Resurrection and storytelling. Hawai guitar. Idiotic attitudes to piano teaching…April 18th, 2012
Last week we returned to visited Chuxin Zhen and her piano (who featured towards the end of an earlier post entitled Gulangyu – First Encounters) with the intention of trying to gently persuade this moth-eaten instrument to tell us its stories…
First, though, tea was made – accompanied by an assortment of snacks whilst Yi Bai and Zhen talked in more depth about the history (and also their personal histories) of Gulangyu island. Making tea here is an ART: everyone does it differently but it all seems part of a much larger and ancient tradition. I love watching the almost endless variation of technique, serving by serving.
Bai also spoke at length about how exactly the style of Hawai guitar had travelled from Hawai all the way to a tiny Islet just off the coast of South-east China… It has become such a huge part of the soundtrack to my visit that it will be forever synonymous with Xiamen and Gulangyu. Should I ever be lucky enough to visit Hawai and hear this music in its native environment I am sure I will always associate it with China! One of the most popular melodies I have heard played by the Hawai guitar groups is the well-loved Wave of Gulangyu.
Whilst I have been here in Xiamen, I have heard the this infectious melody many, many times (whistled/hummed in the street/various instrumental versions live or on radio) but on this occasion, Bai sung the song a capella for us (with the aid of the original lyrics read from a nearby iPhone) – I’d never heard it sung before and learned that the song is seldom sung with the lyrics as their political connotations (referencing the often spoil the charm of the melody itself Turns out that the song itself is quite recent (circa 1986!) and was written by a retired Japanese sailor who was living on the island (the melody is believed to be very close to an old catholic hymn) although many people who are passionate about Gulangyu prefer other, less well-known songs…
After a few hours of fascinating songs, stories and impeccable hospitality we decided to see what the old joanna lurking behind the wooden partition had to say for herself. Eaten by moths (or some sort of insect or even mice at some stage), many of the hammer felts were in bad shape and much of the mechanism was beyond reasonable ‘adjustment’ but, some lovely tones we did find. It’s a humbling process – first one has to shelve any desires of what what ‘one’ wants to achieve on the instrument and completely surrender to how the instrument wants to speak (and to be spoken to), then a tentative conversation can begin, gradually turning into a forum where wordless stories and nameless lives are revealed and relived…
It was great to be joined by Bai at the end – he’d always wanted to play the piano when he was young but was told that he couldn’t because his fingers were ‘too small’. This is the beginning of another topic completely and unfortunately it is indicative of an attitude to teaching I have heard a lot about since I’ve been here:
It is disgusting that children who want to learn have been discouraged and turned away by teachers for the most pathetic reasons: “you don’t have any talent, you’ll never make a living from it” and “your hands are not suitable for playing the piano” etc. These statements are paraphrased from numerous conversations I have had with people here in Xiamen who had been told such things as children. Far from being an attitude adopted by some sort of evil Dickensian-style piano teacher in the Victorian era, it is, horrifyingly, an attitude that is still alive and well in C21 China. To quote Bernard Manning: “What a fucking disgrace”.
Not only this but rampant conservatism also seems to have taken root in younger minds; minds that should arguably be stretching out, exploring and finding themselves – not embodying the ideals of stuffy, old-fashioned and prohibitive teaching styles verbatim. For example, after my first masterclass at Xiamen University some weeks ago a small group of students grassed me up to the Vice Dean for placing some objects on the strings of the piano. I was speechless. Students? I’d heard that he’d politely told them to fuck off…
Celebrated Chinese pianist, Lang Lang‘s performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics had apparently:
“inspired over 40 million Chinese children to learn to play classical piano – a phenomenon coined by The Today Show as ‘the Lang Lang effect’.“
My question is this: what percentage of those forty million children, who, after being inspired by Lang Lang’s performance came to a piano teacher with nothing more than the desire to MAKE MUSIC only to be told shortly afterwards that “you have little (or no) talent” or “your fingers are the wrong shape/size/length” or “you’ll never ‘make it’ so there’s little point in learning at all“?
I’m sure that Lang Lang himself would be horrified to hear that restrictive maxims such as these were (and are still) being imposed on a whole generation of young people wishing to enrich their lives through playing the piano.
Despite the bludgeoning deluge of small-minded piano teachers insistant on sicking up their sanctimonious bullshit, I hope that any children who may have suffered such rejection can still find some way to engage with the piano in spite of this or even at a later date, create music another way, LISTEN to music, find help from someone else – a friend or family member, start a rock band band in their teens, play music for fun/private pleasure, teach themselves by listening to records/looking at books/YouTube videos, being inspired by great artists, jazz artists, songwriters, composers, philosophers, religion, nature, landscapes, sculpture, art, SOUND, TV, radio, Ren & Stimpy, Barry Manilow, Barry White, George Formby, Winifred Atwell, Jonathan Meades, Paul Bley.
It’s NEVER too late…