Blessed by music

09:02, May 12, 2010      

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Zhang Mengdan plays guqin last May in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Mengdan

Mastering the instrument of the sages changed the life of one graduate who is looking forward to the highlight of her young career - a performance at the Great Hall of the People.

Zhang Mengdan, will play a stringed-instrument player in Cosmos (Shifang), a theatrical performance about the four seasons and the origins of the world, in Beijing on June 10-11.

The 23-year-old Zhang is a member of the Beijing Dance LDTX, a modern dance league. She has performed Cosmos over 100 times since graduating from the Central Conservatory of Music (CCM) in Beijing last year, with a major inguqin.

Confucius would approve

Learning the guqin, a seven-stringed plucked instrument from the zither family, was regarded as a must for any well-educated Chinese seeking to develop their cultural sensitivity as long as 3,000 years ago.

But when her parents encouraged Zhang to learn the guqin at the age of eight, they were simply hoping it would help change her behaviour.

"At that time, I was a very naughty girl. My parents wished I would become quieter through playing it, "Zhang said.

After 10 years' of practicing, Zhang was admitted in 2005 to CCM, the first university in China to offer a major in guqinsince the 1950s.

Alongside her main study, Zhang learned basic knowledge including music theory, sight singing and chorus.

Playingguqindid change her character gradually.

"I'm not as blundering as I was. I've become more sedate and mature. It's also enriched my knowledge and cultural awareness," she said.

Dexterity required

The current standard guqin music score, orjianzipu, was invented by Cao Rou, a master of the instrument from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Jianzipu guides the position of the fingers and the tasks for the right and left hands.

It looks like the radicals of Chinesecharacters, and to many people, probably looks like double Dutch.

"Many friends often ask me whether the scores are carapace-bone-scripts. Just explaining it has taken up so much of my time," she said.

The sound of the guqin is slow, and so it suits a solo rather than an instrumental ensemble.

But for a guqinplayer, there are few chances to perform a solo.

"For a time, I envied students who played other instruments as they had more chances to participate in concerts. Their music sounds cheerful, but the sound of theguqin is always depressing and sad," she said.

Her thinking changed one day after a Western musician made a comment to her.

The musician listening to her playing told her the sound was like something coming from another universe and that other Chinese instruments sounded too noisy.

"His words gave me another perspective. Throughout history, theguqin is used to entertain the player himself, rather than others."


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