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Pony Plays Gaohu

This is a post that needs pictures, as I confirmed with lcohen the other night, and I have finally gotten around to taking them, so here goes!

Way back at the end of October, the Pony Parents went to China for two weeks. They'd asked me what they should bring back for me -- how does one choose from a whole country? All I said was "something nice." Mom Pony had the brilliant idea to bring back a musical instrument! The second day there, they were emerging from a restaurant, and Dad Pony spotted a street vendor selling cheap instruments. He charged over, followed by Mom Pony and another tour group member who also thought that getting instruments sounded like a good idea. I suspect that this was the most enthusiasm this vendor had seen for his products in a long time!

Anyway, they bargained (I'm not sure how; the Pony Parents don't speak Chinese), and they came away with two instruments each (the Pony Parents and the other lady) for about 100 yuan, which is seven dollars. The instruments are cheap and not of the greatest quality, but they're real, and they work just fine.

The Pony Parents made the grand presentation at Thanksgiving, and I took them home and started to learn to play. One of them, the gaohu suited me admirably well, and I really began to teach myself to play it. Mom Pony bought me a case for it, and at winter break, I brought it home to show them what I had learned. With money that my grandmother gave me, I bought instruction books and spare strings, and now I have a new thing!

Because it took so long for the books to come from Singapore, I started playing Western music that I had lying around the house -- I have quite a lot of it -- and I got to be a pretty good fiddler on the thing. And it is basically a fiddle, after all. If the erhu (which is what I initially thought the instrument was) is the Chinese equivalent of the violin, the gaohu (which we eventually determined it was, based on its size) is the Chinese violino piccolo, and therefore can be fiddled upon. Is how I see it at least.

Two images of the gaohu in its case. There's a pocket for rosin and a cleaning cloth, and I store the packet of spare strings in there, too. The spare strings are Fang Fang brand, the kind that professional concert players use. When the original strings break, I figure that best-quality strings will do only good for a cheap instrument.

Here, I've propped the gaohu up on the armchair to show what it looks like up close. The head of the soundbox is made of python skin, and you can see (kind of) that there are two strings, and the bow is permanently caught between them. For storage, it hooks onto the tuning pegs. The two strings were encouraging to me at the beginning. Twenty years ago, I played a little violin, and I figured I could pick this instrument up as well; after all, it only has two strings, half as many as the violin. How hard could it be?

This shows the variety of music that I play on the gaohu. Not shown is the 1966 Jewish hymnal. I think I may be the only person in the world who regularly plays "Hatikva" on the gaohu!

The other instrument that the Pony Parents brought me is a hulusi. It's harder to play than the gaohu, and I don't have nearly as much range on it yet; I'm also still looking for a good instruction book. But I can play a few tunes on it. Most notably, the "Sussex Mummers' Carol." This is my hulusi:

The Pony Parents are thrilled that I'm teaching myself to play these, especially the gaohu. I even gave Mom Pony a little gaohu concert over the phone for her birthday!


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2011 04:49 am (UTC)
I always learn so much from you, Pony. I have no familiarity with Chinese instruments at all. I can see well enough that the gaohu is a stringed instrument, but I'm having some trouble imagining it being played. I'm used to violins and fiddles being up in the air, so to speak. But I'm glad you are tackling and enjoying it.

I rather like the look of the hulusi and the description of it, especially the part about the drone pipe(s). Very keen idea for the Pony parents to bring you musical instruments.
Mar. 7th, 2011 01:37 pm (UTC)
East Asian music was always my weak point, too, but now I have some impetus to learn more about it! Next time I teach Music 102, Organology Day will be that much more interesting, with live demonstrations.

The gaohu is played kind of like a viol; I sit down, hold the instrument in my left hand, soundbox resting on my left thigh. After unhooking the bow, which usually makes some godawful skreeking sounds while being unhooked, I hold that in a palm-up grip and play.

Apparently, it's also common to play the gaohu (but not the erhu) held between the knees, but I don't do that, because I can't see the fingering very well that way.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 7th, 2011 01:40 pm (UTC)
The gaohu sounds like a warmer violin. It's currently tuned about a sixth lower than it should be, but I'm working toward stretching the strings slowly to the proper tuning. And I don't play this in an ensemble, so it's not like it matters much. At this low tuning, I can sing along, so I may or may not raise it much further.

The hulusi has the warmth of organic material, but it's a reed and not a flute, so it sounds sharper than one might expect. Kind of like a cross between a clarinet (sharper) and an oboe (warmer). I'm not as good at that one, though.
Mar. 7th, 2011 10:31 am (UTC)
I've never seen anything like those instruments. They look amazing!

I'd love to be able to hear you playing them.
Mar. 7th, 2011 01:44 pm (UTC)
I'd seen erhus before; there's one at the Montreal Ecomuseum (the violin shop), and there's this ancient Chinese lady who sometimes busks in one of the Red Line subway stops playing an erhu against recorded background music, usually not in the same key. I (mis)identified my gaohu as an erhu even before I finished unwrapping it; it was only about forty minutes later that one of our Chinese Thanksgiving guests started speculating that it was a bit small for an erhu but was about the right size to be a gaohu. And thus began my introduction to the huqin family of instruments!

I'd never seen nor heard of a hulusi before! Apparently, it's the most popular musical instrument in the world, just because of China's enormous population.
Mar. 7th, 2011 12:20 pm (UTC)
Very cool. Your father got those from a street vendor? I'm trying to imagine something like that here.
Mar. 7th, 2011 01:49 pm (UTC)
I was absolutely astonished when the Pony Parents brought them out, and Dad Pony now considers the gaohu to be one of their greatest gift ideas ever. I really don't think they had any thought of buying musical instruments from a street vendor, but they saw him, the opportunity was there, and they had no idea whether they'd get another chance to get musical instruments. The really amazing thing was that they then carried both of these instruments around China for two weeks, then flew them home, all without proper cases. The gaohu in particular is long and delicate, and it weighs almost nothing. Seriously, it's only about a quarter to a third of a pound, if that. When I bring it anywhere, most of the little weight I'm carrying is the case.
Mar. 7th, 2011 12:30 pm (UTC)
Very cool.
Mar. 7th, 2011 01:51 pm (UTC)
I just adore them. I love having a few small instruments that I can play tunes on (I've also got a tin whistle; the angklung, tambourine, and Tibetan singing bowl are lovely, but not melody instruments), and I love that, with the gaohu, I can play a harmony line while I sing.
Mar. 7th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
Oh wow. Even better!
Mar. 7th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
That's one of the things I do with the gaohu and my shape-note hymnals!
Mar. 7th, 2011 11:06 pm (UTC)
You are quite a talented Pony!
Mar. 7th, 2011 11:11 pm (UTC)
Shape-note is easy to do that with, because the bass line tends to be kind of intuitive, and I usually sing tenor, so I know those lines already.
Mar. 7th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC)
i imagined the shape of the box wrong but had the neck pretty accurately. sounds like you are having a lot of fun !
Mar. 7th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
A lot of huqin instruments have a hexagonal soundbox. But round like mine, or octagonal, you can also find those. Mine is really really cheap, but I don't know if that has anything to do with it or not. I adore this instrument; next time you're over, I'll play you a tune.
Mar. 8th, 2011 02:13 am (UTC)
Cool! And what fun that there was a Chinese thanksgiving guest around to unravel the msytery! LOLOL. FAscinating.
Mar. 8th, 2011 04:01 am (UTC)
We had a grand total of nine Chinese guests and one Vietnamese guest! Two of the Chinese guests had had a little experience with erhus, and one could play the hulusi a little, so we all had great fun passing the instruments around so that everyone could have a go at them.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )