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by Kenneth Williams

t 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,


Kenneth Williams percentage are from Asian countries. Our that can be shared and understood without
is an assistant profes- current situation reflects a changing, but verbal communication, culture has a
sor of music at The not new, trend. During the nineteenth tremendous impact on patterns of music
Ohio State University century, large numbers of Americans stud- teaching and learning.
in Columbus, Ohio, ied abroad with European pianists; and
where he directs the Americans continued to study in Europe Defining Culture:
M.A. and Ph.D. even after music conservatories were estab- Anthropology 101
programs in piano lished in the large American cities. American Because culture is pervasive and univer-
pedagogy. music students studying in Europe must sal in the human experience, it is difficult
have experienced many of the same chal- to define and see in ourselves. A narrow
eager to make the last class meeting a cele- lenges Asian students studying in American definition of culture includes the refined
bration. I am surprised and delighted by music conservatories experience today. achievements of a civilization—its art,
their gestures of gratitude. We combine Today’s international students learning music and literature. This narrow defini-
our celebration with reflections on how all to teach music in America usually are curi- tion implies one either can have culture or
the students have enhanced their teaching ous about American attitudes toward lack culture. The Dutch Anthropologist
skills during the past year. When the class music education in general. Why are band Geert Hofstede offers a broader definition
is over, I gather my books and papers as programs so important in American of culture—one that includes all the pat-
usual, but I am struck by how odd it seems schools? Why do American children try to terns of thinking, feeling and acting, which
to leave the seminar room carrying a bou- pursue so many activities rather than one learns from early childhood.2 These
quet of flowers. Noticing my uneasiness, focusing on one or two? A study funded by patterns distinguish the members of one
one of the students asks, “Is it common for the National Piano Foundation explored social group or society from another. It is
men in the United States to receive flowers the perceptions that American children, important to distinguish culture, some-
as a gift?” parents and teachers have regarding private thing that is learned, from human nature
The question was more about cultural piano study.1 Music education researchers and from individual personality. While
norms in the United States than about identified excellent piano teachers and sur- people from one culture may share certain
how to teach piano, but questions like this veyed their students and the students’ par- customs and attitudes, individuals within
one were common in this pedagogy class. ents to determine what they consider the the group still have unique personalities.
Although our university is situated in the benefits of piano study to be. For many Hofstede calls culture “software of the
heart of the American Midwest, none of parents, an important benefit of piano mind.” This analogy suggests that culture
the graduate students enrolled in this class study for their children is it seems to shapes the way humans behave, think and
were Americans. They were from Malaysia, reduce the amount of time they spend feel just as programming determines how
Korea and Taiwan, and they all were watching television. The results of this computers behave. Hofstede’s analogy may
female. For international students, a course study show a large percentage of those seem inappropriate, especially for artists
in piano pedagogy is not just about how to piano students who study with excellent who strive for individuality and creativity
teach piano, but how to teach piano in a teachers practice less than an hour per day. in expression. How can human feelings be
foreign culture. Questions about culture International students have grown up with programmed or automated like a comput-
were as common as questions about piano far more rigorous practice habits. The fact er? Hofstede is merely making a distinction
technique and teaching repertoire. that parents allow myriad extracurricular between the impact of culture in shaping a
Communication across cultural lines made activities, television viewing and computer person’s attitudes and behavior from
the experience a process of cultural adapta- games to occupy large amounts of their human nature, which is shared by all cul-
tion not only for the international stu- children’s time is surprising to internation- tural groups and is inherited. Culture is
dents, but also for me. How did I answer al students. Understanding the cultural something one learns from parents, other
the question about the flowers? I said, context within which one teaches, though, teachers and family members. It is some-
“No, traditionally men in the United is essential for effective interactions thing that changes from one generation to
States do not receive flowers as a gift, but between teachers and students. the next. Culture is not fixed—it is
that part of our culture is changing, and I The benefit of cross-cultural education, dynamic, and it can change when one
appreciate your thoughtful gift.” especially in the arts, is the breadth and adapts to new environments. Some cultur-
Cross-cultural encounters are increasing- depth of insight students gain about their al aspects endure through generations and
ly common in our global society. It is espe- own cultures by comparing them to differ- through centuries of change. Our current
cially true in the performing arts and in ent cultures. There are challenges, though, society is experiencing both clashes and
higher education that students are willing for both teachers and students, and many blending of elements from various cultures
and even eager to cross cultural boundaries misunderstandings in the classroom and with unprecedented frequency.
to pursue advanced studies with master music studio can be attributed to cultural When the behavior or attitudes of
teachers at prestigious institutions. Today, blindness. Expectations based on cultural students from other cultures bewilder
many pianists studying in American con- stereotypes can impede learning and com- teachers, sometimes teachers attribute the
servatories and university schools of music munication rather than facilitate them. puzzling characteristics to a foreign cul-
are international students, and a large Although music is a universal language ture, when actually the characteristics may

be unique to the individual or common to is difficult but terribly important, especial- student value individualism more than col-
all humans. If a teacher finds that a stu- ly when molding artistic sensibilities. lectivism or vice versa? How does the student
dent lacks motivation, he or she may pre- As we consider culture’s implications on view authority and persons in authoritative
sume all members of that culture are lazy. teaching and learning, we see the most roles? How does the student integrate the
Misunderstandings such as this can hurt, poignant differences between Eastern and creative aspect of musical performance and
and they hinder effective communication. Western cultures. Eastern values stem from interpretation with virtuosity and the techni-
Getting to know students from other the philosophical teachings and traditions cal aspects of performance? What motivates
cultures requires making careful distinc- of the Confucian heritage. Western values the student to practice and achieve success?
tions between cultural characteristics and stem from Greek and Roman sources and
individual personality traits. In the music Judeo-Christian philosophies. While there Individualism versus
studio, teachers work to develop self- is great diversity within these cultures and Collectivism
expression through musical performance. numerous subcultures have evolved over One fundamental difference distinguish-
Achieving that goal varies with each stu- the centuries, these philosophical roots are ing cultural groups is the way persons view
dent according to personality traits and the sources from which values emerge and themselves in relation to others.
learning styles, which may be influenced more superficial manifestations of culture Anthropologists identify individualistic
by cultural factors. develop. Even when students from Eastern cultures as those where individuals strive
The most obvious barrier to communi- and Western cultures speak the same lan- for autonomy and self-realization, and col-
cation across cultural lines is language, yet guage, wear the same fashions and perhaps lectivist cultures as those where identifica-
it is possible to teach without words. even share common religious beliefs, they tion with an “in-group” takes priority over
While teaching at The Interlochen Center are likely to experience fundamental confu- personal goals. Individualistic cultures pre-
for the Arts in Michigan one summer, I sion when learning to perform and teach dominate in Europe and North America,
taught a young Korean girl who spoke no in another culture. where an individual’s ultimate goal is to
English, and I speak no Korean. We had realize his or her unique potential to
four lessons with practically no conversa- Cultural Factors that Affect become distinct and autonomous in iden-
tion. Using modeling and imitation, the Communication and Learning tity. Self-realization is a virtue in individu-
lessons included tone production, hand Course work in piano pedagogy and alistic cultures. Psychologist Abraham
position, rubato and practice techniques. music education usually includes some con- Maslow identified self-actualization as the
While this type of instruction produces sideration of learning theories developed by highest need in the hierarchy of human
results, it develops a superficial type of educational psychologists. The theories of needs. The “self-made man” who achieves
learning with no independent thinking on Piaget, Skinner, Bruner and others offer success through his or her own ingenuity is
the learner’s part. It solves the language valuable insights into the way humans, a hero in individualistic cultures.
problem, but it essentially is rote teaching especially children, develop cognitive abili- Members of collectivist cultures view
and one-way communication with very lit- ties and process information. When train- themselves in relation to others and highly
tle interaction between teacher and pupil. ing teachers from other cultures and value their place in a social group. In these
Hofstede identifies language as the most preparing teachers for multicultural music cultures, an individual brings distinction to
superficial manifestation of culture. Like studios and classrooms, one must question his or her extended family and larger “in-
visual icons, flags and modes of dress, lan- whether the theories shaping our approach groups,” such as a school or corporation,
guage is an outward symbol that conveys to teaching are valid for all cultures or are through his or her personal accomplish-
meaning. More important than language specific for European and American cul- ments. Loyalty to an “in-group” is a virtue
are nonverbal communication patterns— tures. Theories about how children think in collectivist cultures. While a child’s
modes of greeting, social customs and reli- and learn developed by educational psy- achievements in academics, sports and the
gious rituals. Still more important than chologists in the West may be relevant for arts are an important source of pride for an
verbal and nonverbal communication are only some of our students. Cultural diversi- entire family in all cultures, it is especially
values, the essential manifestation of cul- ty among our students encourages us to true in collectivist cultures.
ture. Cultural values include concepts of adopt a more flexible view of teaching and For musicians, the individual attention
what is good or beautiful or appropriate. learning. When we meet students from of applied instruction and solo perform-
These are preferences learned from the other cultures, we want to learn all we can ance takes on a different meaning for
family and from society. Understanding about that particular culture. In a global students from these two fundamentally dif-
students from different cultures involves society, though, we encounter a wide vari- ferent cultures. The notion of expressing
considering the values guiding their judg- ety of cultural influences and students from oneself through musical performance and
ment, actions and perceptions. Teachers diverse cultural backgrounds. A broad view individual interpretation must be consid-
and students can communicate without of the ways culture affects communication ered in a cultural context, especially when
words at a superficial level. Effective teach- and learning would help us better under- one’s culture might promote conformity
ing, though, especially in the arts, requires stand all our students and ourselves. over individuality. Some students may feel
dialogue at a deeper level and respect for Four questions seem to be most relevant uncomfortable accepting praise for a solo
other values. Understanding how values when learning to communicate with music performance or even for good progress in
operate in students’ thoughts and feelings students from other cultures: Does the their practice. Some may view those


feelings as false humility. Other students Virtuosity versus Creativity Asian trips. Young Benjamin enjoyed play-
need recognition for their unique talents that While training performing artists, teach- ing with the hotel room key, which guests
may distinguish them from their siblings. ers cultivate both artistry and skill. Pianists would deposit into a receptacle in the lobby
invest time and energy in developing tech- when leaving the hotel each morning. The
Power Distance or Attitudes nique and analyzing scores, but an artistic boy enjoyed the challenge of trying to
toward Authority performance must have a unique and per- insert the key and its bulky key ring into
Culture affects our attitudes regarding sonal contribution from the performer. All the narrow slot on the key receptacle, a dif-
the degree to which we accept inequality in musicians work toward a balance between ficult task for a child of eighteen months.
power as normal. Hofstede calls this the demands for virtuosity and creativity in He failed at most attempts because he
dimension of culture “power distance”;3 their performances—an ideal blend of per- lacked the necessary eye-hand coordination.
others might call it reverence for authority. sonal interpretation within the limits of But he liked to bang the key on the box
Power distance separates the old from the style, good taste and technical mastery. anyway, and sometimes it even went into
young, managers from employees and Each teacher chooses whether to encourage the slot. Benjamin’s parents were satisfied
teachers from students. In some cultures, freedom or control in each student that he entertained himself with this
persons who hold authority consider their depending on the individual’s needs and exploratory game. They noticed, however,
subordinates to be very different from development level. The relative emphasis a that Chinese people working in the hotel

themselves and vice versa. The extent to teacher places on skill development as or simply passing through the lobby would
which we are conscious of our roles is a stop to help Benjamin place the key in the
manifestation of culture. In cultures with slot accurately. After this scene was repeated
high power distance, a wide gulf separates The benefit of on several occasions, Gardner realized he
teachers from students; in cultures with
low power distance, persons can move eas-
cross-cultural was witnessing divergent attitudes between
Chinese and American preferences for chil-
ily among different roles, acting as a supe- education, especially dren’s behavior and the culturally appropri-
rior in one situation and a peer or even a ate ways for adults to teach them. Gardner
subordinate in another. In these cultures, in the arts, is and his wife preferred to let Benjamin
teachers must earn the respect of their stu-
dents rather than presume respect would
the breadth and explore the key and the slot, developing his
motor skills in the process of his own dis-
come with the position. Students from depth of insight covery and entertainment. The Chinese
high power distance cultures would never passersby, placing far more value on skill
question or challenge the teacher’s views. students gain about and accuracy, would not allow the child to
Along with respect for teachers, there
are high expectations for teachers in high
their own cultures by repeat his futile attempts and felt com-
pelled to demonstrate the correct solution.

power distance cultures—teachers are comparing them to Gardner identifies the relative value
expected to have all the answers. This can placed on skill and virtuosity as a funda-
be problematic in situations where the different cultures. mental issue in distinguishing Eastern and
teacher from a Western culture might use Western cultures and their approaches to
the Socratic method or discovery learning. opposed to artistic freedom and self- arts education. Western societies tend to
The teacher would ask questions leading expression is a function of both individual encourage innovation and creativity. The
the student to new insights or discoveries. and cultural values. Chinese preference for mastering skills
It would seem very strange for a student Howard Gardner, an American psychol- before exploring alternative strategies has
from “high power distance” cultures to ogist working at Harvard University, made Chinese civilization one of the world’s
have a teacher ask a question when the explored cultural differences in arts educa- oldest and most enduring cultures. For gen-
answer might be obvious; the teacher is tion and offered his observations in a book erations, children have learned calligraphy
supposed to have the answers, not the titled, To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the by imitating models. The Chinese approach
questions. Likewise, students from “low Dilemma of Contemporary Education.4 is straightforward: For Benjamin to place
power distance” cultures might be reluc- Gardner traveled to China several times the key in the box, he needs to acquire basic
tant to trust the teacher’s way as the right during the 1980s seeking clues to the skills. Adults know the most efficient way to
or best way to solve a problem until he or struggle within American education do that and easily can demonstrate the “cor-
she is convinced the teacher is correct. between progressive and traditional forces. rect” solution. In Chinese societies, change
This cultural dimension makes it particu- In China, Gardner and his colleagues occurs as a minor modification in a tradi-
larly difficult for young teachers in training observed classes in painting, singing and tional process rather than an innovative
to participate in peer teaching exercises. To academic subjects. He describes a humor- solution to an ordinary problem.
assume the role of teacher means to take on ous incident illustrating the fundamental The incident Gardner describes is rele-
great authority in some cultures and can attitude differences between Eastern and vant to every music lesson. Should teachers
make students uncomfortable. International Western cultures toward education in gen- show students “the correct way” to do
students holding positions as teaching assis- eral and arts education in particular. something, or should teachers encourage
tants often are appalled at the lack of respect Gardner’s wife and one-year-old son, their students to explore a variety of possi-
they receive from American students. Benjamin, accompanied him on one of his ble solutions? Cultural values also would

affect the likelihood of a student exploring responsibility for their own learning. The the music studio can be a dynamic interac-
solutions during practice sessions. In gen- roots of this cultural value can be found in tion where both student and teacher
eral, rote teaching tends to be the preferred the Confucian tradition emphasizing that engage in cultural adaptation by rethinking
approach in Eastern cultures; discovery every person is educable. In the Confucian the patterns forming the “software of the
learning is preferred by Western teachers. tradition, the fact that there are differences mind.” So, if teachers bear the burden of
Teachers from both cultures can benefit by in ability does not matter; education and cultural adaptation, they also reap the ben-
trying different instructional approaches. learning are associated always with effort. efits of cross-cultural learning.
Regardless of how we develop them, a will- Achievement through hard work in The most formidable challenge is seeing
ingness to explore and the achievement of Confucian-heritage societies is more highly our own cultural influences. Gardner cites
technical mastery are two essential compo- valued than achievement through high the following proverb: “The fish is the last
nents of all artistic experiences. ability. Western cultures tend to praise to discover that it is in water.”9 The proverb
those who make difficult tasks appear easy offers an apt image for our scenario in
Motivation and Achievement because of their own exceptional ability, as teaching music students across cultural
What motivates a student to practice in the child prodigy phenomenon. lines. We are so immersed in our own cul-
and to achieve success? The answer may The contrast in these views across cultural tural values that we do not know what sep-
depend on the student’s cultural values. lines not only distinguishes Eastern and arates us from those we teach. Effective
Farideh Salili, a researcher at the University Western cultures, but suggests a distinct communication across cultures does not
of Hong Kong, explored cross-cultural dif- change within Western cultures. The high require that we reject our own cultural val-
ferences in the meaning and dimensions of value placed by Western cultures on hard ues—only that we discover them.
achievement among young people. The work, sometimes called the “Protestant work AMT
concept of success for students in some ethic,” seems to be diminishing as a source
cultures is linked closely with pleasing of motivation for younger generations.7 NOTES
one’s parents and having friends—a mani- 1. Duke, Robert, Patricia Flowers and
festation of being socialized in a collectivist Acculturation: Burden or David Wolfe, “Children Who Study Piano
society. Children from these cultures are Benefit? with Excellent Teachers in the United
driven by a sense of duty to their parents. Culture is a dynamic force, not a static States.” Bulletin of the Council for Research
Equally significant, though, might be what condition. Our students are shaped by in Music Education 132. (1997):
students believe to be the causes of their influences from a variety of cultures and pp. 51–84.
success or failure. And these attitudes vary sources within their culture. Cultures seem 2. Hofstede, Geert, Culture’s
along cultural lines. to be evolving more quickly with every Consequences: International Differences in
The social psychologist Bernard Weiner generation in modern society. Work-Related Values. (Beverly Hills,
showed during the 1980s that judgments This article has addressed some ways California: Sage Publications, 1980).
about the causes of achievement and culture can separate teachers and students, 3. Hofstede, Geert, “Cultural
failure could be important mediators of making communication and instruction Differences in Teaching and Learning,”
learning and behavior.5 Weiner found that difficult. During most lessons, our atten- International Journal of Intercultural
students who scored high on academic tion is focused on the music and the indi- Relations 10. (1986): pp. 301–320.
tests tended to attribute their successes to vidual student’s immediate needs. There is 4. Gardner, Howard, To Open Minds:
their own ability and effort while attribut- rarely time to explore the student’s cultural Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of
ing their failures to external factors. background and how it affects communi- Contemporary Education. (New York: Basic
External factors include bad luck, the diffi- cation in the studio. Learning individual Books, 1989).
culty of the test questions or poor testing characteristics of various cultures improves 5. Weiner, Bernard, An Attributional
conditions. During the 1990s, researchers communication with some students, but Theory of Motivation and Emotion. (New
used Weiner’s theories on motivation to understanding the ways culture affects York: Springer-Verlag, 1986).
compare students’ attributions for achieve- learning in general leads to better under- 6. Salili, Farideh, “Accepting Personal
ment across cultural lines. These cross-cul- standing of all students. Responsibility for Learning.” The Chinese
tural studies show that cultural factors An important question to consider when Learner: Cultural, Psychological, and
mediate students’ attitudes toward their communicating with students from other Contextual Influences. (Hong Kong,
own achievement.6 cultures is, “Who bears the burden of Comparative Education Research Centre,
In Western cultures, students are more translation?” It is possible to establish 1996).
likely to attribute achievement to their norms for communication in the music 7. Spence, Janet, “Achievement
innate abilities rather than their own studio and expect students to adapt to American Style: The Rewards and Costs of
efforts. Students from Eastern cultures them. Hofstede suggests teachers primarily Individualism,” American Psychologist 47,
tend to attribute their success more to are responsible for adaptation in cross- No. 12. (1985): pp. 1285–1295.
effort. It is important to note we can con- cultural learning situations.8 Some students 8. Hofstede, Geert, “Cultural
trol the effort we invest in learning, but we will take full responsibility for their own Differences in Teaching and Learning,”
have no control over innate aptitude. learning because of their cultural values International Journal of Intercultural
Thus, students who believe their success and do whatever they can to meet the Relations 10. (1986): pp. 301–320.
depends on effort take more personal teacher’s expectations. Communication in 9. Gardner, Ibid.