Monday, August 18, 2014

In with a gallop and out with a whinny

You will be heartened to hear, no doubt, that I am still going strong with the erhu lessons. I'm still not sounding terribly great, but I am certainly burning my way through repertoire. There's a clear difference in the way my teacher, Nick, teaches me erhu in comparison to the way I have studied violin through the years of lessons growing up--rather than slaving away over the same piece for many lessons, as soon as I figure out a piece's notes and have satisfactorily grasped its technical elements intellectually (if not in practice), we get busy learning a new one. In terms of erhu sound production and quality, my violin training may even be a handicap--placing the notes and knowing what's in tune already comes quite naturally to me (and the notes are not so hard yet) so in comparison to your average beginner my erhu ability seems quite prodigious. In fact, I think a lot of my erhu 'talent' is me basically coasting on the translatable violin technique while playing things that are actually way above my level...I would likely benefit from a few weeks of mindless repetition of the things that are trickier for me (slides in both directions, and of course the dreaded bow hold)! 

Right now, I'm wrapping up learning one of the most famous pieces for erhu: 赛马, or "Horse Racing." The piece is definitely a crowd-pleaser, as it's a fast-paced, high-energy tune with a lot of special effects that mimic the sounds of horses--the gallop of hooves and a screeching whinny, to be specific. The "neighing" sound uses a rapid-fire, controlled bouncing bow technique called feigong, or "flying bow," which besides being very difficult, is featured in all of two pieces in the canon of erhu music. My teacher says it took him a year to figure out how to do the technique, and even then it was just an accident. Needless to say, I am a far ways off from getting my feigong technique in hand--and not to be too pragmatic, but seeing as there are two main pieces that use it, perhaps it's not the worst thing if I don't get it down...Nonetheless, I am gaining a lot of useful information from learning "Horse Racing." For instance:

"When you play this piece, you must imagine you are the horse. You see the other horses running after you. So you are running and running and they race after you. And then you win and you are proud! In this part you are celebrating because you have won the race, and the bow is long and singing. And then you have to race again, and they are running after you again. In this part--those are the hooves of the horse. The bow stops short to make the sound of a hoof. And then at the end, you make the horse call. Chinese people love to mimic the sounds of animals--and so you make the sound of the horse here!" 

(Here's a version to give you a sense of what the piece can sound like...)
In case you were wondering, there are three steps to the horse call:
1) Slide up (which on an erhu, is down) two octaves on a quick down bow
2) On an up bow, shake your right hand uncontrollably--but in a controlled fashion
3) Simultaneously slide up slightly
4) Repeat two more times

Some other gems from my erhu lessons:

According to my teacher, the different ornaments and improvisatory add-ons of each regional Chinese music style are reflective of the local dialect--in particular, of the way in which people curse and swear in each place. 
"That's why it is impossible to teach Guangdong style," he says. "If you cannot swear like a Guangdong person, you cannot play like a Guangdong person."
"But you can play Guangdong style?" I asked him? 
"Of course!"

On cleaning rosin off of erhu strings: "Wipe your nose with your fingers and use the oil to clean the strings."

Also, Nick has invited me to join his Chinese instrument ensemble's rehearsals. Apparently it's a casual group of both serious and beginning players. He told me, "There are people there who are worse then you," which is about the nicest thing one can say about my erhu playing right now, so I'm pretty psyched to join in! 

(See the old man with the cigarette? That's the one)
Besides that, I'm just going to leave you with some pictures from the flea markets in Sham Shui Po. My computer went on the fritz, and after having found a recommendation online for the cheapest and most reliable computer repair store in Hong Kong, I set off for Sham Shui Po. For those of you who are not familiar with the area, Sham Shui Po is not renowned for being the loveliest part of Hong Kong, and questioning my own sanity I dropped my non-responsive machine off to the "Computer Hospital," aka the sketchiest electronics stall I have ever seen. Much to my surprise, the next day I got a call from one of the ladies there--"Your computer is fine! Your charger is the problem!"--so I went back much relieved to collect it today. I then ambled around the area, which is packed and jammed with impromptu stalls replete with every possible item--children's watches, drill bits, shower heads, pots and pans, leather goods...There are different levels of shop; some have actually storefronts, others are tents, while others are glorified refuse piles with negotiable price tags. Everyone seems to be smoking there, and it's packed with people (only a handful obvious tourists), but in a way it's absolutely fascinating to wander and jostle through, wondering where all of the stuff came from, how long it has been there, and how long it will remain. My favorite part: standing in a small crowd watching an old man in an instrument junk stall play erhu, effortlessly playing whatever came to mind. He launched into "Horse Racing," and then after the final whinny put aside the instrument and lit up a cigarette. 

Phone numbers for sale

Monday, August 11, 2014

Some Monday morning inspiration

I was browsing IMSLP, an online music library with downloadable scores from the public domain, looking for solo violin music when I came across Kriesler's Recitativo and Scherzo, dedicated to "master and friend" violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. It starts dramatic and angsty, and then turns into a virtuosic dance (or quasi-canter) that also has a bit of a sense of humor with all its bouncing around and cute ending.

I watched the above performance of the piece and decided I had to play it--so that's what I'm working on now, along with the Adagio and Fuga from Bach's C Major Sonata for Solo Violin (and my erhu music, of course!) Hopefully it's a rewarding challenge!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

First Erhu Attempts

By popular request, I have made a short video of my first attempts at playing erhu. I think this video is one of those things where I will thank myself in ten years for having made it.

Disclaimer: video features lackluster cinematography and terrible noises (don't mind the jackhammer accompaniment to my scratchy-scratching).

P.S. I asked my erhu teacher, Nick, if he had any good weekend plans, and he said he was staying in this weekend because the annual Ghost Festival is this weekend and he didn't want to encounter any ghosts. "It's not like Halloween," he assured me. Luckily for me, I think that my erhu playing will probably discourage any spirits from lingering too close by.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Starting from scratch, and scratching from the start

Last week I was absolutely stressed out about how to spend my days in Hong Kong. I hadn’t originally intended to begin my Watson project in the so-called ‘Pearl of the Orient,’ yet I suddenly found myself here with an apartment already leased for a month and nothing to do. While I may have termed myself ‘funemployed’ mere days ago, I am proud to announce that my status has shifted to ‘fun-employed’ (i.e. occupied in enjoyable ways). I would go so far as to declare that I am nearly too busy—but only in the best of ways.

Island barbecue!
I have been amazed at the number of people I have met in just two weeks—each one with his or her own fascinating story to tell, and interest in helping me with my project in some way. For instance, I have been assisting Alexis, the composer in Hong Kong, with her work, and so delighted that she invited me to a barbeque she hosted at her home on one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands. The first person I met there, Paiyu, is a Chinese linguist, and as soon as I told him that I have a special interest in as well as previous experience studying Chinese linguistics, he was eager to tell me more about his work, offer to introduce me to other prominent linguists in Hong Kong, and invite me to go out for tea (which I learned last summer actually means go out for a Chinese food feast). He is one of a dozen people in the world who speaks Tangusic languages, and he’s also a Mandarin Chinese teacher, so I’m thinking of soliciting him for language lessons for my remaining time in Hong Kong. The second person I met was Gloria, a graphic designer with an incredibly outgoing personality and eye for style. She wrote to me a few days after the barbecue, and I had an incredible afternoon hanging out with her in her gorgeous self-designed studio apartment (which has been featured in the newspapers here). She showed me her work, and is bringing me to her friend’s art gallery party in a few days—the friend being someone who is extremely well-connected to the Indonesian music scene and regularly brings musicians to perform in Hong Kong.

Lamma Island
Taking the ferry home from 'work'
Hong Kong Island at dusk

In the meantime, beyond going to intensive Mandarin tutoring a few times a week and helping out Alexis with her work (as well as playing her own music with her!) I’ve also taken on a new role helping out at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University. Thanks to a very close friend with ties to the JMSC, I was able to meet a few of the professors and staff there. After offering to lend a hand in any way I could, I’ve found myself writing press releases for them, researching for their Open Data initiative, and creating an English language press kit for the newest film by an Oscar Award-winning documentary filmmaker in residence at the JMSC.  

These are just a few of the dozens of people I’ve met in this short time, and I can but only feel incredibly lucky. That said, it’s not just luck—I’ve been making huge efforts to get out of my apartment and meet people, whether through going to badminton meet-up groups or reaching out to as-of-yet unknown friends of friends (of friends…) I have been wondering whether this all has the forces of destiny colliding in incredibly auspicious ways, or perhaps just a product of how dense and bustling Hong Kong is. I’d like to think that a significant factor contributing to my ‘success’ is being willing to be open to these chance encounters with new people. School has always provided me with a built-in network of peers up to this point, so I never have had to look very hard to find friends, colleagues, and confidants. Now, I’m starting from scratch, and in a city this big no one is going to reach out of his or her own volition. My hope is that by practicing making connections now in a very connected place, even when I travel to more remote places, I’ll already be comfortable asking for help and reaching out to new people.

And now! perhaps the most exciting and Watson-relevant part of all—I have officially started erhu (Chinese fiddle) lessons, and am the eager renter of my very own erhu! Speaking of taking risks and reaching out: taking erhu lessons was never part of my original Watson year plan, but when I realized I was in Hong Kong with nothing to do a little over a week ago, I figured the time was ripe to launch into trying out a new musical style. I have listened to erhu music for a few years now, and actually really love the sound—and through a little research I discovered it is tuned in fifths, exactly like a violin. So delving into the world of erhu was basically a no-brainer. Finding a teacher was a little trickier—Alexis, who has been taking lessons for five years now, asked her own teacher but didn’t get a response. So, after googling “erhu teacher Hong Kong” in both English and Chinese, I came up with a shortlist of options. I decided to start first with the music school that is a two-minute walk from my apartment—small steps, you know? Not really sure what to say, I braced myself for impending awkwardness and walked into the music school, which is tucked away in a dilapidated commercial building bookended by hair salons. A teacher poked her head out a practice room, where a pint-sized violinist scratched away at Suzuki Book 1 repertoire. “Hi, uh, I’m a violinist, and I just graduated college in the U.S. and I’m here in Hong Kong now working on a project to study different music cultures, and I wanted to take erhu lessons,” I babbled. “Is that possible?”

“You are a violinist…you are a violin teacher?” Clearly my first attempt had fallen short.

“Uh, no, I wanted to take music lessons, on the èrhú!” I emphasized my tones.

“Oh, you want to take èrhú lessons! Ok, ok! We have an èrhú teacher,” She handed me a brochure with a list of prices, which I thanked her for profusely and pocketed, promising to think about it and come back. I deliberated on the pros and cons; I wished I could take a lesson with all of my potential erhu teachers before I committed—how could I know whether I would like any of them, or that they were any good?—but I had had a positive feeling from that brief interaction, and also figured that a) I didn’t need the best, most advanced teacher to learn the basics, and b) if he/she was terrible, I could find a new teacher. (Also, it is hard to beat the commute.) Ultimately, I justified to myself, it was a low-risk investment in a low-risk investment.

So, a few days ago, I went back to the school and signed up for four lessons sight-unseen with one “Mr. Yip.” I pictured a crusty old man who was born clutching the two-stringed fiddle; spoke Cantonese, basic Mandarin at best, and of course no English; and a harsh disciplinarian with penchant for rapping students over the head at any missed note. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Mr. Yip, or Nick, as he introduced himself, is a cheery 30-something-year-old who has been incredibly patient, thorough, and generous in my lessons so far. For one, I signed up for 45-minute lessons—so far, each one has exceeded two hours! And to be clear, much of that time is spent with him watching me bow long open notes repeatedly, correcting my bow hold and technique, and then doing it again. The man has the patience of a saint. That said, I think he’s excited that I’m coming into the lessons with 15 years of violin technique and music experience—I have a sense of intonation and musicality that I can bring (if not currently deliver). Much of the technique does translate, though certain elements, such as the bow hold, are radically different and going to take some practice for me to grasp. There are so many things, like the swooping slides into and between notes, that are completely foreign to music I have played before. I told him, “It’s been a long time since I sounded this bad.” Before now I was primarily practicing solo Bach sonatas and partitas on the violin, so now that I’m practicing erhu I’m sure my neighbors are wondering if I developed instrumental amnesia and forgot how to play. I will brag, though, that in my second lesson, he taught me a piece that he purportedly teaches most students at least three months after they have started learning the instrument—so I think that if I stick with it, I could definitely make some real progress!

This is the piece I am currently working on (played far beyond my current abilities)
In any case, I’m having a blast. I’m still not sure what future holds, but for now I’ve got a terrific gig meeting interesting people, toting multiple stringed instruments onto island ferries, and terrorizing the neighbors, so I’m just going to relish it.