I just returned from China where I spent the past 10 days listening to a lot of piano music – and I do mean a lot. I make this trip several times per year in my role as Director of the GMT (Graded Music Test) and on this occasion I traveled to Guangzhou and Dongguan in the far south, and Changchun, Shenyang, Panjin, and Dalian in the northeast. A typical day involves a mix of adjudicating GMT exams and giving lectures for piano teachers on how to prepare their students for the exams. When exams are finished, I travel to another city and the next day do it all again. On this particular trip I listened to 174 performance exams representing about 22 hours of piano music!

Beethoven is always well represented everywhere I go – a great cultural equalizer of sorts – and while I heard many performances of works by this most famous of composers, one of the best was by a six-year old girl in Changchun who played a marvelous Sonatina with a confidence and energy one would expect from someone much older. She was small, even for her age, and unassuming, but when she lifted her hands to the keyboard, off she went, demonstrating an ability and maturity beyond her age. When she finished, she immediately slipped back into her quiet demeanor and left the stage. Of course, not all performances are so polished, but in general, the level of playing I am witness to is quite high. There are two reasons for this: one, pragmatically, is that generally teachers do not register their students for the GMT unless they are appropriately prepared. A more significant reason, however, is much more about the culture. In China, most children learn piano and often a second instrument as well. Practice time is highly structured and competitions and proficiency exams are popular measurements of progress. If there is anyone who still thinks that classical music is dying, they could not be more wrong. A typical professional piano studio in China can easily have 1,000 students depending on how many teachers work there, and there are hundreds of studios located throughout the country.

Another example of how classical music infiltrates daily life is seen in the variety of performance-venue locations. Certainly some venues are quite formal, such as small recital halls in large piano shops, but others vary widely. In one city the GMT performance space was set up in a dance studio (far too loud due to the reflective dance floor!) and another was an actual small recital hall located in a multi-level shopping mall on a floor dedicated to restaurants – all throughout the exams, in this perfectly lovely little hall, the wonderful aroma of Chinese cooking was in the air.

The career of any musician is typically eclectic, and I am no exception. I have multiple musical identities which include pianist, artistic consultant, Director of the GMT, Professor of Music at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, and, of course, Artistic and Managing Director of the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. As I alternate among my various roles, it is always exciting for me to listen to, and work with, the next generation of performers, patrons, and classical music supporters. And, who knows, one day, one of these young talents may find themselves on stage or in the audience here in Winona.

Ned Kirk, Artistic & Managing Director