Riding Mowers, Dinosaurs and the Art of War

By Brian Chung

I’d like to share my heart with you regarding a serious challenge that we face as fellow members of the music making community. You see, whether we realize it or not, we are at war. Not a traditional war fought with guns and ammo – but rather, a cultural war… a battle to determine who or what will occupy the hearts and minds of people across this land.

Brian Chung

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 your 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, you don’t seem to receive as a music teacher.

And then there are the 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 battling to decide who will capture one of today’s scarcest commodities… people’s time.

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 I gave at the World Piano Pedagogy Conference last October. Many of these activities 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 and roller hockey; karate, dance 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.

That’s what is on the other side of that line in the sand. It’s us against all of them. 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 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 that you and I never reached… and whose absence is simply ignored by us because we never realized they were gone.

So, we are at war… against a plethora 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 upon hearing this, you might be thinking, “Excuse me, Brian, but am I not already doing that?” Well, yes and no. With your current students, certainly yes… a resounding yes. And those efforts are infinitely valuable. But please realize that your current students are not among the lost millions. You’ve found them. In the war to regain those who have been lost, our conventional weapons – the things we’ve always done before – are ineffective. To reach the lost millions, we must employ new tools, or sharpen our existing tools into powerful weapons for battle.

What are these tools? Let me use some stories to describe two things that I believe have the potential to make the greatest difference in the war to secure and expand our future.

I know a young boy whose parents started him in soccer at the age of four. He loved everything about the game… the challenge, his teammates, the outdoors. It took a great deal of his time. His parents, who had both studied piano privately for many years, had decided that their son would begin traditional piano lessons when he turned five. But after months of struggle to get him to practice and three failed attempts to get him going over a period of years, the parents’ frustration finally boiled up into a very emotional climax. In a final showdown with their son, the father angrily demanded to know, “Why, son? Why won’t you practice the piano!” The boy, with deeply furrowed brow and tears in his eyes, shouted back “I just don’t like doing it… it’s not fun!” And right there, it ended. His parents had tried and tried to engage him with all the conventional methods, all the techniques that were good enough for them when they were growing up. But all had failed.

Several years later, as soccer became more demanding, that same boy began to complain even about his passion, soccer. And after months of hearing soccer complaints, the father suggested in frustration, “If it’s that bad, why don’t you just quit soccer?” And after a deliberate pause, the boy replied, “Because I know if I quit soccer, you’ll make me play music.”

You see my point. One of the most important things we can do for our future is to make music-making fun. Now you might respond, “C’mon, Brian, that’s only one example of failure.” And you’re right. But, you see, I know this young man. His name is Jason Chung. He’s my youngest son… one of the lost millions. And without reciting all my regrets and self-recriminations, I can tell you that his story is one of the prime reasons why I say so emphatically that making this art form “fun” must be one of our greatest priorities.

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 they take the form of group lessons, or teaching with new technology, or exciting and innovative ideas in your personal approach to pedagogy – we must make music-making fun. It is our most powerful weapon.

To illustrate my second point, let me grab some wisdom from a recent work of modern film, Disney’s cartoon 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 Tyranosaurus 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 had 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 that when we’re offered the opportunity to give to MTNA Foundation (through the annual fund, or by supporting an Endowment or a Foundation Fellow) that we give generously… because we see it as a chance to participate in something collectively bigger than ourselves. By doing that, we stand together.

It means being willing to give our time and skills to worthy efforts such as MusicLink. For when we link arms as a profession to invest in people’s lives, we stand together.

It means continually looking for ways to make music making fun – and fervently embracing and supporting the efforts of those colleagues among us who strive to advance that cause at every level of pedagogy. By doing this, we stand together.

It means being willing to recognize and congratulate our colleagues not just on the basis of their best students, but also for their willingness to embrace the “average student” who will never become great. When we choose to value “participation” as much as we do “performance,” we stand together.

It means looking differently at music industry manufacturers, retailers and technicians… and seeing them not as strangers off in their own capitalistic world. 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 us in this profession and 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 your students love to spend hours and hours on that new piano piece because it’s more fun than the video game; to see your colleagues in the faculty meeting give YOU that “reverent look” that used to go to the sports coaches; 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?

Absolutely.

But will we win this war?

I believe we will… because we must.

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Brian Chung delivered this Keynote Address at the MTNA Convention Gala in Washington DC on March 26, 2001. Brian is Senior Vice President and General Manager of Kawai America Corporation and a former President of the Piano Manufacturers Association International.