From Humble Beginnings to First Concert: The Chinese Music Ensemble

On Sunday, December 10th at 7:30 PM, the Chinese Music Ensemble put on its first solo concert in the Lang Music Hall. The Ensemble played music ranging from Cantonese folk songs to a Hunan love song. At the end of the performance, Professor Lei Ouyang Bryant thanked the audience for coming and proudly reminded everyone to come out to their spring concert. As a group that began only a year and a half ago, this Ensemble has already grown into a class of 10 committed students playing beautiful music together.

The Ensemble prepares for the show during dress rehearsal (photo courtesy of the Swarthmore Music Department)

The Ensemble prepares for the show during dress rehearsal (photo courtesy of the Swarthmore Music Department)

When Josie Hung ‘19 first came to Swarthmore, she hoped “that there [would be] some form of a Chinese music ensemble, although [she] quickly found out from the Music Department that there wasn’t.” Though she reached out to the Music Department for help forming a group, she was informed that she alone would have to find interested students and an instructor if they wanted one. Even after she found students who wanted to play, she quickly realized there would be other obstacles including the fact that most students had not brought their instruments to campus and that they would have trouble finding music.

Unwilling to let these roadblocks stop her, Hung reached out to various instrument suppliers, one of them situated in Philadelphia. She also asked the supplier in Philly to be the group’s coach. At the same time, she worked to get the group chartered so that they could receive funding for instruments and pay the coach. Their first major performance was at the Franklin Square Lantern Festival, and by the beginning of the next semester, they became a Chamber music group and ready to have successful year.

During Hung’s sophomore year, the group played at the Chamber Music concerts, the IC Dinner Awards, the Chinatown Mid Autumn Festival, and Swarthmore’s Lunar New Year event. During the spring semester, they even opened the group up to people with no prior musical experience.

Unfortunately, at the end of the year, their coach quit because “he was frustrated with [the] group not coming in on time. [The] group also had difficulty dealing with him.” However, Hung and her co-president heard that Professor Bryant was coming to Swarthmore and had experience with Chinese music ensemble. After having not received much support from the Swarthmore Music Department up until this point, they were notified right at the beginning of the year that the Chinese Music Ensemble would become an official class led by Professor Bryant and world performer Wang Guowei.

Hung plays the dizi in Lang Concert Hall (photo courtesy of Lesia Liao ‘18)

Hung plays the dizi in Lang Concert Hall (photo courtesy of Lesia Liao ‘18)

This performance featured a mix of beginners as well as experienced musicians. Instruments included the guzheng (zither), erhu (bowed fiddle), hulusi (gourd flute), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), dizi (flute), ruan (lute), and percussion. It also featured solo performances by Hung, Annie Tingfang Wang, an exchange student from Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and Henry Han ‘20.

Wang began playing the yangqin at 12 years old and joined the Chinese orchestra starting in secondary school. Similar to Hung, Wang was dismayed by the absence of a Chinese music ensemble at her college. She “actually had to stop playing the Yangqin during [her] freshman and sophomore years...so coming to Swarthmore and going back into Yangqin was really unplanned but also such an amazing experience and a super precious opportunity.”

Wang (right) with fellow yangqin instrumentalist Liao after their performance. (Photo courtesy of Liao)

Wang (right) with fellow yangqin instrumentalist Liao after their performance. (Photo courtesy of Liao)

Han, on the other hand “started learning to play the GuZheng 12 years ago when [he] was studying in China at the time.” As he describes, “the GuZheng is meant to emulate a lot of nature sounds like trickling water, howling wind, and bird chirping, and so when I play I am able to enter this trance where I envision myself playing the GuZheng under the crashing water of a waterfall, with Spring blossoming all around me.” Neither he nor Wang had expected to be able to play at Swarthmore, but Swarthmore’s Chinese Music Ensemble reignited their passion and energy for Chinese music.

For beginners like Jacob Clark ‘21, who plays the clarinet in the Swarthmore Wind Ensemble but has never played a Chinese instrument, “having to understand how to read the music to be played presented itself as sort of a learning curve.” The clarinet and the hulusi are “similar in shape and how you hold the instrument and even how you make sound, but the actual build of the instrument and the range of the hulusi is a lot more limited than what the clarinet can do,” he said.

The Chinese Music Ensemble also offered Clark the opportunity to connect with Chinese culture. As a self-described “quasian,” a person who is one quarter Asian, he enjoyed interacting with both the music and his fellow musicians. “My professor (Professor Bryant) was half Chinese like my mom and her kids were quasian like me! It was nice having a person to relate to.”

Regardless of why people joined or what instruments they play, every member experienced something special after spending this semester in the group. As Wang says, “I'm definitely hoping to find ways to continue playing even after I return and will always be grateful for this wonderful semester in Swarthmore, playing with an amazing group of talented musicians in the Ensemble and being part of the Ensemble's debut performance.”

Reflecting on this performance and her journey here, Hung says, “I am really excited and proud to see something that I had a part in starting grow to this extent. I also love that it is open to anyone regardless of background experience and that the instructors we have are really accommodating of student’s levels. It was a blast getting to perform for people.”