Monthly Archives: April 2007

Guzheng progress update

I wrote some time ago about my taking up study of the Chinese zither called a guzheng and the beginning of my guzheng lessons.  This is an update.  The short story is that, although communication is not the insurmountable barrier my teacher and I had feared it might be, guzheng is not an easy instrument to learn, and I am also not a very good student! 

I am such a poor student that when I go to my lesson, I have flashbacks to my high school and college years when I was a very serious music student.  If I had gone into some of my high school music lessons as ill prepared as I’ve gone into some of my guzheng lessons, my teachers would have thrown me out of the room.  They may even have dismissed me as a student altogether.  My guzheng teacher is much more tolerant, probably because I’m an adult and probably because I’m a foreigner with whom she feels she is sharing her culture.  And, well, because I pay.  Though I do cancel on occasion, I never cancel at the last minute (which I think is a very rude thing to do to a teacher), and I always have a good reason.  But in the months of December to March, I missed lessons due to Christmas, illness, Chinese New Year, and personal travel.  There was one song in my book that was first assigned to me in January, and it only just last week was “finished” well enough for my teacher to allow me to move on from it.  I counted, and I have actually attended a grand total of 16 lessons, as of today. 

Whether due to laziness or busy-ness, I didn’t practice with the diligence that I should have.  It would have been easy to quit during the slowdown, but my philosophy is to keep the ball rolling even if it is rolling slowly.  One week I went to my lesson even though I hadn’t practiced one single time, trusting that the embarrassment would motivate me to practice more properly for the next lesson.  This did, indeed, turn out to be true.  The next week I certainly made sure to practice every day!  During that embarrassing lesson, I remembered something my mother (a former piano teacher) once said about teaching beginners:   “sometimes I feel that if I hear one more wrong note, I will just start screaming!”  I thought about that this week, in fact, as my teacher quickly grabbed my hand just before I hit a wrong note and guided it to the correct string. 

I sometimes wonder if my teacher is disgusted by my obvious lack of talent.  If so, she never shows it.  She is always kind and forgiving.  My teacher is a very pretty woman who wears her hair in a short bob.  She seems to be about 35 years old.  She told me she has a nine year old daughter and has lived in Guangzhou for about ten years.  She originally hails from near Shanghai, and she studied music in a conservatory near Shanghai.  She studied not only guzheng, but several other traditional Chinese instruments.  My teacher told me she lives “very far” away from the downtown music studio; I think it takes her at least an hour each way to reach the studio by bus. 

Each week, I sign a book which she can use to prove that she taught me my lesson.  Based on other names in the book, I surmise that she has about six other students at this same studio, where she only teaches on Wednesday afternoons.  The woman who comes in directly behind me is a Chinese woman married to an American.  Every four weeks or so, I pay 320 RMB for four, 45 minute lessons (a bit more than $10 per lesson).  Little notations in my teacher’s book indicate she gets paid once per month for the lessons she is able to prove she taught.  I don’t know how much the studio actually pays her.  

The employees in the music store where I take my lessons are always very welcoming, helpful, and friendly.  I am the only foreigner I’ve ever seen taking lessons there.  I don’t really know what people are thinking about me when they see me, but what I imagine is that they appreciate that someone takes an interest in their traditional instruments and in this aspect of Chinese culture.  If they’re not busy, the employees will often take a minute to show me what they’re doing, such as stringing an instrument, will play a small demonstration for me, or will encourage me to try something for myself, such as a small turn on an erhu or pipa. 

My teacher and I have both hung in there during my practice slump, and I seem to have resumed making a small amount of weekly progress.  With great effort on my part, I might add.  There seems to be nothing “easy” about my practice time.  Every time I look at a page of music, no matter how familiar I ought to be with it, I feel overwhelmed, and I still struggle with the new system of notation.  I push myself to play faster, but it seems I can only manage about half speed on everything.   

I’m sure my prior music training helps make up for my seeming lack of talent.  I already understand concepts related to solfege, rhythm, phrasing.  I have no problems tuning my 21 string, untempered instrument myself.  Because I already play guitar (for fun, never studied it), my fingers already have calluses (necessary to play these strings without extreme pain!), and the concept of finger picking is not alien to me.  My music teacher also knows enough English to communicate certain concepts, like “slow” or “soft.”  She knows western musical notation, so if I have a question about rhythm, I can write out the equivalent in western notation and she can correct my rhythm that way.  And, it’s helpful that playing a zither is a largely physical skill that can be learned by demonstration and imitation:  she often demonstrates concepts by playing for me, sings the melody for me using solfege, corrects my hand position, or touches the strings to show me where my fingers should go.   

Nevertheless, the challenges of learning the instrument are formidable.  Chinese music notation is completely different from Western music notation.  Indeed, not just the notation but also even the sound of the music itself, though beautiful, is somewhat alien to me.  Some of the songs I’m learning are surely folk songs that every child knows, but I don’t know them.  Additonally, there are things done to the guzheng strings that are not done to the strings of western instruments, so it’s very much like learning a new, alien  language that has concepts unlike any language I’ve learned before.  Then there’s the minor issue of putting my right hand fingers in the right places, finding the strings without looking at my hands, keeping track of my place on the music page, remembering what the new notations mean, and putting my left hand fingers in the right places, all while keeping track of the rhythm while my hands jump all over the place and have trouble finding proper places to land.  If it sounds like it feels confusing to me, it is!  Sometimes it feels as if I’ll never make any progress! 

So, although sometimes I feel like I’m the worst student in the world, I console myself with the thought that I’m really learning a complex, difficult skill.  The good news is that, though I don’t feel it myself, my family tells me I seem to be making a bit of progress.  My playing doesn’t sound very musical to me, but David reassures me that it’s because what I’m learning is all etudes and teaching technique.  He claims it sounds beautiful even when, to me, it sounds to me distinctly ragtag and non-musical.  He enjoys listening to my practice while he works on his computer at night, and then he thanks me for playing.  Even if he’s just being nice (which is likely), that still makes me feel better and carries me through the slumps of feeling that I sound terrible. 

For those who are interested, I’m attaching a photo of a piece of music in my book.  To explain the notations:  The numbers represent the same numbers as solfege numbers.  For instance, in the key of D, a 1 would be a D, a 5 is the note A. 

There are four octaves on the instrument.  The particular octave is represented by the dots above and below the number.  My teacher explains the octaves as follows:  notes without any dots are the middle lower octave, “father.”  Notes with one dot underneath are the lower octave, “grandfather.”  There are five strings that are low enough to merit two dots underneath, which are “great grandfather.”  Likewise, notes with one dot above are the octave above (as my teacher said, “mother,”) and the notes with two dots on top are “baby” notes, the five highest strings. 

The various hook, loops, and horse shoe shapes above the note indicate what fingers and strokes to use to pluck the strings, whether to use a backwards or forwards swipe.  The upward arrows and various zig zag lines indicate how the left hand is to make the string go sharp or flat — to what degree and whether to make the pitch waiver or hold steady once the higher pitch of the string has been reached.  Finally, rhythm and length of the note is indicated by the lines (or lack thereof) underneath each note.  I happened to notice, flipping ahead in my book, that this is really just the beginning of all the confusing notation.  At the moment, my music is all written the key of D.  A “1” in my music is always a D note.  Not forever.  Before too long, the key is noted on the side of the music, and the tonic note will switch around among different keys.   If I think it’s hard now, it’s bound to be confusing then! 

In the meantime, I continue to really love the sound of the instrument.  I went to a store and purchased several guzheng CD’s that I listen to often.  (I’ve also become quite fond of erhu music, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)  I can tell that I’m making tiny, incremental improvements week by week, even though I always feel miserable about the way I sound or the frustratingly slow pace of my progress. 

Because it’s tuned to a pentatonic scale, even someone who never has touched the instrument before and has no idea what they are doing can make pleasant sounds.  When I’m not practicing but just goofing around, I’m able to improvise at playing some music that’s familiar to me.  But as a result of my practice, I find my fingers are doing better about finding notes, falling into better fingering patterns and locating their way around on the strings.  Thus, no matter how poorly I do (and I don’t have any pretentious notions that I will ever be “good” at this), I have hope that the enrichment I get from the studying guzheng will be positive, fun, and rewarding in a personal sense. 

The study of the music does also, in a very small way, give me one more window from which to experience an Oriental view of life.  I use the the word “Oriental” in contrast to "Chinese," because music across the orient is very different from Western music.  For instance, Vietnamese music is much more similar to Chinese music than Chinese music is to Western.  While the music is very structured, I find it more flexible, more emotive, less goal oriented, less driven. 

In one of the books I reference in the reading list on my blog, I read about some cultural differences in thought and organization.  The person writing the book is an English teacher who has to teach students how to think in terms of organization and outline structure.  This person points out while western visual art has a distinct "vanishing point," Chinese art does not.  There are many little worlds in a Chinese painting, and it is not considered necessary to focus the eye in one particular place.  Similarly, a Chinese garden is designed to have many different views, depending on where one is standing.  And, so it seems to be for music, too.  A piece of music is more like a natural thought than a directed pattern — the piece may dwell on one idea for awhile, then pause, then come back to mull the idea over from another angle or restate it.  Rhythm is there, but phrasing is more complex, more dependent on circumstance, less lockstep.  The opposite of Bach, it would seem! 

Yet, though complex, the music can be stunningly simple.  The erhu is, to me, an extreme example of this complexity enfolded into simplicity.  The name erhu means "two strings."  An erhu has just two strings and no frets.  About the size of a banjo, it sits vertically in the player’s lap.  The the bow is drawn in between the two strings, so only one string at a time makes contact with the bow.  Yet, it is utterly amazing what can be expressed musically with basically one string.  The guzheng of course has many more strings, but an extremely wide range of expression in the simplest pieces. 

Some modern guzheng players, the real virtuoso ones, seem to have westernized the guzheng sound and turned it into an almost western instrument.  The fingers of both hands, equipped with finger picks taped on each finger with adhesive bandage (which I think of a modern day bear claws), fly across the strings in an almost athletic display of virtuosity.  I think of these performances as being the guzheng equivalent of the Olympics:  raising athletic prowess to a spectacular level, but perhaps as a result losing a bit in terms of pure artistic expression.  I think there is certainly room for both types of expression, and the very virtuoso performances are beautiful and astoundingly complex.  Yet, I really love the very traditional and oriental sound of the instrument, with the exquisite range of expression it can convey with great simplicity, even just through one soulfully delivered, simple melody.  I would hate for that aspect of the art form to ever be lost! 

I hope that a whole generation of young Chinese players will appreciate the traditional art form of guzheng, and other traditional Chinese instruments, for the window into their culture that these instruments and the traditional music played on them can provide. 


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A Thousand Ant Bites

I haven’t made any Blog entries in quite a while.  Here’s something I wrote on April 11th.  I’m happy to report that about three days ago a strong storm broke up the smog.  So, for three days now, there has been a bright, sunny sky.     Additionally, after the third recurrence of the this upper respiratory ailment, my doctor found an antibiotic that seems to be much more effective.  I’m much better today.  

  A Thousand Ant Bites

  I woke up from a nightmare the other night and couldn’t go back to sleep.  It was about 3:30 A.M. when I woke up.  At about 4:30 A.M., I gave up on going back to sleep.  During the hour that I tried to settle my thoughts back down so I could go back to sleep, I pondered over the substance of the nightmare to see if there was some clue in it that I could resolve, some problem I could mentally address to make myself feel more restful and able to calm down enough to go back to sleep.  As I reviewed the dream, I found there was nothing about it that, singularly, could be taken as nightmarish. 

There was a small part in the dream about needing to get to an airport to catch a plane, but unable to tell the driver where or how to get there, since he didn’t speak my language.  Then, there was the bit about the driver getting lost on the way.  And then a laundry list of small problems on the way to the airport, one of which included a warrantless search of my automobile (leave it to a former criminal lawyer to be analyzing a Fourth Amendment while dreaming).   A very strange dream.  I was left wondering, “exactly what was so horrible in my dream so as to give it the quality of a nightmare?”  Singularly, none of the inconveniences in my dream amounted to much.  But collectively, they added up to one, really bad, day.  And, collectively, they were very unsettling.  Why, I puzzled?  I think my dream was a reflection of the fact that the cumulative effect of all the little stresses of life in a different culture can be overwhelming.  Language barriers, cultural differences, not having anything in one’s life that is "familiar" or "brainless," constantly having to deal with new and unexpected situations and challenges, the stresses of not being able to tend to matters personally in one’s home country . . . . all add up.

I was at my doctor’s office last year, and we discussed why my blood pressure would be on the borderline “high” side.  I commented that I think it’s in response to stress.   But I feel silly that I’m stressed, because an observer wouldn’t think of my life as being stressful.  But the small things add up.  My doctor’s response?   He said, “each stress is like an ant bite.  It may be small, and individually it amounts to nothing.  But when you get a thousand ant bites, they collectively can become very significant.”    

You would think that life in China would be easier now, after three years.  In a lot of ways, it is.  I know how to tell a counterfeit bill, I know my way around town, I know where to buy almost anything I need, I can speak Mandarin well enough to get where I need to go and to communicate what my basic needs are.  Yet, cumulatively, it has been very wearing.  I feel worn out.  The low level of chronic stress is like a smog that permeates every aspect of life. 

Indeed, my mind has latched onto blaming smog — actual smog, not metaphorical smog — for all that ails me.  The smog for the last six weeks has been choking.  It is dark and smells bad, sometimes like chemical, sometimes like burning rubber.  Since the smog is such an overwhelming part of life, I find it bizarre that there doesn’t seem to be any term in ordinary Chinese vocabulary to refer to smog.  On a day when it’s misty and foggy, my Chinese friends say, “the air is bad” (“tianqi bu hao”).    On a day when it’s rainy, my friends say, “the air is bad” (“tianqi bu hao”).   On a day when it’s smoggy, they say, “the air is bad” (“tianqi bu hao”).  Well, right now the air is particularly bad.  We go days right now without seeing an outline of the sun.  I think today was the first time in about ten days that I’ve seen the sun.  The other morning at 9 A.M., as a storm cloud approached the total darkness was the same as in a solar eclipse.  Theoretically, we have air purifiers in the house which are running nonstop.  Theoretically, everything in my life should be fine, but the dismal air casts a foggy pall over everything no matter how we try to compensate. 

As a practical matter, Munchkin and I are both fighting a sinusitis and bronchitis that won’t go away.  I’m sure the smog contributes to it, as probably does some stress.  It all gets wearing.  I finished my second round of antibiotics on Saturday.  On Monday at lunch, I suddenly began to feel like I was coming down with a fresh cold, and by 4:00 P.M. I felt as if I had been run over by a truck.  Thinking I had flu, I went back to the doctor, who told me the sinus infection had rebounded.  He changed my antibiotic, but I feel my resistance is so low.  At the moment, I metaphorically feel as if I have a thousand ant bites.  Strong reservoirs of physical and emotional health, stamina, and inner equilibrium are essential to be successful in an expat assignment! 

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Another “TIC” (“This Is China”) Story

A series of letters from Munchkin’s school exemplifies the manner in which community input is gleaned concerning governmental decisions here, as well as methods by which the government communicates those decisions to those affected.  It seems “so typical” that I decided to share.  I hate to confess, I had a small mental chuckle imagining the "Americans versus the Chinese" in the meeting described by the newsletter of March 20.  I imagined it as a bit similar to our encounter at the top of Hua Shan, or perhaps any other meeting in which expectations about "what is normal" are so different in the two cultures. 

For background information, the school has a front entrance and a back entrance, and that is all.  In terms of access, those are the only two options.  The front entrance is on a tiny lane that will fit two cars, if none are parked.  The back entrance is reached from a large, one way road that has three lanes.  Though of course there is traffic on the big road, it is not heavy by city standards. 


March 16, 2007:  “School Approach Road to be Closed – the school received notification this week that our access road where buses park to pick up students will be closed from March 20 to the end of 2007.  . . . [The letter then gives detailed instructions on changes to pickup and drop-offs arrangements for children due to the anticipated change.]  . . . .”

March 19, 2007:  “Over the weekend, a wall closing the road in front of [the school] was constructed without the school being informed. . . . Our school buses this morning started dropping off and picking up students on the main  . . . [road] rather than the front gate.  [The letter then gives further pickup and drop-offs instructions which are different from those in earlier letter, changes which are necessitated by  THE WALL] . . . .”

March 20, 2007:  “Yesterday, March 19, the Guangzhou Traffic Police, after a two hour meeting in the evening with school authorities, decided that [school] buses would not be allowed to pick up students at our rear gate . . . .  [The school] has been instructed to park its buses . . . [in the location previously designated for car pickup].  Buses will have priority.  We ask that everyone cooperate and leave this area available exclusively for our school buses.  . . . We regret the inconvenience caused to all our community caused by the closure of our access road . . . .   We ask everyone at this time of change to give the highest priority to the safety of our students. . . . ”

[Regular Friday newsletter] March 21, 2007: “School Traffic Disrupted by Road Closure – Last weekend [a governmental entity] built a wall closing off the access road used by the school community for the arrival and departure of . . . students.  On Monday, the school buses were allowed to park on [the main road behind the school].  However a problem soon developed as a motorcade for an ‘important person’ passed by.  . . . [S]chool buses were not allowed during that time to stop to pick up our students.  The . . . Traffic Police then instructed the school to park the buses on [another] street . . . .  As this newsletter is written, the school is still looking for the best solution given the very limited parking space near the school.  We ask for the support and understanding of the [school] community as we give priority to the safe arrival and departure of our students. . . . “ 

At the moment, the only access to the front of the school is a road, barely two lanes wide, that now ends at the front of the school gate.  There is no place to turn cars around there.  There is a private road running off to the side from this road, which could be used to siphon off cars, but it is blocked off.  School buses are parking approximately one block east of the school on a side street so that children can walk in at the pedestrian access beside the construction site.  Carpool parents (mostly cars with paid Chinese drivers) are coping as best they can, approaching from the west via the small access road. 

Walkers like us?  We are gripping our children’s’ hands ever so tightly, because the Chinese drivers don’t seem to have slowed down a bit, and they are parking so close to the side of the road that there is no place for children to walk except in the middle of the road.  I thought I had communicated and made some progress on the issue of leaving children some room to walk between the row of parked cars and the fence on the side of the road, but this morning three cars were parked so that they virtually touched the fence. 

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