Is the Study of Piano Declining in the United States of America?

This topic in the Tuesday afternoon line-up of MTNA Conference presentations seemed almost arcane on the page of the conference booklet, especially by way of comparison to other topics with immediate practical application in the 30 minute piano lesson. And the question seemed one of those asked-and-answered types: is the study of piano in decline? Hell, yeah. Who doesn’t know that, right?

But I’m an arcane-topic kind of chick, so I bounded with enthusiasm into this panel presentation-discussion. It was already impressive just checking out who was in the panel: Peter Jutras, who is the editor of the wonderful Clavier Companion; E.L. Lancaster, who is both Vice President and Keyboard-Editor-in-Chief of Alfred Publishing; Brian Chung, Vice President of the Kawai Corporation; Gary Ingle, CEO of MTNA; Mike Bates, Senior Member of the Institutional Solutions Group, Keyboard Division, Yamaha Corporation of America; and Sharon Girard, NCTM, a private piano teacher since 1976 in Connecticut.

To begin: college-level study (and beyond). The raw number of students taking piano as their major for the undergraduate degrees in the United States has increased significantly over the past twenty years (roughly a 25% increase), numbers for masters have increased slightly (currently around the 1000 mark)  and numbers of students enrolled in doctoral programs with a piano major have increased astronomically (currently around 1000, up from only about 400 less than ten years ago). But these raw figures don’t tell the complete story. More and more piano majors (all levels) are international students (so these figures don’t reflect piano learning activity in the US in any case); there are more options for students to choose from when selecting their music major (so students who might previously have taken piano are now specialising in some other aspect of music); there are more students studying music (so the proportion of students piano majors  in comparison to the entire student population cannot be inferred from the raw data).

What are piano teachers in the suburbs, cities and small towns noticing? An increase in adult students and in very young beginners (4 and 5 year olds) and a sharp decline in beginners aged 9 and 10. The GFC seems to have had a pronounced (negative) impact on enrollments, but further to this there seems to be a decline in the value parents in 2012 ascribe to piano lessons in the broad education of their children. From my Australian perspective I was also fascinated to learn that school teachers are drivers of enrollments in piano lessons! In Australia school teachers have absolutely no impact on the propensity of a child to begin lessons – and if anything, their neutral impact skews slightly negative. But in the US many children learn band instruments through the school, and so children can still have an instrumental education without taking private piano lessons. Apparently it’s the band teachers who promote piano to some large degree, and when those teachers don’t encourage piano lesson enrollment a sharp decline can be seen.

Next: sales of educational and classical print music. These sales have declined since 2006, but only slightly (4%), and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a ripple-on effect of the GFC. The breakdown of print music sales in the US works out at something like 19% Classical Music, 19% Christian Music and 13% piano methods, with the bulk of the remainder being taken up by pop titles. This proportion appears to have held steady. In any case, print music sales are a poor indicator of piano study, because younger siblings often use the print music older siblings used before them, and it’s entirely possible that in a climate of financial restraint parents are more likely to seek these kinds of economies.

We move on to sales of instruments: grand pianos, uprights, digital pianos and keyboards. There has been a massive decline in sales of grand pianos since 2005 – down from 35,000 then to around 12,000 now. Seeing as most new grand pianos are purchased by institutions and very rich people it’s possible to infer that the rich people are being careful and the institutions have had their budgets slashed – neither of which reflects on the current number of piano students in the US. It’s when we get to the other categories that we see some interesting trends. Upright acoustic piano sales are also consistently down, as are sales of digital pianos. The category that is doing just fine (although not increasing, particularly) is the under $200 keyboard. These instruments are purchased by parents who want to invest the bare minimum to afford their children access to music education, with the intention to trade up if their child demonstrates prolonged interest and/or aptitude. In the US roughly 1,000,000 units of this kind of keyboard has been sold every year for the past decade. Do the instruments live in the back of cupboards? Who knows! This statistic is as enigmatic as the numbers on grand piano sales in terms of establishing a trend of piano study decline in the United States (although it potentially reflects an opportunity).

Meantime, the percentage of MTNA members who teach the piano has been increasing. Again, this fact doesn’t really tell us anything: are memberships of MTNA in decline or are they increasing? Has there been a recent trend of the teachers of particular instrument families to not sign up to the Music Teachers Associations? Has the MTNA been catering very well for piano teachers of late, and dropping the ball as regards the other instruments?

One comment was made by a panelist that I found very interesting: “we live in a culture of deflection and distraction”, a comment intended to speak to a broad trend away from educational practice that engaged students in critical thinking and practical skill acquisition. I tend to take the view that gaming cultures are educationally preferable (in so very many ways) to traditional classroom practices, and I further take the view that learning the piano is much more like a game than it is like a traditional school classroom learning experience. But I suspect this comment reflects some things that are particularly true not of Western culture but of American culture.

Comments were opened to the audience, and one emerging theme (reflecting comments also made by panellists) was the tension between sport and piano in the broad culture of childhood in the US – this idea that you either play soccer or you learn the piano, the idea that promising students find themselves pressured into team sport participation that then compromises their musical education, and so forth. Implicit in this theme was the notion that parents these days just don’t get what piano lessons are for (as touched on above), that soccer and team sports are widely seen to provide benefits for children while piano lessons do not.

Another theme (again, reflecting comments already made by panelists) was that piano teachers are not very marketing savvy, and that they are not very technology savvy. Sometimes these two lacks merge into one big piano teacher fail, with piano teachers not taking advantage of the internet to reinforce community awareness of their services and not taking advantage of social media to communicate with current and prospective students. There was an implicit sense that piano teachers do not look at their teaching as being a business (much in this theme was not unpacked, but, I think, broadly understood by the audience).

A third theme was that piano teachers are often quite rigid in their idea about what they do; instead of looking at their available skill set and thinking about a range of services they can provide to the community, teachers imagine that their real job is to provide the same kind of piano lessons as those they received, last century. Some comments from the floor detailed the wide ranging activities some exception-to-the-rule teachers engage in in order to have a solid business model.

In short, I felt as if this session were the first two pages of an introduction to a 350 page book on the topic; we just began to frame the conversation when it came to an end. And as fascinating as what was said was what was not. What about socio-economics? Are there some parts of the United States where piano study is thriving? Some cities that are doing significantly better than others? [I can't imagine piano lessons are as common as they used to be in Detroit, for example.] Are language issues an impediment to piano study? [The paucity of Spanish-language piano methods, for instance, as compared to Spanish-speaking population in the US surely indicates a swathe of the population disengaged from piano study.] How about the decline of the use of the acoustic piano in churches and other worship settings? [Once upon a time many not-wealthy churches would have a good, mid-range grand piano in addition to an organ.]

The panel mentioned the rise of online, do-it-yourself-by-watching-videos-and-buying-the-book piano study, and this touches on another aspect of this topic. It could be that piano/keyboard study by volume has seen no significant decline, but there’s every chance that the national pianistic skill set is in decline.

It’s a fascinating time in the United States, a time of substantial cultural reframing and contention. The study of the piano could well be a case study for this rethinking of what it means to be an American with an education (even if you never did make it to college)….