In the TEDxIB@York series, Our Kids features Q&As and TEDx talks from students and experts from the ideas conference in Toronto. In this article, student Maurice Dusault shares his passion, purpose and perspective on the importance of culture and keeping the Erhu alive.
FULL NAME: Maurice Dusault
AGE/GRADE: 17, Grade 12 (Year 13)
SCHOOL: The British International School Shanghai (Pudong Campus)
Q: How did you get involved in TEDxIB@York?
A: Our school, the British International School Shanghai, received a letter from the York School regarding the TEDx event. Our teachers passed on the message and invited students at our school to participate. The school helped us greatly with recording the auditions, and sponsored our flight, as well as accommodation in Toronto.
Q: Why and how did you choose the topic on the forgotten instrument?
A: Being an expat and living in China, I have the opportunity to understand and learn about a different culture. When I moved to China, I found it was my purpose to learn to play a traditional instrument which reflected the country I was currently living in. Having heard a beggar playing the Erhu (two stringed Chinese instrument), I decided to learn this instrument.
After nearly five years, I fell in love with the instrument. I realized that I after learning to play this instrument, I not only learned new musical techniques, but also got the chance to access cultural knowledge from the music, which would further enhance my knowledge about Chinese culture. Nowadays, Chinese classical music is slowly fading, even in China this instrument is less popular. I could stand the feeling and decided to act. I wanted to show what an amazing instrument this is, and I now feel that it has become my purpose to keep this music alive, if not only just for myself.
Q: What is the main message you hope students, schools and educators got from your speech?
A: Firstly, I wanted to share my passion for this instrument. I believe that this instrument has so much more potential and could easily become part of any ensemble in the west. I hoped to prove that there are no restrictions to learning to play traditional instruments, like the erhu. When you get the opportunity to learn about a different culture, take it! There are no requirements nor are there boundaries that prevent you from learning an instrument which is from a different culture.
Q: What was your interaction like with other students and the audience after your speech? Did anyone’s comments about your speech stand out?
A: It was great to showcase the instrument, and allow the audience to get a closer look at this instrument. I explained in detail how the instrument works, the different components, and played several different pieces, showcasing the different styles of Chinese music. Everyone was extremely interested and wanted to know whether this instrument can be applied in any other away apart from Chinese music.
One of the audience members asked whether the erhu can be used in pop music. I think that is a great idea! By bringing together different musical styles, and different cultures, you can create something new. With this instrument, you can bring in flavors of Chinese music and mix it with other styles. For example, it is becoming more and more popular that the erhu and other Chinese instruments are being used in jazz. You can even extend this and bring the erhu into pop or western classical music. Gina Jiang (who joined me at the TEDx event for a Chinese musical performance) and I are planning on playing a classical piece by Erik Satie with Chinese instruments, hoping to create something new, interesting and beautiful.
Below is the speech:
Everyone knows what this instrument is (picture of violin). Perhaps, it is one of the most recognizable instruments. I have played the violin for 8 years, until 2006, when we moved to China. (clips of China appears)
China overwhelmed me, I was impressed by the amount of activity on the streets. People everywhere, traveling, doing business, selling stuff, and interestingly enough, so now and then, the sounds of ethnic instruments, played by the poor and homeless.
So one day, my family and I walked through the streets of China, when we heard a beggar playing a wonderful, passionate, Chinese piece of music on something that looked extremely… weird, to say the least. It looked fragile, thin, ancient, old, worn, and was just simply the strangest instrument I have ever seen. But the sounds that came out of that fragile little instrument was extraordinarily beautiful. It was at that moment, that I was hooked. This was the instrument I wanted to play.
There are interesting differences and similarities between the two instruments. But clearly, at a glance, it seems the violin is the more sophisticated and superior instrument. (Erhu next to violin)
Let’s face it, the violin’s body is gorgeously shaped and extremely difficult to make, the erhu’s body is a simple, wooden, hollow hexagon, covered with python skin.
The violin has four strings, the erhu, just two. The violin’s bow is stunning and the hairs are perfectly aligned, and this thing , is just hanging loosely in between the two strings.
The erhu simply looks like a deformed violin.
By the way, 二胡 is an abbreviation of 二弦胡琴, which literally means: “two stringed barbarian instrument”. That basically says it all, nothing special.
However, the history of the erhu goes a few thousands years beyond that of the violin. The erhu was brought into China by the so called “barbarians of the north” now modern day Mongolia, over two thousand years ago. Somehow, it never made it into the west, while the violin conquered the world. In my view however, the erhu deserves a much broader audience than just China.
For me, this ugly, fragile, and forgotten instrument, has captured my passion. Actually, I think it’s a beauty. It’s cool to have an instrument with python skin.
When I first had an erhu in my hands I wondered: “How will ever get any decent sound out of this thing?”. Well, it’s not easy, as this extremely flexible bamboo bow is in between the two strings. Push the bow outwards to engage the outer string, and pull inwards to play the inner string. Not very practical.
Now what I find most impressive is that the Chinese didn’t use music notation until the mid-twentieth century. This means that for all these thousands of years, the Chinese have played their repertoire from memory, passed down from person to person, with everyone being able to put their own emotion and passion into it. Plus, the notation looks like this. Numbers. Way different. I know it looks confusing, but it’s simple. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. This is a note: 1, and this is an octave higher of that same note: 1., a 0 means a rest. One line under a note indicates a quaver, two lines indicates a semiquaver, and so on an so forth, along with many other different symbols and characters.
In one of the pieces I learned, there were no music bars, just notes. My instructor said that I had to choose my own tempo, and do whatever I want. This is how it would be played normally….. and this is how I interpreted it.
But what I love most about this instrument, other than its sound (and its beauty) is the wide range of playing techniques that goes with this instrument, and in my view, there are far more than one can explore on the violin. And in my opinion, it is definitely not inferior to the violin.
Chinese music is absolutely unique. Since China is such a large country, there are many different styles, but overall, Chinese music is very programmatic, the music is always a highly emotional view on nature, and for this reason, sounds of nature are copied in the music, and the erhu is a perfect instrument for this.
Can you hear the birds chirping?
Can you hear the horses naying?
In Chinese, as well as in Western music, vibrato is used for expressive purposes. But with the erhu, you can be even more dramatic as you can apply as much pressure as you want.
Chinese music is often very legato, and that is why portamentos are crucial (I will refer to them as slide). There are many different slides which can each express different amounts and types of emotion and passion. For example, you have:
The casual glissando in between notes, the half-note glissando, the up and down glissando, the mongolian glissando, and the dramatic attack and glissando.
But there are many more playing techniques like the Chinese pizzicato, which is when you pluck both strings and play at the same time. These techniques can end a song in a very dramatic way.
When I moved to China, I found that it was my purpose to learn to play a traditional instrument, and the erhu fit the bill. By doing this, I not only learned different musical techniques, but I got a chance to truly understand a different culture.
I believe that if you really want to understand a certain culture and its people, you have to connect to the heart of the people, and this is exactly what music does. Through the erhu, I feel I was able to connect better to the rich Chinese culture.
Having grown up in the western society, I had the misconception that western music is superior to all. Let’s face it, our culture has dominated the world for the last few centuries because we had superior technologies. As a result, our western culture has dominated over many other ethnic cultures, like Chinese music.
But the truth is, passion does not depend on perfection or superior technologies, and the erhu is evidence of that. I mean just look at it, and just listen to it, some people say it sounds like a dying cat, and maybe it does. The violin sounds beautiful, but the erhu has the ability to sound painful, playful, sad, peaceful.
Because of our dominating culture, I believe that Chinese music has taken an unjustified inferior position compared to Western music. Once I learned the erhu, it has changed my perspective, and that is that Chinese music can easily compete with any classical western music. And I feel that it has become my purpose, first of all to master this instrument as best as I can while I am still in China, and to keep this music alive, if not only just for myself, but preferably to get it known to a much larger audience. Now, being only 17, and not a professional musician, I believe I can still make my contribution and hope that with this speech I would at least have touched you.
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What do you think about Maurice’s passion for Chinese culture, music and the ehru? How does his perspective inspire you to discover your own purpose and passion? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.