Category Archives: Music

Reasons to Support Public Funding for the Arts

26 February 2009

"Music has to be recognized as an … agent of social development in
the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values —
solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite
an entire community and to express sublime feelings."  Jose Abreu 

I recently was listening to the radio when the news reported that some national leaders in the USA had objected to the recent Congressional economic stimulus bill on the basis that it included funding for the arts.  The radio included clips where Senators and Representatives were speaking in scornful tones about fluff arts programs that had no real substance and didn’t create "jobs". 

Excuse me?  I just can’t take that sitting down. 

This is a long blog post with some in depth discussion of the many reasons why public funding for the arts is a good idea.  For those who want just a brief list, here is a summary of the reasons:  (1) the arts improve individual mental ability and personal skill that crosses into all other endeavors in life, (2) the arts elevate the individual from a mere animal existence toward a higher and more enriching experience of human life, (3) the arts strengthen social structures at the level of the family, community, nation, and world. 

The arts solidify and build social structures as follows:   by strengthening the individual within the family and thereby strengthening the family unit, by building local communities through community networks that are drawn together and unified through their support of the arts, by contributing to the development of the national consciousness through the medium of art and, ultimately, by enabling nations to contribute to the greater world of ideas and the general uplifting of mankind.  So, the detail follows: 

First of all, there is no merit in the claim that funds distributed through arts programs do not create jobs.  A job created by or for an artist is no less a job than a job created for a plumber or painter.  The fact that the job is in the arts does not diminish its economic effect.  I am reminded, as an example of value, of the art and social history created and documented as part of FDR’s New Deal package. 

But even more than this initial red herring error, of their argument, I find myself deeply disturbed by the implied message that arts are somehow an extravagance unworthy of public funding in and of itself.  What an impoverished viewpoint concerning mankind!  Art, music, culture, spiritual pursuits — these are the very things that elevate mankind and distinguish us from beasts.  Without art, without beauty, without an aim to a higher or more noble purpose, what do we have but a vain existence trudging along the path of life toward certain death?  

A. BENEFIT TO THE INDIVIDUAL:  Each Individual Participant Benefits From Art, Not Just Because It Strengthens the Mind and Academic Pursuits, but Because Art Pulls Us Toward Experience of a Higher Level of Existence than the Mundane

Certainly (as it is said in Ecclesiastes), whether or not we have beauty in our lives, we all toil under the same sun and end up in the same place.  Yet Art (in the broad sense of the word, along with love and laughter) makes the journey so much more meaningful and worthwhile.  While gruel with some roots added in will nourish the body, a sumptuous buffet makes life better.  In the same way, art adds both light and levity to an otherwise base existence.  Why should we settle for gruel if we could have a life full of sumptuous buffet, in the spiritual and artistic sense if not the material one? 

There have always been people who believe that art is not a worthy pursuit.  The Calvinists, for one, banished art from religious services.  Always at risk of being perceived as worthless vanity, art faces danger whenever schools facing severe budget constraints must decide which subjects or programs to cut. 

Some years ago, I remember hearing an educator fighting on behalf of continued funding of the arts in public schools.  She tried to justify art and music by pointing out that children who take these subjects do better in their other academic subjects.  This is true.  Children who participate in music have significantly higher scores in both math and reading.  As a result of studies making this very point (and written about in books like The Mozart Effect), some educators play Mozart in their classrooms or during school math tests. 

This is rather simplistic, because in actuality real benefit from learning Mozart comes from the diligence of practice, from experiencing and learning about the internal structure of the music composition, not just as a side benefit of the fact that the music is soothing and will help children concentrate.  Though children do, indeed, perform better on their math tests even if all they do is listen while they take the test, they get the most out of music when they actually become immersed, embedded, and live and breathe it for a time each day.  However, for all of its many benefits for other academics, I would vehemently disagree with the notion that music is nothing but a means to a higher math score or simply another tool to use in fighting dyslexia.  To me, this concedes the argument much too quickly. 

The arts — uniquely — foster an experience that transcends the mundane, our daily experience of the world.  Through this transcendence, we are ourselves changed, transformed into something better, into a new and better realm of existence.  It is this capacity deep within our soul, which we glimpse through art, that elevates us above skin and bones and hunger and toward experience of the divine.  Art gives us a window into a higher plane of existence.  

One influential philosopher of music, Schopenhauer, tied this notion of transcendence into the concept of Plato’s ideal forms.  The form of music, in the platonic sense of form (I rudely paraphrase), draws our mind toward the the Telos of pure thought, rationality, and a type of mathematical experience.  I’ve read other philosophers who discussed how music operates in the mind in another dimension beyond time and space.  While I’m not going to try and re-find the article I read one time, about multidimensional experience and thought, I think I recall that the advent of PET scans has enabled proof that music does expand the mind and mental capabilities, in and of itself.  It’s theorized that this multidimensional, nonverbal aspect of music is the reason that music and mathematical ability is closely connected.  Yet I would argue, vehemently, that while music’s stimulation of the mind may have positive effects on other aspects of thought, this is not the most important aspect of arts education.  The experience of music (of art generally) — in and of itself — is sufficient to justify arts education, without regard to the effect that art has on other subjects. 

That’s because Art is enriching as a means to its own end, not just as an adjunct to other academics.  My 97 year old grandmother can recite Chaucer she learned as a school girl.  Yes, the act of learning how to memorize Chaucer created a skill — the skill of how to memorize — which surely served my grandmother well for 90 years.  But as much as this memory trick, knowledge of Chaucer’s poetic form has also enriched her life by adding a dimension of poetry that influenced her entire perception of and relation to language for all of her days.  Without regard to effect on memory, poetry is worthwhile for its own sake, for the beauty that it brings us. 

But wait, there’s more!

B. BENEFIT TO SOCIETY:  The Arts Enrich All of Society by Strengthening Families, Building Communities, Strengthening Nations, and Inspiring the World

Beyond enriching academic pursuits and bringing beauty to life, the social and uplifting function of art also serves to build communities and move people out of not only cultural but also economic impoverishment.  "How could this be," you ask? 

Today, I stumbled upon an interview of one of the 2009 TED* prize winners which enunciates some of the profound factors which give art a transformative role in society, perhaps our surest arguments that art SHOULD receive public funding and support. 

This talk was eloquent, and so moving, that I transcribed it.  It wasn’t how I had planned to spend my afternoon, but I felt as if the speaker captured thoughts that I’ve struggled to form in my own mind, about why art has had such a profound influence in my own life. 

Music has been a part of my life since I was a small child.  My mother was a professional musician, and some of my earliest memories are of playing underneath her piano while she practiced.  In my own household, participating in music was not optional.  I was expected to choose an instrument and practice as part of my daily routine.  And in addition to French horn, my chosen instrument, I was expected to learn "keyboarding" (piano) because that was part of being musically literate.  In high school and in college, I played in various bands and orchestras.  As profoundly influenced as I was by the deeply meaningful experience I had of playing music in an orchestra, it was hard for me to express exactly what that experience had entailed for me.  Even now, when I have friends and family who devote very significant time to the arts, I wonder what driving force motivates them to work so hard for their art.  

But today, I found that explanation in eloquent form.  The interview I watched was a video of Jose Antonio Abreu, a 2009 winner of a TED prize.  I was so stunned by his words that had to share them. 

But before I share them, I will answer the questions, "Who is this man?" and "What does he do?"  Maestro Abreu is a Venezuelan who in 1975 started a project, called El Sistema, to bring music instruction to at-risk children in Venezuela.  Today, El Sistema is a nationwide program in Venezuela.  It brings music to 250,000 children through participation in 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras, and 270 music centers.  His program began in 1975 with 11 boys and now boasts one of the premier symphonies in the world, the Teresa Careno Youth Orchestra, the national high school age youth orchestra of Venezuela.  (Click HERE for a link to a video of this orchestra.)

His words are so inspiring!  Hear what he has to say: 

[After discussing the beginnings of El Sistema and how it has grown into a national program  …  ]  "Today we can say that art in Latin America is no longer a monopoly of elites and that it has become a social right, a right for all the people. …

***

In its essence, the orchestra and choir are much more than artistic structures; they are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they [children in the el Sistema program] build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self esteem and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its sense. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, in the forging of values and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids. After all this time here, music is life, nothing else. Music is life.

***

The structure of El Sistema is based on a new and flexible managing style adapted to the features of each community and region, and today attends to 300,000 children of the lower and middle class all over Venezuela. It’s a program of social rescue and deep cultural transformation designed to the whole Venezuelan society with absolutely no distinctions whatsoever, but emphasizing on the vulnerable and endangered social groups.

The effect of El Sistema is felt in three fundamental circles: in the personal / social circle, in the family circle, and in the community. In the personal / social circle, the children in the orchestras and choirs develop their intellectual and emotional side. The music becomes a source for developing the dimensions of the human being, thus elevating the spirit and leading man to a full development of his personality. So, the emotional and intellectual profits are huge: the acquisition of leadership, teaching and training principles; the sense of commitment, responsibility, generosity and dedication to others; and the individual contribution to achieve great collective goals. All this leads to the development of self-esteem and confidence.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta insisted on something that always impressed me: that the most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no-one, the feeling of not being anyone, the lack of identification, the lack of public esteem. That’s why the child’s development in the orchestra and the choir provides him with a noble identity and makes him a role model for his family and community. It makes him a better student at school because it inspires in him a sense of responsibility, perseverance and punctuality that will greatly help him at school.

Within the family, the parents’ support is unconditional. The child becomes a role model for both his parents, and this is very important for a poor child. Once the child discovers he is important for his family, he begins to seek new ways of improving himself and hopes better for himself and his community. He also hopes for social and economic improvements for his own family. All this makes up a constructive and ascending social dynamic. The large majority of our children belong, as I already mentioned, to the most vulnerable strata of the Venezuelan population. That encourages them to embrace new dreams, new goals, and progress in the various opportunities the music has to offer.

Finally, in the circle of the community, the orchestras prove to be creative spaces of culture, the sources of exchange of new meanings. The spontaneity music has, excludes it as a luxury item and makes it a patrimony of society. It’s what makes a child play a violin at home, while his father works in his carpentry. It’s what makes a little girl play the clarinet at home, while her mother does the housework. The idea is that families join with pride and joy in the activities of the orchestras and choirs their children belong to. The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself, which also lies within itself, ends up overcoming material poverty.

From the minute a child’s taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor, he becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level, who’ll later become a full citizen. Needless to say, music is the number one prevention against prostitution, violence, bad habits, and everything degrading in the life of a child.

A few years ago, historian Arnold Toynbee said that the world was suffering a huge spiritual crisis. Not an economic or am social one, but a spiritual one. I believe that to confront such crisis, only art and religion can give proper answers to humanity, to mankind’s deepest aspirations, and to the historic demands of our times. Being that [arts] education is the synthesis of wisdom and knowledge, it’s the means to strive for a more perfect, more aware, more noble, and more just society.

With passion and enthusiasm, we pay profound respects to TED for its outstanding humanism, the scope of its principles, and its open and generous promotion of young values. We hope that TED can contribute in a full and fundamental way to the building of this new era in the teaching of music, in which the social, communal, spiritual, and vindicatory aims of the child and the adolescent become a beacon and a goal for a vast social mission. No longer putting society at the service of art, and much less at the service of monopolies of the elite, but instead art at the service of society, at the service of the weakest, at the service of the children, at the service of the sick, at the service of the vulnerable, and at the service of all those who cry for the vindication through the spirit of their human condition and the raising up of their dignity.

Wow.  He says so much!  I know that what I’ve written is far too long, but I hope, just hope, that if you have read this far, you will become or continue to be a passionate supporter of the arts in your community.  In your schools, in your home, in your own life.  Maestro Abreu was asking for the support of TED to build art in communities.  I would ask that you substitute the word "YOU" in place of TED in the paragraph above.  Won’t YOU support art? 

And as for this historic moment, congratulations to Maestro Abreu on his award!  His wish, granted by TED with funding of $100,000 for one wish to change the world?  His wish is this: 

I wish you [TED] would help create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the US and in other countries.

May this wish come fully to life! 

Here is the video, if you’d like to listen to the entire interview for yourself: 

     


PARTICIPATE IN AND SUPPORT THE ARTS IN YOUR OWN LIFE, IN YOUR HOME, AND IN YOUR GREATER COMMUNITY! 

____

*TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design.  TED is a new think tank, pulling together the best of modern ideas and communicating those to the rest of us.

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Links to Guzheng and Erhu Music

29 January 2009

I am changing the video links on my main page, so I’ll preserve my guzheng and erhu links in this blog entry. 

1.  I really love this clip of guzheng music, which is called "Autumn Waterfowl Playing in Cold Lake"

2.  I also enjoy this animation of a variation on (I can’t properly translate) Cherry Blossom Dream.  In this particular variation, it’s called Drunken Cherry Blossom Dream.  You’ll see why: 

3.  The erhu is a phenomenal instrument.  The name literally means "two strings," and that’s exactly what it is.  Two strings played with a bow running in between them and no frets.  The range of expression and emotion is astonishing.  I find the instrument extremely difficult to play, both because of bowing technique and also fingering. 

 

4.  Drumming is just too cool!  It is an integral part of lion dances and folk life.  This demonstration is in Chinatown in New York, but I think it’s nice: 

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Guzheng ( 古筝) Update #2

Guzheng Update

April 7, 2008

Last year I wrote about my progress in my guzheng lessons.  The news now is that there has been no progress at all recently.  Last spring I lost my steam after the long bout with bronchitis, and the little engine never got going again.  

However, I still love the instrument.  To whet your appetite, I’ve uploaded a couple of YouTube videos to my blog.  They’re on the main page.   

Like a trained dog, I also have a new trick.  I learned how to do a google search using chinese characters. You just type them in!  To do this, you need to know the word at least in pinyin (phonetic spelling) but I’m going to help you out.  Here are the two Chinese characters for GU and ZHENG.  古筝   .  To find videos or web pages about guzheng, uploaded in Chinese, input these characters into your search on YouTube or in Google.  I’ve also fallen in love with the Er Hu  二胡   .   If you have time, you may as well try a peek at that instrument, too!  (The word er hu means "two strings" — you will be utterly amazed at what someone can do with two strings and no frets.)  

If you’re feeling really brave, try this same search on Toudou! C’mon try it!  The search box for Toudou is on the upper right hand side of the main page at http://www.tudou.com .  What have you got to lose?  Sure, it’s all in Chinese and so a bit confusing if you don’t read any Chinese, but hey, look at it this way:  If you make a mistake nobody is going to jump out of the computer screen and bite you! 

In fact, here’s another suggestion. If the Chinese on Tudou is still too overwhelming, use Babelfish to translate the page!  Here’s how: Copy the address for the main Tudou web page, and then (after you’ve copied the address onto your clipboard) go to http://babelfish.altavista.com/tr .  At Babelfish, copy the Tudou address into the link to "translate the page," and direct the program to translate from simplified Chinese into English.  It works pretty well!  On this side of the world, Tudou is faster and has a lot more videos.  In fact, did you now that according to something I just read, Tudou is bigger than YouTube?  Ya, just remember, there are more cell phones  in China than there are land lines  in the USA!  [Though I understand that at the moment many of them (along with computer and telephone lines) in the more restive provinces are not working.  ] 

Have fun and HAPPY HUNTING! 


*You may need to go to the Microsoft web site and download simplified chinese characters in order to cut and paste the Chinese Characters. But the good news is that you don’t have to type the characters yourself, because I’ve already done that for you!  Just cut and paste.  😉   It’s very easy to download "simplified Chinese characters" for your OS (in my case, from http://www.microsoft.com ).

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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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