Private music instruction is something that many of us were lucky enough to receive as children. It’s a privilege to get one-on-one training from a professional on an instrument of one’s choice. What’s more, it helps cultivate many important qualities in our young ones. However, if your children’s Mandarin is not as strong as his or her native language, it can be tricky to find private music teachers who can instruct your kids on scales, fingering, and sight reading in a way that they can understand.
Originally from the US, the Despain family includes three girls who are currently studying the flute: Jade (age 13), Corinne (age 12), and Lily (age 9). They each take lessons from local musician Bruce Gremo, who teaches in English and has 35 years’ experience as a music instructor.
Their youngest, Lily, summed it up beautifully when she said that learning an instrument “teaches [her]to feel music and try to tell a story about [her]feelings when [she]plays.” In other words, flute has become her outlet for expression.
The girls’ parents, Brenan and Tiffany, spoke about the important lessons that music instruction has instilled in their children, including dedication, listening skills, focus, and time management skills. Some argue that the specific instrument is neither here nor there. For the Despain family, flutes were easier to transport than a piano and offered the possibility of their girls working with an orchestra in the future.
That being said, learning how to “tickle the ivories” is still the most common choice for a child’s first instrument, and piano instructors are easy to find in Beijing. Consider Claire’s Music Studio, run by Claire Lin, a Taiwanese-born pianist who teaches in English and Mandarin. Having lived in Beijing for 12 years, Lin has 20 years of experience and her studio employs at least five English-speaking instructors.
Annie Yuen, a Hong Kong-born musician, is a local piano teacher who teaches from her home full-time. Yuen speaks English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, and has taught privately for 26 years using two Western teaching methods: the Orff and Dalcroze methods. Annie believes that private music instruction is a “big gift” that parents can give to their kids. “It is wonderful for children to have their musical world, a place where they enjoy being, where they can communicate with music and share music with others,” she says.
Liz Williams’ kids, Sarah (9) and Ben (7), have been studying with Yuen for the past four months. Sarah had four years of piano experience when she started classes with Yuen, while Ben was a beginner. Williams says that “Annie makes learning piano fun” for her kids, who have been commended at school for their musical ability. When asked what they get out of learning piano, Sarah and Ben say: “It’s lots of fun and you can learn songs to play for your family and friends.”
French expat Pierre Pradat is a professional musician, performer, and private music instructor. With 12 years of music teaching experience and six years of living in China under his belt, Pradat speaks French, English, and Mandarin. He offers jazz piano for beginners or professionals,and classical piano for beginners. In addition, his students get to perform in at least one recital every year and can gain knowledge from one of the busiest local jazz performers in the city – Pradat does almost 200 shows per year.
Italian musician Moreno Donadel is also one of the more advanced music instructors in the city. Like Pradat, he is a busy and sought-after performer in his right. Able to teach jazz, classical, and improvisational techniques on any instrument, Donadel only accepts advanced students from ages twelve and up. Both Pradat and Donadel are also instructors at Beijing Contemporary Music Academy.
If your child is interested in guitar, there are several local teachers available. Nico Toresse, a French musician, has been teaching for six years and offers instruction in French, English, or Mandarin. He teaches classical, acoustic, and electric guitar. His wife, Zoe, also offers accordion lessons, but only in French and Mandarin.
Two local Chinese teachers, Anthony An (An Ruqiang) and Kevin Sun (Sun Zhe), are also qualified, English-speaking instructors. With six years of teaching experience, An also offers voice lessons and says that he enjoys teaching expat kids because they are “more cheerful and independent than Chinese kids.” He rejects the “machinery” or rote teaching method prevalent in China.
Likewise, Sun – who has nine years of teaching experience – says that 80 percent of his students are from outside of China. He’s thrilled that his job allows him to focus on his passion for music and for passing
that passion onto others.
Drums are not often parents’ first choice of instrument, but you’d be surprised how many kids want to learn to “hit stuff!” Zac Courtney is a Beijing-based Australian percussion teacher and one of the most musical drummers you’ll meet. Also an instructor at Beijing Contemporary
Music Academy, Courtney teaches private drum and djembe lessons in both English and Chinese. He is a third-generation music teacher and a sought-after local performer. “Playing music teaches people team skills, which are invaluable across all of life’s
challenges,” he says.
Vocal instructors are hard to find in Beijing, but after 15 years of teaching here, AmericanJess Meider calls herself a “vocal gongfu coach.” A professional jazz singer and local singer-songwriter, Meider teaches in English and Mandarin. “Singing is like talking – you just hold the notes longer,” she explains. Also a certified yoga instructor, her classes focus on breath, awareness of the body, and ear training.
The Final Word
Bruce Gremo, the flute instructor for the Despain girls, says the following about private music lessons: “[When] the teacher succeeds in instilling a passion and interest in music, students will demonstrate a will and initiativeto work. Then, the teacher can shape the pedagogy to suit the student’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, I [measure] success from the extent that students can teach themselves.”
After studying with Bruce for two years, the Despain girls have been able to take their musical learning into a school environment by seeking out classmates and performing together in talent shows. Corrine, the middle child, says: “Flute taught me that you sometimes have to try really hard before you can get good at something you want to do. This means I will be able to try hard to succeed in life.” Her sister Jade adds: “If playing the flute were the same as handling a sword, [Gremo] would be a samurai – only he would sound nicer.”
If you or your kids are interested in learning a traditional Chinese instrument, check out China Culture Center (CCC) for their English-language classes in pipa, guzheng, guqin, and other instruments.