Jam Sessions In Sichuan Reviews
Nov 09, 2007
It doesn’t matter whether you are a foreigner or a local Sichuanese. As long as you have a musical instrument of any description, and you know how to play a simple tune, then Gina Simm and Lou Conover would love to get together for an impromptu jam session. Neither are performers by profession, but both regard music as a significant part of their secondary lives. Stationed for the next ten months at Sichuan Agricultural University at Ya’an not far from Chengdu, this couple from New England in northeast America takes special pleasure and interest in what they call fiddler music, a style traditionally learnt by ear. There is no requirement at all for potential jammers to be able to read sheet music.
Gina has been taking violin lessons seriously over the last six years even though she studied as a child. In English, "violin" is used as a proper term for the instrument; "fiddle" is more of an endearing slang term. There is no physical difference between a violin and a fiddle. The distinction is often what kind of music is played. Some musicians who play all one style of music (classical, or a fiddle genre) will set up their instrument to reflect that style. A fiddler might have a flatter bridge to facilitate double stops; a violinist might want an instrument with greater dynamic range. However, these are details that have more to do with the practical side of playing the instrument, not what it is called.
Music is frequently referred to as an international language, spoken in many different ways and by various unique people. It can evoke memories and feelings that bring either laughter or tears. When Gina and husband Lou decided to come to Sichuan Province, they wanted to start up a jam session with other enthusiasts. Neither is offering formal instruction. Participants sit together in a circle with their own instruments, such as accordion, banjo, bells, clarinet, fiddle, flute, guitar, harmonica, harp, mandolin, viola da gamba, and so on. It would be wonderful to also have traditional instruments join in. For example; the erhu, guzheng (Chinese zither), liuqin, morin khur, pipa, ruan, or sanxian.
A jam session is an informal gathering, stressing improvisation. A tune is played one time and then continued until others slowly but surely join in as they listen. This is how you learn to play by ear. After a while, the piece is performed a number of times with everyone joining in. Another tune is set up next. Quite often what happens is each person takes turns in offering tunes to play. The result is a sheer fun musical act where musicians play out of the blue, trying to accomplish harmony without prewritten music. Normally in a classical orchestra, accompaniment would be by cello, violins and a percussion section. In the more relaxed folk music, there are a couple of fiddles, mandolins and banjoes.
The mandolin is a stringed instrument that is not common in China, but is in the United States. Though similar to the pipa in appearance, it is much larger in size. The mandolin is tuned exactly the same as the violin so Gina can play and read the music because she knows the tuning. What she does not know is the style of string plucking. After buying a mandolin in December 2005, she went to a store in New England for a chord book to teach her self. A stack of mandolins on the floor in boxes marked “made in China” prompted her to consider upgrading to a better one whilst in the country of manufacture. The problem is mandolins are not sold in Chengdu. Therefore a trip to Beijing is planned.
It should not take long to master the mandolin and this serves as inspiration. For the first time in her life, Gina Simm can simply sit on a couch and fool around with an instrument. That is not possible to do with a violin and bow because playing consists of greater structure. The mandolin, just like a guitar, is more of a free style. Generally speaking, most music is in two parts thus allowing lots of musical opportunities together with Lou Conover, who is more compelled to play a larger number of instruments. Gina would rather perfect her skills in a smaller realm. However, if Lou can find a teacher for the soulfully expressive and melancholic erhu, then Gina will probably pick it up as well.
During the year ahead, there should be plenty of instrument practice time. Lou humbly hopes to achieve a level of proficiency which does not embarrass him. Visitors to Chengdu are advised to check out the shops around the conservatorium of music. Prices are quite low. Quality and accessories are virtually the same. A violin and music stand was bought for probably half the price one would expect to pay in America. This is a better violin for a beginner than normally available elsewhere. Lou already plays an Italian stringed instrument known as the viola da gamba. All of them are handmade and one of the best craftsmen in the world right now is Wang Zhi Ming in Beijing.
Wang Zhi Ming is a violin maker that caters for the viola da gamba market in the USA. To buy one in the states would cost ten thousand dollars (eighty thousand yuan). Beijing is not close to Chengdu, but it is closer than from America. Lou has previously played a Beijing-crafted gamba and been favourably impressed. One slight complication is that strings for the viola da gamba are not made in China. In order to test the sound of a new instrument, strings need to be put on it. Once the strings arrive in Sichuan from America, Lou and Gina will be able to go shopping in Beijing. They look forward of course to being able to jam sessions their new instruments upon returning to Sichuan Province.
Expatriate writer Warren Rodwell has been in China since 2002, and teaches university postgraduates in Chengdu. Many of his feature stories, reviews & photographs have been published online or in hardcopy media form. Warren also narrates documentaries and administers various websites as part of his efforts to promote Chengdu & Sichuan culture(s) more globally.
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