Chinese music program unites cultures, educates youth
on April 11, 2011
Judging by the audience’s loud cheers, fifteen-year old Tyler Thompson’s opera rendition of Justice Bao, a Chinese judge who fought government corruption, was spot-on. He hit all the notes, his Mandarin flawless, and the cheers he received from the nearly-packed Rawley Farnsworth Theater at Skyline High School Saturday evening were the loudest of the night. But Thompson’s teacher and mentor, Sherlyn Chew, knew the real reason the audience was so impressed.
“You have to be pretty good to have these Chinese people think you’re good,” she explained. “For you to really make a Chinese audience think you’re good, you better be authentic. [Thompson] was.”
Thompson, an African American sophomore at the Oakland School for the Arts, is one of a handful of non-Asian students who play and sing in the Great Wall Orchestra and Chorus, the Laney College Chinese music program founded by Chew for Bay Area middle and high school students. Its sister organization, the Purple Bamboo Orchestra and Chorus, is made up of students from Lincoln Elementary School in Oakland’s Chinatown; third, fourth, and fifth graders play in the Purple Bamboo Orchestra, and younger students, some as young as five, learn Chinese opera and sing in the chorus.
Members of both orchestras performed at Skyline High School Saturday night to fundraise for the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation, the nonprofit Chew founded in 1995 to support the Chinese music education programs she started when her former music teacher, Pei Chang Sun, passed away. Chew bought the Chinese musical instruments she had purchased intending to start an orchestra—Chew paid $4,000 for the 30 instruments and brought them back to her Lincoln Elementary School students.
Her students became so interested in playing classical Chinese music that Chew began early morning orchestra rehearsals before school so they could play all together. Although she was a third-grade bilingual teacher at the time, the Purple Bamboo Orchestra caught on so well that Lincoln Elementary allowed Chew to become a full-time music teacher instead.
The Laney College program began soon after, when Chew’s Lincoln Elementary students started moving on to middle school. The program is harder, but also more inclusive. “You’re handpicked to play in the orchestra, so you have to hear pitch and have a sense of timing,” said Chew. “We audition those students. The orchestra members at Lincoln get to come and receive training. We take everyone on the weekends. You can come from wherever as long as you come and come on time.” More than 800 students now participate in one or both of the orchestra programs.
Professional Chinese musicians coach the students on their instruments, which include the yang qin (hammered dulcimer), the cello, the plucking strings, the sheng (mouth organ), the dizi (bamboo flute), the ehru (two-stringed violin), the gu zheng (zither), and percussion. “You tell me the instrument you want to learn how to play,” Chew said. “I listen to the kids more than I listen to the parents. The students will practice if they chose the instrument of their choice.”
The Great Wall Orchestra and select members of the Purple Bamboo Orchestra meet each Saturday for three hours at Laney College, and every student who participates—regardless of age—receives concurrent college credit. “There are kindergartners receiving college credit,” Chew said, laughing.
Each student pays $100 per semester to participate in the program, which for 51 hours—17 weeks at 3 hours of instruction—comes out to $1.96 per hour.
But with music cuts in schools, funding the program has been hard. It costs $150,000 per year to subsidize the costs of helping to pay the coaches’ salaries, maintaining or replacing instruments, and traveling to perform concerts. The foundation applies for grants and also holds several fundraisers a year, but it’s important for Chew to provide her programs at as little cost as possible to the students, many of whom come from low-income immigrant families.
“I’m filling a gap that is important,” Chew said. “Music makes them happy and introduces them to world cultures. They in turn serve the community through the performing arts. And through our public performances, we attract other people of all walks of life to come to our program.”
Tyler Thompson started singing in the Purple Bamboo Chorus when he started at Lincoln Elementary at age four. He caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal and other national and international media outlets at the age of nine for his Chinese opera singing skills, which brought worldwide recognition to the orchestra. “Tyler is for me quite Chinese,” Chew said. “He grew up with all these kids on the playground, and you don’t think of him as African American. His voice was important for me. I have always had African American kids or non-Asian kids learning Chinese opera or music, but he happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Thompson, who is in the theater track at the Oakland School for the Arts, says he just likes to perform. “I love being on stage,” he said. “I always like to find reasons to perform.” He even picked up percussion three years ago so he could join the orchestra—once his voice changed, it was harder to find opera roles that would suit him. “I always got in trouble in school for beating stuff in class, so it made sense for me to play the drums,” he said.
For parent and board member Sally Kueh, there are two reasons her son, Wesley, 17, participates in the Great Wall Orchestra. “Number one, I want him, through the music, to know his culture,” she said. “He can use this skill to go out in the community and give back. Plus, music is important. He likes it. It’s a therapy for him.”
While embracing her Chinese culture is important for Chew, she also finds it essential to expose her students to other cultures. Pieces of music from every continent were represented at Saturday’s concert, including “Darm Darm,” an Algerian folk song, “Click Go the Shears,” an Australian folk song, and “The Entertainer,” Scott Joplin’s famous ragtime hit. The crowded chuckled as the students played the familiar strains of “The Entertainer,” still a springy rag but with the higher, thinner tone of the Chinese instruments. “What I’m trying to do is teach music of all cultures,” she said. “The only thing that makes us really different is our culture. If we can resolve that, it will bring about world peace. I work on bringing it through music.”
Wesley Kueh has played the ehru, or two-stringed violin, for ten years. He chose the instrument because he liked the sound, although he smiled as he struggled to find the words to describe it. “It’s hard to explain. It sounds kind of like the lower tone of a violin,” he explained. “It’s not as metallic. In the beginning [when I first started playing], it sounded like dying chickens. Then it got better.”
“I’m still in the dying chicken stage,” said Purple Silk board member Josephine Lee, who is learning the ehru.
Kueh laughed. “You’ll get there.”
To donate to the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation or learn more about their music programs, visit www.purplesilk.org.
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