In the past few days I’ve had a lot of musical experiences, and so I want to talk about my impressions and experiences with traditional Chinese music. This will cover everything from simple descriptions of instruments, to songs and dance, to me becoming a musical prodigy. Being a band nerd, I naturally wrote a lot about this, so strap in.
I’ve seen a variety of different flute and string instruments since arriving in China. However, I’m going to talk about two of them in detail: the guzheng and the guqin. The guzheng is an interesting instrument that’s a cross between a guitar and a harp. It’s made to lay flat on either a table or a stand. There are two forms of the instrument, a 13 sting version (small in size) and a 21 string version (large in size). The strings are pulled taught across it’s body, and a single fret is inserted onto each string which sets its note. It can be tuned by either moving the fret, or adjusting the tightness of the string. To play it, you need to wear finger picks. Traditional picks are made out of bone or turtle shells, but modern picks are just hard plastic. The latter is what we were using. However, you don’t hold the picks, instead you tape them to your fingers. There’s a special tape that they have which is used to hold the pick. You have a larger pick that’s taped to the thumb, and then three smaller picks that are taped to the index, middle, and ring fingers.
The sound that the instrument makes is usually very melodic. If you just pluck the strings one at a time, or if you run the pick across all the strings, the sound produced is rich and fills the room similar to a harp. However, sometimes the musician strums many strings quickly and harshly. This produces a sound that’s less rich and much closer to how a guitar sounds. They also sometimes pluck one single string over and over, very quickly. This would almost sustain a note, but with a very interesting texture to the sound as opposed to one continuous note that something like a trumpet would produce.
Next up is the guqin. This one was a cross between a guitar and a violin. There’s a tradition amongst Chinese musicians that each guqin should be handcrafted by its owner, which was the case for the one I saw played. It’s a process that can take years. This instrument dates back over 3000 years, and there is 1000-year-old one that’s still in use (although I didn’t get to see this one). Originally, the guqin had 5 strings, until one of the Chinese Emperors added two more strings. The body of the instrument is about a meter long, made of a finely polished wood and has a series of painted dots running up its length. The musician plucks the strings at the base of each string to produce a sounds, and then places and slides their finger between the dots to change the pitch.
The sound made is very rich and full. It fills the room with sound much better than the guzheng and sounds much more melodic (not that the guzheng sounds bad). The master who performed for us was very careful with it; He had a special table and chair that he constructed before performing. He also had something akin to steel wool that he used to clean the strings before he began performing. It was very ritualistic.
In Chinese culture, the guqin is much more highly revered. It’s seen as being much harder to play, and is much more expensive. A cheap one costs around 75,000 to 100,000 USD whereas a cheap guzheng would run you 5,000 to 10,000 USD. The guqin also appeared much earlier in China’s history, and so it’s much more important culturally.
Our Guqin teacher also showed us some traditional Chinese sheet music. This was incredibly interesting. The traditional sheet music was nothing like the western style. There was no concept of rhythm, beat, or tempo. It was simply a series of descriptions of how you should place your hands. It would be the equivalent of someone giving you a trumpet and a list of notes, and asking you to play taps. You’d definitely be able to hit all the right notes, but you wouldn’t know how long to play them, how loud of play them, or in what style to play them. It’s both a failure of documentation, and a brilliant way to allow the musician to make a song their own.
A while ago, we had a ‘field trip’ in our Chinese culture class. I put the field trip in quotes because we never actually left our classroom. Some ladies came in to perform the guzheng for us, and to let us play a little bit. There were a total of four performers playing. The first was an adorable 6-year-old girl, dressed in a traditional Tang Dynasty outfit with her hair done up in two little buns on the sides of her head. She was incredibly nervous about performing for our class. She’s from Shanghai so she’s seen foreigners before, but she had never seen so many in one place. Saying that she was a little shy would be an understatement. Our teacher, Sa Laoshi, and the older performers were all trying to calm her down. As a sign of respect, Sa Laoshi asked her if she would perform if we all called her jie jie (big sister). She said no. Sa Laoshi then asked if she would perform if we all called her laoshi (teacher). She said no. I’m not sure how they convinced her to come and perform for us, but eventually the little girl and her teacher came out and performed for us. They were both playing the 13 string version, which is much easier to learn. The two performed a very simple song for us, with both of them playing in unison. She was pretty good, especially for being so young!
After the little girl finished, we moved on to the full performance. This was done with three older performers who were all playing on the larger 21 string variant of the instrument. They played 3 or 4 songs for us which were very interesting to listen to. Most of the sounds were just the single, plucked notes, but occasionally they would strike the lower strings to make the strumming noise, or pluck one note to sustain a tone. There were also some percussive hits on the base on the instrument. For the first few songs, they all played in unison, but in later pieces they began to play in parts, which had a much fuller and complete sound.
Once the performance portion was over, we moved onto the interactive portion. Here, we all got to tape on the fingernail picks and try the guzheng for ourselves. This was easily the best part of the day. There were three guzhengs, and I was one of the first people to get to go. They sat everyone down at their instrument and then showed us how to play a song. They did this by playing a small portion of the song, and then having us repeat it. It was pretty cool and simple, and I caught on fairly quickly. After the three of us had learned it, we all got to play it together. I found a smaller guzheng off in the corner, and recorded myself playing it.
After everyone else had had their turn, I went back up to one of the music teachers and asked them to show me the fast strumming technique. They told me (through charades) that you had to pinch your thumb and index fingers together, then rest your pinky at the base of the string you wanted to strum. You then had to start flicking your wrist back and forth as fast as you could. It was like you were aggressively waving goodbye to someone.
Once I had the proper hand position, I gave it a shot. I was surprised by how much resistance the string had, and how forceful you had to be to produce a quality sound. My first attempt only lasted about half a second, before I lost it. However, as soon as I started my music teacher squealed and started shouting in Chinese. I actually got pretty scared, since I had no idea what she was saying and she sounded kind of mad. I was worried I had broken something without realizing it. She ran over to the other two teachers, as well as Sa Laoshi, the culture teacher. The four of them all gathered around me, and Sa Laoshi explained that the music teacher was very happy and excited. She hadn’t expected a novice to pick up the technique so quickly, especially a foreigner that had only just learned about the instrument. They all took out their phones, and recorded me doing the technique. I also incorporated it into the song that they had taught everyone, which made them ecstatic.
I then asked them if they could show me a different song. The song that we had been playing was a traditional Chinese martial arts song, but I wanted to see what else I could play on the guzheng.
At this point, it’s worth noting one key difference between the guzheng and a western string instrument, say the piano. The piano is tuned on what’s called an octave scale. This means that there are eight notes making up an octave (i.e. by going up 8 whole notes, you will reach the same note you started with, just one octave higher). By contrast, the guzheng is tuned to the pentatonic scale. This means that there are only 5 notes between any two octaves. If that was confusing, there’s another explanation. The octave style of music can be expressed using the vocal scale ‘do re mi fa so la ti do’ while the pentatonic style can be expressed on the same scale as being ‘do re mi so la do’. The ‘fa’ and the ‘ti’ are “missing” on the latter scale. Because of this, songs written on the pentatonic scale can be played on the octave scale, but not the other way around.
The importance of this is that when I asked to play another song, they showed me how to play Jingle Bells. It was really cool that they shared a Western song with me, but what was interesting is how they sidestepped the issue of the difference in scale types. How they did it was by pressing down on the string past the fret used to set that string’s tone. This changed the pitch enough that the “missing” note could be produced. Once I knew this, I knew what song I wanted to teach them how to play.
Showing the music teachers how to play Hail Purdue wasn’t that easy. We were able to sing the melody to them very easily, but they all thought about the notes differently than we did. We pulled up some sheet music for the song, which led to an interesting problem. It was obvious that the guzheng teacher had seen sheet music before, and obviously knew what it was. However, it didn’t seem like she could really read the music, at least not in the context of playing a guzheng. What was interesting is that the teacher kept prompting us to sing the song using the ‘do re mi’ vocal scale. That gave us the same problem that she had had with the sheet music, in that we had never thought about the song in that way and so weren’t really sure how to sing it. My friend Alex Konopacki tried singing it for them, while I tried pulling an image that would be able to convert sheet music notes in the vocal scale.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time and the teachers had to leave. The video above shows the best we could do in terms of playing Hail Purdue. It’s not much, but it’s something. The entire experience was really amazing. I could barely speak any Chinese and they could barely speak an English, but we were able to overcome that barrier through the shared language of music. The entire time we were teaching songs to one another, it really did feel like a conversation. They expressed an idea to me, I answered by expressing my own idea, but the only words we had to use were notes and songs.
The story doesn’t quite end there though. The next day in class, Sa Laoshi told us that the guzheng teachers had been so impressed with us, and how enthusiastic the class had been that they had given the class 2 tickets to a concert that their studio was putting on that weekend. Since there were only two tickets, there had to be a selection for who got to go. When Sa Laoshi asked the music teachers if any of the students had impressed them, they had immediately replied that I had impressed them all with my skill and enthusiasm about the guzheng. Therefore, I received one of the tickets.
The concert was a very interesting experience. The studio was similar to piano classes for school children and this concert was similar to their piano recital. There were about 40-50 performers, and the audience was mainly just the family members of those playing. I actually felt a little out of place there.
The concert itself was really fun to watch. They opened with a group that played a song together on 11 guzhengs. They all weaved there sounds together, to create a rich harmony which was very pleasant. This is actually somewhat unusual for traditional Chinese songs, as most songs have the musicians play in unison. Regardless, it was a joy to hear. After that they began playing a series of solo performances, which lasted for about 2 and a half hours. Most played on guzhengs, but some played piano. There were also a few group performances. After that, there was a group dance performed. This one was quite interesting. There were eight dancers total, and they all danced in pairs for most of the song, and either mirrored each other’s movements, or moved in unison. The dresses that were worn were bright in color and had sleeves that reached all the way down to the floor, but changed color halfway down. This created an effect that all of the performs were holding cloth ribbons that they used to dance with. It was very beautiful.
So that’s been my experience through music so far. I love seeing all of the differences and similarities in how two different cultures think about music, and how they express their ideas through it. It’s also an interesting way to see how entertainment and the arts has evolved over time. Can’t wait to see what else I can discover in China!