Non-Chinese Trio Triumphs Playing Chinese Instruments

The trio playing at the competition. From left: Richard Lopez, Brandon Miller, Tiffany Pham. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

The trio playing at the competition. From left: Richard Lopez, Brandon Miller, Tiffany Pham. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

At the 2016 New York Chinese Instruments International Competition, which dropped the curtain on Aug. 21, a trio playing the traditional string instrument guzheng won a gold medal. The famous musical piece they presented, called “The Warrior,” triggered thunderous applause from the audience, not only because they handled the instruments well, but also because they brought out the meaning of the piece precisely. And what made them particularly impressive is that the three players are all non-Chinese who picked up the instrument not long ago.

The competition, organized by the Confucius Institute at College of Optometry of the State University of New York and by the Melody of Dragon, a Chinese music ensemble in New York City, was held at the Schwarz Theater of College of Optometry in midtown Manhattan. Close to 100 Chinese instrument players from China as well as the U.S. attended the final round of the competition. The trio’s musicians, Brandon Miller, Tiffany Pham and Richard Lopez, were the only non-Chinese among them.

The three are all current or former students at Alfred University in upstate New York. Miller and Pham, juniors at the college now, were also high school classmates. But they didn’t know Lopez, who graduated from the college two years ago, until their ensemble was formed by a lady named Daisy Wu, whom they all call their teacher.

Wu, a visiting associate professor of music in the Division of Performing Arts at Alfred University, said that after the university launched its own Confucius Institute in 2009, Chinese cultural programs have been thriving on campus. In 2011, the Division of Performing Arts launched a guzheng solo credit course, a pioneer in the country. The course drew great interest from the students. Soon, another credit course for guzheng ensemble was launched. By now, close to 60 students have studied in the courses with Wu, who herself is a veteran guzheng musician. And most of them are non-Chinese, in line with the composition of the student body of Alfred.

The three players in the ensemble are all Wu’s students. They all started learning the Chinese language before they explored the musical instrument. And they all played western instruments before their fingers began to move over the strings of the guzheng, which may have helped them to pick up the new set of skills quickly.

The trio with their teacher, Daisy Wu. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

The trio with their teacher, Daisy Wu. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

To Lopez, learning Chinese was exactly what led him to the instrument. Born in Puerto Rico, Lopez, a psychology major, started to learn the language in his sophomore year. One day, he bumped into Wu in the library and learned about the course. He immediately registered. “Learning Chinese triggered my interest in Chinese culture. I wanted to learn more,” said Lopez.

Already a saxophone player when he picked up the guzheng, Lopez learned the difference between the two instruments the hard way. “The guzheng is more delicate. You need to be tender to it. Once I played with too much strength, and I broke the middle bridge that holds up the string,” he said.

Miller’s journey with music began in high school when he was required to choose between two courses: engineering and band. That was a no brainer for Miller. “Who would want to choose engineering?” he quipped. Since then on, he started to learn various instruments from the cello, the flute to the piano.

During his first year in college, Miller, who began to study Chinese in high school, was preparing to participate in Chinese Bridge, a worldwide competition in the language and culture for non-native speakers, held by the Chinese government. In order to impress the judges, his Chinese teacher recommended that he learn a traditional instrument. So Miller chose Wu’s course.

Can the experience in learning western music be transferred to learning a Chinese instrument? It depends on who you ask.“Western music is written in notes, and Chinese music is written in digits. To me it is easier to learn,” said Miller, who is a biology major. But Pham, who also majors in biology, didn’t agree. As a Vietnamese American, Pham said her Asian background didn’t help much when she started to learn the guzheng a year ago. “I am familiar with Western music notes. Music written in digits is much harder to learn,” she said.

To Wu, teaching non-Chinese to play the guzheng is not only about teaching the skills. What’s more important is to teach them the traditional cultural background so they can understand the music better.

The musical piece the trio presented in the competition is essentially about the spirit of a top level warrior. He could be lonely because no one can compete with him. He could be excited when he finds a qualified contender. All of this is reflected in the flow of the music. Sometimes, it is slow and sober like the running of a creek. And sometimes, it is fast and passionate like a waterfall. When teaching the music, Wu often performed taiji, a type of Chinese kung fu for her students to help them understand the rhythm of the music. She even brought in “Kung Fu Panda,” a DreamWorks Animation movie that her non-Chinese students are familiar with, to teach the abstract concept of “qi” – the flow – in kung fu and in music.

It worked. The three players all said when they understood the story behind the music, they felt it was easier to play. “The story brings out the music,” said Lopez.

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