Plucking the trend
Festival’s online gambit pays off as more students tune in to master musical instruments like pipa and the harp, Chen Nan reports.
Having established itself, in 1995, as one of Beijing’s biggest summer arts festivals for children, the annual Gateway to Music, initiated and organized by the Forbidden City Concert Hall, opened its first online courses last summer amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After receiving a warm response from both parents and children, the organizers decided to launch a winter camp offering musical training online for children and adults.
Starting from the end of February, two veteran musicians: Zhang Hongyan who plays the pipa —a Chinese lute with four strings — and harpist Wang Guan, will give a series of online classes to students with or without a musical background.
“The winter camp will last until early summer. When the pandemic is under control, these students will be invited to perform live together at the venue,” says Xu Jian, the general manager of the Forbidden City Concert Hall, adding that more artists will join in the winter camp to introduce different musical instruments.
On Feb 20, Zhang sat among pipa
students, ranging in age from primary school students to teenagers, listening to their performances and giving instructions. The two-hour lesson was recorded at the Forbidden City Concert Hall and will be played online, to be shared by more students.
“When you pluck the strings, you should use the strength in your wrist. It will keep the sounds clean and neat,” Zhang says to Sun Jinxuan, 10, who played Yi Ethnic Dance,
composed by Wang Huiran in 1965 for the pipa. “It’s also important to listen to yourself while playing the instrument.”
After listening to students, Ma Chunxiao and Gui Jiayue, both 10, play a piece adapted from a children’s song, titled Happy New Year,
Zhang says: “it’s a great way to learn music with a friend. You both inspire and progress with each oth
which is fun”.
In 2011, Zhang, who teaches at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, launched a summer camp for the pipa as part of the annual Gateway to Music festival. The camp attracts about 200 students of different ages.
“I am very proud and happy to see that many young Chinese people love to play a musical instrument which is more than 2,000 years old. Art education is a key aspect of what we do as professional musicians and educators,” says Zhang, adding that, when the Forbidden City Concert Hall invited her to launch the pipa training summer camp, it was the first program at the festival dedicated to a traditional Chinese instrument.
“Last summer, we tried for the first time to give online courses. It posed great challenges to us since usually music training needs teachers and students to meet in person,” recalls Zhang. “We re-arranged our teaching materials for students with or without pipa-playing experience and we gradually figured out ways to effectively communicate with the students through the internet.”
For the winter camp, Zhang arranged ten classes for students of various musical ability and, unlike the summer camp, which usually lasts for a week, she plans to expand the courses into a fivemonth-long teaching program, consisting of both online and in-person training.
“One of the best parts of offering online courses is that we can reach pipa learners from around the country who don’t need to travel to Beijing to attend the classes. Since we have to adjust our plans due to the coronavirus pandemic, we hope to have the students come to play together in the capital in the early summer,” says Zhang.
A harp training program, like the pipa, was also launched by the Gateway to Music festival in 2011. Conducted by harpist Wang Guan, who teaches at the Central Coner, servatory of Music in Beijing, the winter camp also offers online courses to students from different parts of the country.
“It was my first time learning the harp last summer and I am drawn to the musical instrument because it is very beautiful, like a fairy,” says Shi Liu, a student from Beijing who attended the harp summer camp last year and has since joined the winter program. “It’s more than playing a musical instrument. I have also learned about other art forms, such as ballet and classical music during the classes.”
“When we first launched the harp training program during the Gateway to Music festival, there were about 30 students and none of them knew anything about the harp,” recalls Wang. “The musical instrument was less well-known in China, compared to other musical instruments, such as the piano and violin. I’m happy to witness the changes and a growing number of harp students over the past few years.”
Wang learned to play piano at the age of 3, and the guzheng, or Chinese Zither, at age 4. She was enrolled to study at the primary school affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music when she was 10. That was when she was first introduced to the harp by her piano teacher.
“Like many harp students, I enjoy the sound of the musical instrument very much and it was a smooth transition for me to learn to play harp,” recalls Wang.
As part of the online courses, Wang has selected classic music pieces for the musical instrument.
“We let students share classes together since it’s a good way to learn from each other. Though they cannot meet one another in person, the students still make friends,” says Wang.
I am very proud and happy to see that many young Chinese people love to play a musical instrument which is more than 2,000 years old.”
Zhang Hongyan, pipa player