The Oracle

Students explore Asian music

The Oracle

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Senior Chiu Yin Cheung performs with a zhongruan, a Chinese stringed instrument similar to a pipa.

Chiu Yin Cheung (12)

By: Yan Jia

Senior Chiu Yin Cheung began playing pipa, a traditional Chinese stringed musical instrument, fours years ago and picked up the zhongruan, a Chinese picked musical instrument, as a second instrument two years ago. In 2010, Cheung passed the Zhongruan Level 8 Examination with distinction. According to Cheung, the examination is organized by the Central Conservatory of Music in China and there are nine levels altogether.

“Having played pipa for about four years, I wanted to explore a slightly different side of Chinese music, so I chose zhongruan,” Cheung said.  Since pipa and zhongruan are both stringed instruments, the technique for playing zhongruan is very similar to that of the pipa. Cheung believed that learning zhongruan enabled him to experience a whole new sound, while staying grounded to basic techniques. “I got to play a refreshing repertoire after learning the zhongruan,” he said.

Cheung currently plays the zhongruan in the California Youth Chinese Symphony (CYCS). “Playing with people who share my love for Chinese music is amazing,” he said. “When everyone comes together as one, the sound produced is so much richer and fuller.” As the only zhongruan player in the orchestra, Cheung plays an important role. “He is one of the most dedicated players in the orchestra and he is always prepared and very reliable,” CYCS Director Jindong Cai wrote in an email.

Although Cheung is passionate about playing the zhongruan, he sometimes finds it painful to continue practicing. “The greatest difficulty I experience with my music is finding the strength to continue practicing hard, even if my success is stubbornly stuck on a plateau,” he said. “There are days when my music just doesn’t sound right, or when my hands don’t work together, and getting through those days without losing my drive is challenging.”

Apart from CYCS, Cheung also plays for fun in public places such as the Chinese Culture Center. He also enjoys playing for his friends and family members. “I love Chinese music and I just want to share my joy with others,” Cheung said. As zhongruan is a very resonant instrument, its rich tone helps listeners to relieve stress. “His playing was really inspiring,” senior Hope Wu said. “When I heard him playing, I thought I was transported back through time to ancient China.”

Junior Cassie Chen poses with an erhu, one of the many different kinds of instruments that she plays.

Cassie Chen (11)

By: Annie Tran

With the plucking of a few strings here and a tapping of a few drums there, a musician of multiple talents was brought forth. Junior Cassie Chen started her musicianship at age seven and since then has played 15 instruments, ranging from Western instruments such as the piano and the flute to Chinese instruments such as the dizi and banhu. “Her ability to pick up an instrument and learn it in just a few years is unbelievable,” junior Curran Sinha said. “I’ve seen her reach a level in three years that would take some people at least six or seven years.” Chen currently plays seven instruments.

Chen’s first instrument was the piano. “Like a lot of kids, my parents kind of pushed me into piano,” she said. According to Chen, her start with Chinese instruments was completely out of her own curiousity. “I was just watching TV on some Chinese channel one day and saw the guzheng [a Chinese plucked zither with 23 strings and movable bridges] and thought it’d be pretty cool to learn how to play it,” Chen said. She later joined a Chinese orchestra and was then exposed to an array of different instruments that piqued her interest.

The primary instruments she plays are the pipa and the erhu. “It’s kind of weird­—the erhu was an instrument that my dad pushed me into,” she said. “It ended up becoming one of my favorites to play. I’m really grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to explore this side of music.”

When looking into her future, Chen is adamant about always having music in her life. “It’s a cliché, but music really is one of my biggest passions,” she said. “It’s an escape from reality for me sometimes.”

Yangqin teacher Duny Lam is one of many inspirations to Chen. “Cassie is one of the few talented musicians who can play multiple Chinese instruments at such a high level,” Lam said. “When she took yangqin lessons with me, I could see that she was able to use emotional expressions she learned from other instruments and apply it to the yangqin. I really hope that she takes advantage of her unique cultural background and her music experiences to bring Chinese music to a broader audience.”

Junior Lynn Tsai plays a Chinese hammered dulcimer at the International Chinese Music Competition.

Lynn Tsai (11)

By: Eileen Qian

Gunn has a multitude of talented musicians who play instruments, but there are few who deviate from the conventional choices. Junior Lynn Tsai is one of those few people who dedicates herself to playing a Chinese instrument, the Chinese hammered dulcimer.

This instrument originated in the Middle East, but  became popular in China. The unique structure of the bamboo hammers allows for smooth sounds to be created when the rubber-covered side is used as well, as sharp sounds when the bare half of the hammer hits the strings.

Tsai has been playing the Chinese hammered dulcimer since eighth grade. She was prompted to start playing when her sister decided to try another Chinese instrument, the erhu. “Unlike the flute and piccolo, it’s not a wind instrument and the sheet music is read in numbers, not notes,” Tsai said. “Also, instead of blowing air to create sounds, you hit the strings.”

However, learning to play the instrument was not an easy task. “Sometimes it’s hard to see what you’re hitting since the wires seem like they overlap,” Tsai said. “The notes are not in order and there’s a distinct pattern that you have to memorize.” Fortunately, Tsai was able to catch on quickly as the movements and techniques used in playing the Chinese hammered dulcimer are similar to that of the percussion, which Tsai has previously played.

Although Tsai has not played for long, she frequently shares her talent with the world. She has performed participated in several competitions, such as the Silicon Valley International Multi Art Competition.

Even though increasing loads of schoolwork have put a strain on the amount of time Tsai can practice, she says that the time she spends practicing actually helps to relieve her stress. “I think it’s a really fun and relaxing thing to do, so if I ever want to take a break from doing homework I can practice for a few minutes,” Tsai said.

Regardless of Tsai’s busy schedule, her mother Su Wen Hsu encourages her to keep playing as Hsu believes that it has had a positive impact on her daughter. “I think it’s great because Lynn really enjoys it and is motivated to practice by herself,” Hsu said.

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Students explore Asian music