“Good morning. We will start our music group practice today from 11.30 am. You are welcome to join us.”
Every Saturday morning during term time Mike Wang sends me a WhatsApp message. He travels from Stirling to Edinburgh once a week to run the Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra so he’s always hoping for a good turn out of our mixed group of musicians – people of all ages and of Chinese/Hong Kong/UK heritage.
During the rehearsal, Mike talks fast in English one minute and Chinese the next. He’s talking about tempo, tuning, volume, who to follow and when, and practical arrangements for upcoming performances. The Cantonese and English speakers look confused when he speaks Mandarin and a multi-lingual translation follows until everyone works out what’s happening. Mike’s enthusiasm is faultless and, as soon as we finish one series of concerts, amongst the swapping of video clips, he sends us messages of congratulation, complete with hand-clapping emojis. And then he sends pages of Chinese music and You Tube clips in preparation for our next performance.
That’s Mike the musical director but I have been wondering about Mike the erhu-player. When and where did he learn and how had he become such a fine player? Over a plate of noodles from a local take-away and several cups of tea, he told me about his musical education and brought me up to date.
Mike grew up in Shanghai and started to play the erhu at the age of three.
“My parents sent me to a special music kindergarten, they wanted me to play the piano. But the piano teacher said my hands were too small, so I should play erhu instead. I started to play on a small instrument. I didn’t like it. My parents didn’t like it either. No-one likes it because at the beginning you are like a wood farmer.”
He mimes a sawing movement. “You sound like sawing wood! So everyday my parents put a small chair out in the next street and tell me to practise there outside. They could hear me – but it wasn’t too loud – and they could keep an eye on me whilst they watched TV. I hated it because I wanted to watch TV too.” But, he said tellingly, “the aim is very clear – to go from level one to ten and take examinations.”
So Mike continued his erhu practice as he progressed through school. Then when he reached level three, one of his tutors, Lin Wei suggested he join a student orchestra (which practised for five hours every Saturday).
“I think it is the best students’ orchestra in Shanghai. It is a big orchestra of Chinese and Western instruments including about thirty erhu players. I began to learn from my peers and not just my tutors and there was a bit of competition as I compared my playing with the other players and I copied their style. I began to play with more emotion, more feeling. I learnt technique step by step but the turning point came when my tutor told me I should sing the music first, not just play it.”
In any culture, singing the music can help instrumentalists develop a clear idea of melodic phrasing. In addition, the erhu is particularly renowned for its plaintive tone which can often resemble a human voice – perhaps this practice helped Mike to achieve that quality in his playing.
Determined to advance further, he started recording himself on a small cassette recorder: “it was not a good experience – if you record you will know the fact, the reality.” He also learnt from videos online, “it was like research … breaking the melody up and analysing it.” When he reached level ten he played a piece which became one of his favourites: Hong Hu – a theme from an opera and film from the 1950s.
After Level ten, he didn’t practise as much, as he was concentrating on his academic studies: going on to Fudan University in Shanghai to study physics. When he came to Stirling University, for postgraduate study in Finance, his parents suggested he take his erhu with him.
“Why not? It is a good way to make friends”
The story comes full circle as we find the adult Mike now in Scotland, not wanting to disturb his flatmates, sitting outside in the street practising his erhu. “Same as in my childhood – I take a chair outside to practise erhu and one day a Chinese lady came past when I am sitting outside MacDonald’s. When I finished playing, she told me that her brother works at a local restaurant and he plays dizi (bamboo flute).” From that encounter Mike came to know the Glasgow Cantonese opera group and the Edinburgh group and now a whole network of musicians.
After being invited to perform at a few events, Mike received more invitations and now his diary soon fills up. His life is hectic at times, not just running his business – finding and organising English language teachers for agencies and companies around the world but also organising upcoming concerts for the Chinese Orchestra. He is in demand. His phone pings several times as we chat and now he needs to find some musicians for a ‘dragon dance’ on Tuesday. He might have to play instead. “Would you be available if they want a group to play?” On the train back home to Stirling, he’s already on WhatsApp trying to arrange rehearsals, checking everyone’s availability, for next month’s concerts.
I think the only time I see Mike slow down is when he is playing a solo in concert. His erhu playing is soulful. He closes his eyes as he plays a beautiful melody that has his audience spellbound. How can this tiny simple looking instrument with only two strings and a bamboo bow have such a range of expression? Then Mike’s fingers start flying and his bowing arm turns to a blur as he launches into ‘Racing Horse’, a piece that is as descriptive as music can be, as the bow whips the strings, the music accelerates and the erhu comes to life, whinnying and neighing!