Cross-Cultural Communication in the Music Studio

By Williams, Kenneth | American Music Teacher, August-September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Cross-Cultural Communication in the Music Studio


Williams, Kenneth, American Music Teacher


It is the last day of class for the spring term. I am meeting with the five students in my graduate seminar in piano pedagogy for the last time at the end of a productive year. The students are waiting outside the seminar room with a thank you card and a bouquet of flowers for me, a cake and refreshments, eager to make the last class meeting a celebration. I am surprised and delighted by their gestures of gratitude. We combine our celebration with reflections on how all the students have enhanced their teaching skills during the past year. When the class is over, I gather my books and papers as usual, but I am struck by how odd it seems to leave the seminar room carrying a bouquet of flowers. Noticing my uneasiness, one of the students asks, "Is it common for men in the United States to receive flowers as a gift?"

The question was more about cultural norms in the United States than about how to teach piano, but questions like this one were common in this pedagogy class. Although our university is situated in the heart of the American Midwest, none of the graduate students enrolled in this class were Americans. They were from Malaysia, Korea and Taiwan, and they all were female. For international students, a course in piano pedagogy is not just about how to teach piano, but how to teach piano in a foreign culture. Questions about culture were as common as questions about piano technique and teaching repertoire. Communication across cultural lines made the experience a process of cultural adaptation not only for the international students, but also for me. How did I answer the question about the flowers? I said, "No, traditionally men in the United States do not receive flowers as a gift, but that part of our culture is changing, and I appreciate your thoughtful gift."

Cross-cultural encounters are increasingly common in our global society. It is especially true in the performing arts and in higher education that students are willing and even eager to cross cultural boundaries to pursue advanced studies with master teachers at prestigious institutions. Today, many pianists studying in American conservatories and university schools of music are international students, and a large percentage are from Asian countries. Our current situation reflects a changing, but not new, trend. During the nineteenth century, large numbers of Americans studied abroad with European pianists; and Americans continued to study in Europe even after music conservatories were established in the large American cities. American music students studying in Europe must have experienced many of the same challenges Asian students studying in American music conservatories experience today.

Today's international students learning to teach music in America usually are curious about American attitudes toward music education in general. Why are band programs so important in American schools? Why do American children try to pursue so many activities rather than focusing on one or two? A study funded by the National Piano Foundation explored the perceptions that American children, parents and teachers have regarding private piano study. (1) Music education researchers identified excellent piano teachers and surveyed their students and the students' parents to determine what they consider the benefits of piano study to be. For many parents, an important benefit of piano study for their children is it seems to reduce the amount of time they spend watching television. The results of this study show a large percentage of those piano students who study with excellent teachers practice less than an hour per day. International students have grown up with far more rigorous practice habits. The fact that parents allow myriad extracurricular activities, television viewing and computer games to occupy large amounts of their children's time is surprising to international students. Understanding the cultural context within which one teaches, though, is essential for effective interactions between teachers and students.

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