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To be 'modern' does not mean to dismiss tradition





Brief report on CHIME Workshop 'Teaching Chinese music' (Hamburg 2016































by Frank Kouwenhoven



Music education in China is a problematic field. With traditional modes of transmission disappearing, and institutionalized education relying ever more on a Western-style conservatory-type of teaching, the question where Chinese music is headed increasingly depends on fashionable trends in 'modernization'. But what does modernity have in store for Chinese music? How should one value the many changes that take place in musical life and music education in China today? Many detailed studies have appeared, but a proper overall assesment seems long overdue.


The workshop organized by CHIME and the Confucius Institute of Hamburg from 17 to 20 November 2016 brought together some forty-five scholars and musicians to exchange and debate ideas in this realm. They discussed the many conflicting viewpoints that exist about aims and effectiveness of music teaching in China today. Basic questions about culture were clearly much at the heart of the matter.



Some of the debate was fierce, incisive, even painful. One can only compliment the organizers, local hosts and participants for overall maintaining a relaxed and congenial atmosphere. No tricky controversies were solved, no revolutionary proposals put on the table. But those who joined this highly informative forum went home with many new ideas, fresh insights, changed perspectives, new questions to tackle. Some speakers were pushed a bit out of their comfort zones, but nobody seemed bruised or injured in the end. Quite a feat, if one considers what was at stake!



The meeting's modest dimensions enabled participants to exchange viewpoints at greater length and with more informality than any king-size conference on this topic would allow. The congenial atmosphere of the Confucius Institute –a bit Disneyland-esque at first sight, but essentially a fine venue with ideally sized rooms – helped a lot to bring down barriers and to entaminate lively discussions (in English, Chinese, German, even Japanese and several other other languages!) on the many different, delicate, and complex topics presented in the rogramme.


A special volume of the Chime Journal will be devoted to presentations in this meeting. Many speakers also expressed the wish for a follow-up event. There are now plans for such a follow-up meeting in Geneva, most likely a conference on issues of intercultural or comparative music education. Though the ideal conference does not consist – the absence of some major experts of Chinese music education such as Ho Wai-On from Hong Kong was sorely felt – this was a really fruitful gathering.  Theoreticians and musicians managed to travel in tandem and cover a consider amount of common ground, perhaps more than exxpected. And most of us were vividly reminded, once again, of the realities of China's present-day musical life –wonderful, uplifting, exasperating, baffling, infuriating and inspiring as it is...



Tricky questions

So what does modernity have in store for Chinese music? Some felt that the gap between rural traditions and urban glamour music has simply become too big. Village life in China is bound to disappear; the very blueprint of 'village life' is currently crumbling due to widespread urbanization, and not just in coastal regions. With it, much of the country's characteristic regional music is crumbling, if the genres haven't disappeared already. The same is true for a lot of musical specialist knowledge. In his opening speech, Frank Kouwenhoven touched on these problems.

Naturally there will always be new genres and new forms again, there will aways be traditions-in-the-making, but China's present-day urban musical life – its New Year TV shows, its pretty female soloists in glitter costumes, its endless song competitions, the cheering crowds, the well-lighted concert stages and flashy video screens... all that may not offer much of a solid future for the Chinese musical arts.

For that, too much of the urban music-making is a faint copy of Western pop culture, with some Chinese flavours added. And all too often this kind of music primarily works as state propaganda. Happy singers and cheering crowds in media shows mainly promote images of healthy, sanitized middle-class affluence. There is little or no room for dissenting views, for exploring the much richer, more complex Chinese past, which is not determined only by great cultural glories and positivism, but also by conflicts, wars, famines, rural desperation, dislocation, suppression or selling of women, and so much more. Being Chinese is certainly about more than serving the glorious motherland or feeling 'good'. China may have its own intellectual bards and composers who reflect on the darker sides of native life, but if so, they are not heard on any of the major stages or official media. But problems of music education cannot be seriously addressed as long as basic questions about culture cannot be tackled, or tackled only in the form of rosy clichés. What is music-making in Chinese society good for? What are musical artists good for? Though perhaps too little of the discussion in the Hamburg CHIME workshop touched directly on such issues, they still served as a palpable enough backdrop for much of what was being discussed.


Conservatory-style teaching: knotty problems

Fair enough, music conservatories, art academies and music departments at universities and experimental schools in China are the focal point of a great deal of enthusiastic and energetic professional music-making, and aspire to be breeding places for innovation in the realm of traditional music. Enthusiastic presentations by Tang Qiong and Li Liangzi (both from the Central Conservatory) highlighted the wide-ranging ambitions of top institutions. Li Liangzi, an accomplished young zheng player, demonstrated an impressive range of new techniques on her instrument, techniques which have been developed by composers and musicians in recent years, and which are now being taught to students. Missing in her presentation, perhaps, was a rationale behind all these virtuosic tools – it sometimes seemed to be a bit of a case of confusing means with ends... Tang Qiong, a professor of music education, listed many of the overall achievements of conservatory teaching in the realm of Chinese instruments and vocal traditions, and pointed at an increasing commitment to fieldwork and to the exploration of native genres.

Clearly things may be improving a lot in that realm. The current renewed attention for tradition in China actually even presents a dramatic reevaluation of tradition, a reversal of the anti-traditionalism of former decades: a proud return to China's 'Confucian heritage' is now promoted in many Chinese media. It has been heralded as a pan-Asian development, echoing a similar revival of Confucian ideals elsewhere in East Asia, for example in South Korea. But what long-term impact this craze for preservation and promotion of traditional music will have on music making and teaching remains to be seen. A historically informed performance practice among conservatory students trained on traditional instruments is still hardly in view, as Stephen Jones (London) pointed out in his talk. Students (as well as many teachers) show a limited awareness (if any) of past traditions or of continued regional folk practices of the instruments they play or the vocal styles they sing. So far, intangible cultural heritage (ICH) policies in China have had little or no impact on conservatory training programmes. So what can be expected in the longer run, where the treasure-house of Chinese traditions is concerned? The best one can say is that there is, luckily enough, a growing tendency now to address issues of musical authenticity and historical performance in China – yet another field of exploration that has become a new focal point in recent conferences and talks.

But not everything can be solved by good scholarship and high-level professionalism alone. Many traditional music genres simply resist being lifted to the level of 'stage art' (Stephen Jones again), and music conservatories may just not be the right places to pursue the development of certain types of music. Hardly surprising, considering the history of these institutions, discussed in a concise and adequate paper by Yang Hon-Lun (Hong Kong Baptist University). Several participants in the meeting referred to the many knotty conflicts which exist between traditional and modern ways of musical learning. A case in point was Lin Chen's presentation of the 唱弦chang xian teaching method for the guqin, a good example of an informative and original talk, as well as a fine example of Chinese scholarship. Han Mei (Middle Tennessee State University) took the problem one step further, in her lecture on changes in zheng (zither) teaching. She remarked that so many traditional zheng pieces have gradually changed from 'films' to 'photos'. That is to say, these pieces may still be played today, but the impact of written notations and of rigid conservatory training has drained them of much of their lifeblood and flexibility. A lot of music becomes codified to the point of petrification. The status of the zheng actually used to be very low in the 1950s. At that time, it was being said that people 'without morals' would better not play the qin, but stick to the zheng instead, a mere 'folk' instrument. Zheng teachers who began to teach their instruments in conservatories at that time tended to be proud, because they had been 'elevated' from a mere position as folk musicians to that of academicians. 


What lies behind all these changes is not merely a shift from 'folk' to professional, and it is all about rather more than mere shifts in musical training methods. China's rigid cultural and social climate tends to put the brakes on creative artists' individualism. There is a vast tendency among conservatory- and art school-trained musicians to stick to 'mainstream' trends, to play the perpetual evergreens of their repertoire, and to go along, all too easily, with a 'glamourization' of Chinese music, without paying much attention to what is sacrificed in terms of musical freedom, individual expressiveness and personal integrity. This is how musical 'films' become 'photos', ultimately perhaps even less than 'photos'...


To complicate matters further, the quality of music education at academic institutions in China has suffered from a growing emphasis on commerce and –related to this – a dramatic increase of the numbers of students. This is a development of the past few decades. Especially since the 1990s, teaching music has become a profitable business and this has transformed the nature of the education itself: with commercial motives vastly gaining importance, the quality of the teaching has declined, also because – with ever bigger numbers of students – there is now less time left to pay attention to individual achievements. The already limited niche for traditional folk music has received further blows in this way. The problem was touched upon by a mere handful of speakers, but at least the time is over that such a situation appeared to be of no concern to ethnomusicologists at all. For a good comparative perspective, David Hughes (SOAS London) reviewed how traditional music became a part of Japan's required school curriculum, with the teling sub-title 'better late than never!'



Music in middle and elementary schools, and at art institutes

Yinyue jiaoyu ('music education') exists as a separate research discipline in China, and conferences and meetings take place at regular times on this topic, in China as well as in wider Asia. But the emphasis there is often on music teacher training, much less on cultural questions dealing with the fundamental nature of traditional heritage, or with potential conflicts between commercial enterprise and teaching or performing music as a spiritual way of life. Nationalist ideology and political propaganda naturally take their place in the spectrum of yinyue jiaoyu, and what that meant in practice for elementary and middle schools was et out in a lecture by Chen Yu (Fudan University, Shanghai).


In fact, several papers focused on music education in schools, most of them informative, some of them apologetic, and the topic certainly would deserve more research, leading to better global views and better reflections and analysis. What is currently going on at the primary school education level is certainly a game changer, and it would be interesting to know better the mechanisms in play, the policies and strategies underlying the curriculum changes, and the long-term consequences. Dizi player Liu Qian and several of her colleagues, all trained at the China Conservatory in Beijing talked about their (positive) experiences teaching music to young children at the Baodai Elementary School in Suzhou. A film shown about the school incited some criticism for being a 'propaganda' piece: the sight of hundreds of children playing bamboo flutes on the shore of Lake Tai may have evoked, in the minds of some, images of communist mass rallies and exaggerated images of populist happiness. But Liu Qian, dizi teacher Lou Yafeng and erhu teacher Zhang Qinyin warmly defended the music teaching activities at this school, which also comprise the singing of folk songs in local dialect – taught conscientiously to the children, no matter whether they are of Suzhou stock or come from very different parts of the country! – and a good deal more. The bottom-line is that the Baodai children experience a great deal of joy, always look tremendously forward to their music lessons and performances and take great pride in their musical achievements. Admittedly, the Baodai school is of an exceptional, experimental kind, and it cannot be compared to a great many other grammar schools and middle schools, elsewhere in China, which have only limited music teaching facilities, or even none at all. The presence of a music teacher in a school does not automatically warrant the teaching of music, and China is certainly no Hungary, where the idea of music being one of the basic corner-stones of healthy child development has led to extensive music teaching programmes in all elementary and middle school institutions.


Parental attitudes and parental expectations were another topic dealt with at some length. Many parents in China subscribe to the importance of musical education for their children, realizing that it touches on deeper aspects of life, and has a value beyond the mere technical capacity of being able to play an instrument. However, as erhu teacher Dong Jingming (of the Nanjing Art Institute) pointed out in his talk, there are also many parents who hardly know why they actually offer their children to take musical education, except that they don't want their children to 'get behind', compared to other children. Dong, in his speech: 'What they don't realize is that their child really needs to be talented, otherwise it's no use. Children are too often being forced to follow music lessons, even they don't like it at all. There are serious conflicts about this in some families, it sometimes even leads to people divorcing!' Dong complained that parents simply expect teachers to 'deliver'. People are trying to get high grades as much and as quickly as possible. Too many children in China are now learning primarily 'like machines'. As Dong said, 'they cannot play music, only notes.' On a more positive note (metaphorically speaking), Dong Jinming ended his speech saying that perhaps the current 'two child policy' might make things more relaxed again.


Barbara Mittler (University of Heidelberg) tackled the 'tiger mother mentality' in Chinese music teaching, questioning essentialist assumptions about Chinese people's being prone to discipline, dedication and focus, characteristics which are often pointed at to explain the outstanding achievements of Chinese musicians. She traced a number of individual careers, particularly in the realm of Western classical music. It should be said, though, that (so far) a comparatively small nation like South Korea has yielded a bigger number of piano and violin tigers who pursued major international careers than China.



Chinese music and the West

International exchange, notably in the realm of higher music education, and the teaching of Chinese music abroad were related issues brought up during the meeting. Xavier Bouvier (Haute école de musique, Genève) pointed out that the cultural exchange between China and the West has been highly unilateral. The 'western model' has been taken over in Chinese conservatories, but only very selectively, with major emphasis on symphonic and large choral music, but Western chamber music has hardly become a part of it; the primary emphasis is on soloistic playing, and in concerts it is first and foremost the teachers who are playing, rarely the students (whereas in the West this is usually the other way around). At the same time, as Bouvier made it clear, one could also blame Western culture for one-sidedness, since there is almost no sense in Western musical institutions of learning from Chinese culture, only as sense of depositing Western art in China. Bouvier has been a regular participant in high-level exchange meetings between Chinese and Western conservatory representants, and has often felt disappointed about his Western colleagues' attitudes.

Hung Tsun-hui, who teaches erhu and Chinese culture in Hawaii, pointed at the rapid growth of interest in Chinese culture in the USA, where every major university now offers a Chinese studies programme, and where most schools now schedule Chinese language courses, but the interest in Chinese music still trails far behind. A Chinese music course which she had been presenting at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory attracted for 80 per cent Asian students. World music classes are required for many university undergraduate non-music majors, but in the sections on Asian music, there is usually a preference for teaching gamelan, or Indian classical music, or Japanese gagagu, rather than Chinese music.

Similar complaints were phrased by Li Xin, the Director of the Confucius Music Institute in Copenhagen (attached to the Conservatory there). It is apparently hard to get audiences and students to interact meaningfully with Chinese music. People may follow a course, but there is often no long-term involvement, and setting up exchanges with Western musicians has not resulted in much improvement of this situation. Han Mei, who is the director of a similar centre at Tennessee State University, takes a more pragmatic approach, trying to accommodate Westerners' interests as best as she can, rather than 'selling' them Chinese music. That it is a difficult territory was demonstrated also in the 'Hamburg China Time Festival' of which the CHIME meeting was a part. Many concerts were not really well-attended, and unfortunately this also goes for the splendid concerts given at the Confucius Institute, for example with members of the Con Tempo Ensemble, or the series of fine workshops which offered people a chance to get acquainted with the exquisite art of southern balladry known as Nanyin, as well as a Chuanju (Sichuan Opera) workshop, and instant lessons on guqin and guzheng by some truly fine masters. It was not the fault of Cai Yayi, Tian Mansha, Dai Xiaolian and Han Mei, who certainly did their very best, for a mere handful of participants, and also gave wonderful performances. So did erhu players Dong Jinming, his son Dong Shi Huili (both from Nanjing), Li Cangxiao (Beijing) and Hung Tsun-hui (originally from Taiwan, now in Hawaii), and pipa player Liu Fanhe, but a full listing of all the concerts and recitals that took place, and all the musicians who participated, would take up many pages...



Yes, more work to be done, always

Impossible in a short report to do full justice to all the speakers, performances and presentations... There were enjoyable talks on Saturday morning on the teaching of tradition, on transitional methods guarding the 'old' and incorporating the 'new'. Dai Xiaolian and her student Ding Nishang (Shanghai) showed how seemingly opposite worlds could be meaningfully integrated in the realm of guqin. Shi Yinyun (a PhD graduate from Durham University UK, now working for the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra) showed how things had changed in the teaching of Suzhou tanci, a major genre of storytelling, formerly privately transmitted, from master to individual pupil, now institutionalized. The school in Suzhou may have killed some of the genre's former individuality, but there's also a new vitality there, a wonderful atmosphere, and attempts to create new audiences for an age-old art...


There was an interesting discussion panel with three major composers, Su Cong, Wang Ying and Chen Xiaoyong, all of them active in Germany, with especially Chen Xiaoyong making quite an impression. He places questions of culture at the centre of his own teaching. The very fact that a chair of intercultural composition exists in a western institution must be called encouraging. The panel on Chinese students learning Western music was less inspiring: inside most Western institutions, reflections on cultural aspects are quite rare, and the focus tends to be – as it was in this panel – on difficulties of adaptation, without considering the student’s culture as a real asset. 


Most certainly, there were still other points missing, or not being sufficiently highlighted in this meeting. For instance, the current lack of balance between the enormous energy and amounts of money which China invests in its higher music institutions, and the actual music production and concert system, which trails so very far behind – it simply cannot accommodate the thousands of students which graduate annually from Chinese music conservatories. So would there be reasons to amend the situation? Apparently not. Hangzhou just started yet another prestigious music conservatory, harbouring some 5,000 music students...  Aimez-vous Brahms?


And then there are the realms of intercultural and comparative music education, about which many interesting things could be said. In Hamburg we did not get very far in this. And we might have done with a few extra participants, 45 sounds good enough, but not everyone was there all the time...


And then, let's face it, come again the old standard phrase, so hard to avoid in conference reports: a great deal of work remains to be done, a four-day meeting can only scratch the surface of a topic as broad and complex as this one. A cliché, but so very true. To all acounts, this Chime workshop was a wonderful stimulus, to most and I would guess to all of us, we must thank Carsten Krause and his wonderful colleagues at the Confucius Institute and the University of Hamburg for receiving us so well, for their great hospitality, and for a splendid and inspiring location. Those of us who had time to explore Hamburg a bit afterwards probably did not fail to visit the city's latest Weltwunder: the new concert-hall, the Elbphilharmonie, a symphony in steel and glass, formally inaugurated just about one month later, in early January 2017. Hamburg is a place to go back to, that is, if you like crazy dynamic cities where 'modernity' is neither a sacred mantra (as so often in China), nor a dirty word.





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