors, change doesn't occur. In these cases, the situations remain "near the tipping point" for years... until one day, when a new catalyst enters the picture--often one that is completely unexpected--and suddenly the world "tips." How does this relate to us? As teachers strive to bring more fun to their methods, as group lessons receive more emphasis and more people begin to participate, as scientific research proving the positive benefits of music-making gains greater and greater attention among the people of this country--as effort builds upon effort, could our industry gradually move toward a "tipping point" of its own where the popularity of music making would soar? And could it be that your decision to take up arms and head to the front lines of our battle might be the catalyst, the 'X Factor," that one day causes our situation to tip? I, for one, would like to find out. And I hope you would, too.

Let me conclude by offering a piece of wisdom I gleaned from a recent work of modern film, Disney's animated feature, "Dinosaur." Near the end of the story, a large and eclectic band of dinosaurs in search of an elusive "promised land" suddenly find themselves trapped in a ravine surrounded by rock. Meanwhile, a ravenous Tyrannosaurus Rex who had been stalking them for miles catches up to them, and sees this as his best opportunity to decimate and devour the herd. As the T. Rex approaches menacingly, the instinct of the herd is to scatter as they'd always done (and subsequently get "picked off" one by one). But the young hero of the story, realizing in that single moment that there was nowhere and no time to run, begins to yell something the group had never heard before. He screamed, "Don't run, STAND TOGETHER! Don't leave the herd, STAND TOGETHER!" And as the herd stood together and bellowed for their lives, the surprised T. Rex stopped in his tracks, offered a hesitant roar, and gradually backed away to find easier prey.

What does that story mean for us? It means that we must take every opportunity to STAND TOGETHER against the threats to our future!

It means when you're confronted with an urge to disparage or criticize others in and across our industry, that you'll think twice and do your best to refrain for the sake of the "bigger picture." When all of us can be encouragers and begin to re-direct our negative energies upward toward the greater goal, we stand together.

It means being willing spread our positive message of music making everywhere we go. For when we can finally pull together all of our small, but vocal ensembles into one triumphant choir singing the same irresistible song, we stand together.

It means mobilizing the intelligence and creativity of your colleagues in this profession to help create programs and events that serve as "rallying points" for the cause of music making. When you step up to lead, others will follow. And when we link arms together for the greater good, we stand together.

It means looking differently at music industry manufacturers, retailers and music teachers ... and seeing them not as strangers off in their own capitalistic or pedagogical worlds. But rather, seeing them (or should I say "seeing us") as fellow soldiers, co-laborers, partners in the quest to raise music making to its proper place in our culture. By doing this, we stand together.

And finally, it means putting aside the pettiness, the pride, the politics and the pedigrees that sometimes separate the members of this profession and people across this industry--and realize that we cannot win this battle alone. When we finally begin to see ourselves together in one big boat... we stand together.

And one day, when we have stood tall together, arms locked against our foes, when the T. Rex's have all backed off, and united on one boat we have sailed back into the forefront of our culture--what a joy it will be to see thousands of people attending every piano competition and community orchestra concert; to see piano students love to spend hours and hours on that new piano piece because it's more fun than the video game; to see music teachers at faculty meetings get that "reverent look" that used to go to the sports coaches; to have that hotel receptionist nod with appreciation and respect when told that you're the piano technician; to have the television and computer games go off immediately when you arrive because your clients understand and value the nature of your craft; to hear that mother say that her daughter gave up soccer or dance class because playing piano was a priority... and one day, to hear that father say, "I wish my son was a musician! But at least he's got sports as a backup."

Great movements in history are seldom started by large throngs of people--but rather by small groups of individuals who are fervent in passion... united in purpose. In that spirit, let me say that it is within the power of just the people in this room tonight to change the course of music-making forever.

Can we win this war?


But will we win this war?

I believe we will... because we must.

Brian Chung delivered this Keynote Address at the 2001 National Convention of the Piano Technicians Guild (Nugget Hotel, Reno NV, July 10, 2001). Brian is Vice President and General Manager of Kawai America Corporation and President of the Piano Manufacturers Association International.

The "Einstein Brochure" can be purchased by calling NAMM at 800-767-6266. Ask for Lori Wright at extension 114.

Last updated on Saturday, October 31, 2020 EST
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