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Almost A Year Of Gaohu

Last time I spoke to Mom Pony, I asked her which instrument I should bring home for Thanksgiving, the gaohu or the violin. I can't bring both. She asked me to bring the gaohu, because we are once again hosting a big Pony Family Thanksgiving with lots of Asian students over. Mom Pony wants me to entertain them by playing Chinese music on the gaohu.

I just realized something while I was practicing tonight. Mom and Dad Pony gave me the gaohu at Thanksgiving last year. It's been nearly a full year since then.

I still remember unwrapping it for the first time. "Oh!" I cried. "It's an erhu!" Not quite, but a close guess for someone who knew nothing about any of the huqin instruments. We passed the gaohu around, so that everyone could have a try. I hadn't played a string instrument in over twenty years. Mom and Dad Pony actually didn't expect me to learn to play this one; they expected me to hang it on my wall for decoration and take it down every now and then to show my students. But as everyone tried scraping at it on Thanksgiving, as various Chinese undergraduates lost their shyness and laughed while molding their professor's daughter's hands to show her how to hold the bow, I fell in love.

Because of the way our quarter system works, I had December pretty much free. La Dissertation hadn't quite kicked into high gear yet, and I pretty much had the whole month free to play with my new instrument. My Taiwanese friend and I looked at Wikipedia to find out how best to tune it; we learned that the strings should be tuned a fifth apart, and she helped me to tune it the first time, since she has perfect pitch. At first, the bow scraped over the strings and the instrument screeched something awful. I had one memory left of how to play the violin, and that was that the second scale degree was played by stopping the string about an inch from the top of the neck. Slowly, I used that and my understanding of the pitch relationships in the major mode to work out the major scale. From there, tunes emerged. Thin, wobbly, but kind of recognizable as shape-note tunes.

I taught myself to play out of The Sacred Harp for two reasons. The first was that I didn't own any Chinese sheet music; I didn't even know what it might look like. The second was that . . . well, the function of the shapes is to teach sight-reading by scale degree, not by absolute pitch. If it worked on the voice, I reasoned, it ought to work on the gaohu. Eventually, I got confident enough to play simple hymns. I came home for winter break, and I could play tunes, to the astonishment and delight of my family.

In searching the internet for a shop that would sell a case for the gaohu, I found two major suppliers of Chinese instruments and accessories. One was in San Francisco, and the other was in Singapore. The case came from San Francisco and from Mom Pony, but I used a check that my grandmother gave me to order an instruction book and some spare strings from Singapore. They took forever to arrive. In the meantime, I discovered the website of the Summer Thunder Asian Music Ensemble, a community Chinese orchestra in Tucson. They have PDF files of their repertoire available on their website, so I printed out and started to learn some of the simpler tunes. The first one I learned is a children's song called "Shi Shang Zhi You Mama Hao," or "Mom is the best thing in the world." Chinese people I've met have been highly amused when I play and sing this, since it's basically the Chinese equivalent of "Rockabye Baby." But it's Real Chinese Music™!

So now I'm bringing the gaohu home again for Thanksgiving. I've got a whole international repertoire on it now. I can play Chinese folk songs, Scottish jigs, Irish ballads, Jewish holiday music, and a few American classics on it. I had the bow re-haired with horsehair, which has improved the sound quality. I've started to learn how Chinese music works, how the huqins all relate to each other. I've turned into a gaohu player!

I still don't read Chinese, though I'm vaguely considering picking up a bit of Mandarin after La Dissertation is done, in service of a potential post-doctoral project. My gaohu instruction books are filled with pages of helpful advice that I can't read. But they've got tunes in numeric notation that I can read, and fingering in Chinese numerals (one through four) which aren't hard to figure out.

All this I did by myself. I don't have a gaohu teacher, and I don't know where I might find one (Chicago's Chinatown is remarkably unmusical). But I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing on my own. I've mastered playing in two keys in major and two keys in minor (since I tune the gaohu mainly to itself, I don't name them; I think of them as "open-string do" and "open string sol"), and I'm working on figuring out a third key in major, "open string la." I can even play in two hand positions, which was something that I never did get to learn on the violin, so I can say for certain that I've advanced beyond my hazy memories of late-1980s violin lessons.

And, to come full circle, my violin resurfaced in August. I had that restored, though it was a high-quality instrument and actually managed to survive twenty-three years of being forgotten in a closet relatively intact and didn't need all that much restoration. I've started to play it again . . . and my gaohu skills are helping with that! Sometimes I play my Chinese music on the violin as well as the shape-note and fiddle tunes with which I taught myself gaohu.

It's been a pretty good year for music. One old instrument, one new instrument. Suddenly, I'm a string player again. I like it. I think I'll keep it up. And if we ever meet each other, maybe I'll play for you!

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
dawtheminstrel
Nov. 10th, 2011 12:41 pm (UTC)
That's a wonderful tale of doing something for curiosity and love. I hope your audience enjoys it at Thanksgiving.
frenchpony
Nov. 10th, 2011 12:59 pm (UTC)
At the very least, it will be an unusual and entertaining sight! The gaohu is an instrument that you rarely see being played by white people, and I'm sure that none of the Chinese students at Thanksgiving will expect to be given a concert in this particular instrument. I'm hoping that at least one of them in the crowd will know how to play a little and might be able to give me some pointers; maybe the one who came last year who knew how to play and gave me baby pointers will be back again!

Are you going to WisCon? I'm strongly considering it, since my Sacred Harp schedule will allow it this year. If I go, I might bring one of my instruments with me, just for laughs.
dawtheminstrel
Nov. 10th, 2011 02:14 pm (UTC)
I wasn't planning on WisCon. I'm still thinking about it.
meggins
Nov. 11th, 2011 06:01 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing this. Your enthusiasm shines through.
frenchpony
Nov. 11th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
It's fun to look back and see what I've accomplished in the year. Makes it feel kind of tangible, like I've done something really worthwhile with my time.
telperion1
Nov. 16th, 2011 11:33 am (UTC)
Well, I am proud of your multiculturalism and skill at doing something like this yourself. I have always loved picking up new instruments, but I don't think I've ever done anything so ambitious as all this.
frenchpony
Nov. 16th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
I'd always admired self-taught musicians and the kind of ethnomusicologist who just casually happen to play some interesting non-Western instrument. And then the Pony Parents just kind of dropped the opportunity to do both in my lap! It's been a lot of fun learning how to do this.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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