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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