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Playing the pipa: Chinese Music Ensemble debuts

Playing the pipa: Chinese Music Ensemble debuts

By Gwendolyn Lloyd

This semester, a group of Kenyon students learned to play the zheng, the pipa and the yanquin. Never heard of them? Neither had Kenyon, at least until this year. All three are traditional Chinese instruments taught in the newly-offered Chinese Music Ensemble class, which performed last Saturday at noon.

Led by Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian Music and Culture Mei Han, the ensemble, who performs on Han’s instruments, plays traditional music along with 20th-century contemporary Chinese music. Their styles range from Shanghai tea house music to Cantonese pieces. The works they performed, which vary in tempo, melody and instruments, are those which are traditionally mounted by Chinese music ensembles. In addition, members stressed that they tried to achieve a cultivated sound, which ensemble member Stephen Sigmier ’16 described as “more quiet, more layered” than music prior to the Cultural Revolution.

However, because instrumentation between different groups varies along with experience levels, the sound can also vary. In the case of this ensemble, there are some plucked string, bowed string and wind instruments. Performers were matched with instruments based on their prior musical experience.

Professor Han’s goal for the semester was for her students to “experience different instruments, different sounds [and] different music making.” Although the members of the ensemble went above and beyond achieving these goals, their effortlessness in performing does not convey the difficulty of learning the music.

Han, who is a former concert soloist on the zheng, a plucked zither instrument, said taking Chinese along with performing in the ensemble is “a great parallel.” In particular, the traditional Chinese instruments are made to imitate vocals, and the performers must bend notes, or alter their pitch, in order to do so. To be able to pick up on these nuances in such a short time is an incredible feat.

The instruments with which they were practicing were difficult to learn, particularly for those without musical backgrounds.

“It is a huge challenge to take on a new instrument,” Han said. “These instruments are all concert instruments with techniques which have been perfected for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chinese musicians each basically take on one instrument, and then they spend their entire life perfecting one instrument. I’m asking my students to perform something in three months. It’s a huge challenge.” The ability to learn these instruments, let alone perform eight pieces this past weekend, is impressive.

Sigmier, who plays the sheng ラ a reed wind instrument consisting of various pipes ラ decided to join the group because it was less pressure than joining a group where everyone has been playing for years and because of how different it is from any other group on campus.

“It’s a lot of fun to hear music you haven’t heard before, and you can learn something new,” Sigmier said.

Although the group began the semester with no prior experience playing their instruments, it did not seem to hinder their progress. Sigmier said the best part of the group was “learning together and hearing ourselves improve,” especially when they heard distinctive wavering sounds of Chinese music in their playing.

Both Han and Sigmier were enthusiastic about the class and encouraged anyone interested to join. “Don’t be intimidated by [the instruments],” Sigmier said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

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