The Business of Piano Teaching in Singapore (the economy of music education)
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
It’s been 2 months since we moved into Toa Payoh and we are absolutely enthralled with our new neighbourhood and its modest, unassuming character. Where I sit at the piano, I see the trees and occasionally, squirrels scurrying up and down, delicate butterflies, and oriole birds doing a pas de deux. Occasionally, I hear the muted sounds of the French horn coming from the adjacent block, someone practicing scales from the opposite block and it is heartwarming to hear music at random moments during the day. I remember one of our first journeys home where the notion of having a new home fully sank in: leaving Changi then driving on the PIE right to the heart of Singapore where we live, instead of the old familiar route passing East Coast Park and the Tanjong Pagar port, turning off the AYE onto Lower Delta road to my mother’s apartment at Redhill where we used to stay on previous trips back. Living in a mature HDB estate also means that there are staggering numbers of outstanding hawkers and eateries, enough to keep one gastronomically hooked for several months, just within the boundaries of Toa Payoh.
We put in much thought and effort into setting up our piano studio and are amazed that the graphic renderings and dozens of sketches done on paper, are now a living reality where we can host friends and welcome prospective students. Setting up a piano studio after many years of being away from Singapore has several challenges. I’ve had to do way more marketing and advertising than I ever could imagine, given how saturated and competitive the music education industry is these days and how there are so many music schools apart from Yamaha and Cristofori, which were the two dominant music education providers during my time. I wish there were some official statistics on this but I get the impression that there are thousands of piano teachers who market themselves using various internet platforms and faceless music agents who claim to provide professional matchmaking services between a student and teacher. How can one navigate through this unregulated free market industry and make informed decisions about where to go for music lessons?
Several well-meaning relatives and acquaintances have asked me why I want to start out as an independent freelancer and don’t want to join a music school, given the stability and guaranteed catchment of students. As a teacher-musician who studied at music university for 6 years with teaching experience, I believe that retaining my autonomy and self-representation is important. I want to be the one who communicates directly with my student and their parents and I believe in the need to have an open dialogue and honest conversation, before starting lessons. While there are a handful of credible schools run by genuine, qualified and passionate musicians, I am profoundly disturbed by the flagrantly capitalistic, business-oriented and profit-driven manner in which some music schools are run.
I find headlines by ignorant magazine writers who come up with articles such as “Singapore’s top 10 music schools” quite hilarious, especially when numbers such a student enrolment, or notions such as “fastest-growing” don’t equate at all to quality, but point squarely at business expansion of a group of investors pumping money into opening more branches. There are too many platitudes and vacuous statements directed at parents to unleash their child’s inner Mozart. I am disturbed by stories of hearing teachers having crammed back-to-back teaching schedules amounting to 9 hours on weekends. I’ve seen how music schools try to monetise every inch of space due to their overheads and high rents, and the result is to create as many 5 square meter teaching cells for students, and stock as many cheap, low quality instruments as possible. A music lesson becomes a commodity as what a parent pays for a lesson, goes towards several parties: purchase of the instrument (ideally played to death, with the least number of tunings), the music teacher, the administration, the manager, the overheads, the operational costs, the owner of the school, the marketing team, the investors etc. As a teacher-musician, do I want to be a cog in this wheel, slogging for some faceless capitalist investor and to surrender a significant fraction of my wages for their profit?
There needs to be more awareness when it comes to discerning how music schools and even music teachers conduct transactions and brand themselves in an inflated way, by virtue of affiliation with a certain prestigious brand which has entered the mainstream market through its two other budget piano ranges. A number of music schools and music teachers very proudly display this association like a badge of honour: in return for their purchases from this piano brand (not necessarily synonymous with manufacturer), they get officially endorsed and rewarded with "privileges": opportunities to showcase themselves and their students in a certain gallery. Correspondingly, beginner students who are thinking of buying a certain model associated with this prestigious brand get 6 months of free piano lessons from one of their “official educators” (read: a teacher who purchased a certain brand of piano), with an interest-free loan. How altruistic and magnanimous to be making piano lessons so attractively affordable, in one uncomplicated package!
It is time that we realise how piano manufacturers and dealers actively capitalise on the music education industry, no doubt a goldmine in Singapore (if the tuition industry is worth S$1.4 billion, I wonder how much the music education industry amounts to and I worry about the increasing marketisation of this sector). This isn’t a new phenomenon as in the case of Yamaha we have a manufacturer creating demand for its own products, at a time of the growing affluence of the middle-class. The Yamaha music classes department was established in the mid 1950s in Japan, coinciding with the economic boom and postwar reconstruction. A formidable household name with mass outreach, manufacturing and the selling of instruments, Yamaha built its overseas empire from the 1960s and opened its branch in Singapore in 1968. Over the last 2 months since my return to Singapore, I have seen some other marketing campaigns such as this one, which caught my attention.
We need to critically evaluate what is in the marketplace and do more research on what exactly we are buying, read independent reviews (after hearing sales talk) and to ask questions about the origins of our products, simply: "Where was this piano made"? "Am I paying too much for a brand and is the price tag commensurate with its value"? There are many names out there that deliberately serve to obscure, mislead, confuse, and there is a need for more transparency and accountability in this business, which has operated for too long based on under-the-table handshakes and mutually beneficial deals.
As music educators, our job is to disseminate objective information to parents and students, not get lured by the monetary side of making money from student referrals or the vanity of publicity. We ought to resist becoming part of the commoditised music education industry ourselves.
Here are some links I would like to share, about German pianos and the impact of globalisation on German piano manufacturers. This article by Larry Fine also offers an excellent summary on the different countries that manufacture pianos, and the trends that have occured over the last 50 years:
"To better survive in a global economy, high-end companies have diversified their product lines to include low- and mid-priced pianos, setting up factories or forming alliances with companies in parts of the world where labor is cheaper. At the same time, makers of low- and mid-priced pianos are creating higher-priced models using parts and expertise usually associated with the high-end companies, thus blurring the line between the high and low ends of the piano market".