Teaching Chinese music

Workshop at the Confucius Institute in Hamburg tackles the topic of Chinese music education from 17 to 20 November 2016.

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Teaching Chinese music

Youngsters in present-day China grow up primarily with Chinese and Western pop. Traditional music still exists, but its performers have to compete with pop stars, belcanto singers and other professionally trained musicians in televized music contests and glamour shows. Chinese folk songs, temple music, regional operas, puppetry and storysinging continue in their own right, as they have done for centuries. But the gap between these genres and urban music has become considerable, also in the realm of music education. Traditional ways to teach people to perform Chinese music differ greatly from modern 'academic' methods. So what can be done to bridge the gap, or to make it smaller? And what is actually the 'right' way to teach any specific genre or instrument?

From 17 to 20 November 2016, the Confucius Institute in Hamburg will host a three-day workshop on the topic of music education in China. Chinese vocalists and musicians playing zithers, lutes and other traditional instruments will present their views concerning the many changes that have taken place in music teaching. Composers of new music and music theorists, as well as a number of Western scholars and musicians involved with Chinese music, have been co-invited to offer their thoughts. The workshop, organized in cooperation with CHIME and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, is open to the public, a programme schedule will be issued on http://www.ki-hh.de/chime-conference-2016.

A number of presentations and debates will be held in Chinese, but many speakers are expected bring hand-out summaries of their presentations in English. In some cases we hope to offer some on-the-spot translation in German.

CHIME, a worldwide platform of music scholars

CHIME was founded early in 1990 by a handful of music scholars in the West. It functions as a wordlwide platform for exchange in the realm of Chinese music research. The need for an organization of this kind was urgently felt, because so many genres of Chinese music are still virtually unheard of in the West, and relatively few field recordings are commercialy available. The number of researchers in the West specializing on Chinese music is still limited, but it is rapidly growing.

CHIME organizes annual international meetings and occasional Chinese music festivals. It hosts a library and sound archive with film and sound documents on Chinese music in Leiden, The Netherlands.

The organization was actively involved in setting up major festivals of Chinese music in Amsterdam, Cologne, Basel, Brussels, Washington and elsewhere, and it has held meetings all over Europe, America and Asia. More on CHIME can be found on www.chimemusic.nl

What is Chinese music? 

Any attempts to present China or Chinese culture as a monolith are sadly off the mark. There are Chinese-speaking communities all over the world, some who identify closely with a Chinese ‘motherland’, some who like to stress that they are Taiwanese or Hong Kongese rather than Chinese. The music of Tibetans, Mongolians, Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and other communities in Asia often closely interacts with that of Han-Chinese, and should also be taken into account when looking at Chinese music.

All these groups cultivate their own musical worlds, and all of them have had to face the onslaught of 'westernization' in modern times.

From the very beginning, conservatories and (music-minded) universities, founded during the 20th century in China, have dealt primarily with Western music. Many harboured departments of Chinese traditional music, but the teaching of native instruments came to rely increasingly on Western methods. Even ardent proponents of traditional music such as the ethnomusicologist Wang Guangqi – who studied comparative musicology in Berlin – criticized the 'weakness' of Chinese traditional music, and advocated its refinement by learning from the West.

Today, there is renewed attention and growing respect for Chinese native sounds and performing habits. Government support has increased dramatically. But a considerable gap between 'old' and 'new' remains. 'Tradition' remains a hotly debated issue and, quite often, a minefield of misconceptions and conflicting ideological viewpoints.Conservatory students trained on traditional instruments show little or no awareness of past traditions, many styles and genres have changed beyond recognition, and performance techniques, repertoires, even designs of Chinese instruments have been modified to match assumed Western ideals. So where does this leave Chinese music education? What can be done to reconcile traditional teaching with modern approaches, and what will actually be the future of Chinese music? Scholars and practitioners expect to meet in the arena of the workshop in Hamburg, to exchange expertise, and to tackle these fascinating questions.