Have you ever imagined that the sound of a musical instrument can be the same as the voice of a human being?
In China, the most comforting sound does not come from violins or guitars, but from Erhu. This traditional Chinese music instrument is now catching on in the western musical world.
Even a person with no understanding of Chinese culture or Chinese music can understand the expression and passion from Erhu. The demand for learning Erhu is steadily increasing here now.
Even the Royal Conservatory of has launched its own Erhu program.
“People appreciate the sound from Erhu and they fully understand the sentiment,” said Ting Hong, an Erhu instructor at the RCM. “I think this is the power of Erhu.”
Erhu originated in northern of China and has more than 2,000 years of history. Due to its characteristic sound, it is also called the “eastern violin.”
Erhu is about 80 centimeters long with two strings placed on top of a sound box that is located at the bottom of the Erhu. Erhu’s sound comes from the friction between the strings and the bow. Musicians have to use the bow skillfully in order to play nice music. The bow is made of bamboo.
Born into a line of musicians, Hong can play many different kinds of Chinese musical instruments. She has participated in more than 500 different concerts.
“Sometimes, after our performance, some audiences will come to the stage and tell us that their soul was moved by the special sound,” Hong said.
“A lot of my happiness and achievements come from the compliments of the audiences. I feel really happy when they fall in love with Chinese musical instruments.”
George Gao is the honorary Erhu instructor in the Royal Conservatory of Music. He has been playing Erhu for 35 years and is one of the busiest Erhu masters in the world. In 2007, his short documentary film “The Blood of Yingzhou District” won the Oscar Documentary Short Subject.
“Looking all the way back, I’m glad that I can take Erhu as my career. Not everyone in this world has the chance to do whatever he or she likes as a living. I felt I’m so lucky. What’s more important is I helped to let the world know the wonderful existence of Erhu,” Gao said.
Before Gao became famous, he used all his time and energy to research and practise Erhu.
“Erhu is special because it has a timbre similar to the voice of a human being. So it’s easy for people to put their emotions into Erhu while they are playing. The audience will recognize these expressions because they will fell the sympathy,” Gao said.
Gao also mentioned that Erhu is not easy to learn.
“At the beginning, it’s going to be very hard. You really need a lot of efforts. If you work hard, plus that 3,000 hours of practice, you may be able to play a song or two in front of other people. If you don’t practise well, the sound you make will be terrible.
“I still remember that when I was young, there were many summers where I practised Erhu in a small room with no air conditioners. I got sweaty but would not wipe it off because I have to concentrate and both of my hands cannot leave my Erhu,” Gao stated.
Nan Li is a young Erhu performer who studied Erhu since he was five years old. He thought the best performers can let audiences take comfort from the Erhu music. He said that Erhu is so hard to learn that he gave it up when he was eight years old.
“A year after I stopped practising Erhu, I began to miss my Erhu very much. I felt a deep connection with Erhu. I love the sound, the touch, and everything of it. So I finally decided to continue to learn Erhu. I also joined a young performers’ competition in Beijing a year later,” Li said.
When Li was 10, he and his family immigrated to Canada and he still did not want to give up Erhu.
“Every year, I perform in some shows and participate in some community events as a volunteer. Erhu is not just a musical instrument for me, it has becomes a part of my life,” Li said.
Today not only do Chinese people like the sound of Erhu, Erhu is also well known in the western musical world. According to Gao, Erhu can play well with bassoon, bass, clarinet and many other western musical instruments. These multi-instrument ensembles are very popular in today’s concerts.
“This is a very ‘green’ program-we still need some future development. But I’m very happy to see we do have a Chinese musical instrument learning system now,” Hong said.
Gao also said that his international performing career not only brought him fame, but also let people around the world know more about China’s traditions and civilization.
“Definitely they will have a different view of Chinese culture after they listen to our concert. I think Chinese traditional musical instruments act like a bridge which can make connections between Eastern and Western cultures.”