Fenghuang Middle Schools

July 26th, 2010

Our Welcome to Fenghuang School.

We visited two middle schools on the Saturday of our weekend visit to Fenghuang.  About 80% of these children stayed on the school grounds and there was a holiday in the following week, so the classes were extended through the weekend to allow the students to visit their families during the upcoming holiday.  It was clear that I was the first foreigner most (or all) of these students had ever seen.  These students and teachers at these schools were wonderful, but the poverty that surrounded us was quite surprising.  Restrooms on the school grounds were more like the latrines that I experienced during bivouacs in Army.  (Smell and all.  There’s a delicate line between ethnocentrism and concern for the health of the students…)

After a greeting (and drinking:  see previous post) at the school’s gate, we were treated to an outdoor drum concert.  A group of girls danced around both sides of eight large red traditional Chinese drums while one other girl beat out a metronomic pulse on the shell of one of the drums.  Their sticks were decorated with long red strips of cloth that danced around as much as the girls did.  They had choreographed the dance in such a way that they were hitting the drums in all directions—even behind them while they were spinning around!  I had a lot of fun watching this.  Obviously.

Z Stick Dancing.

Next they asked me to play for them, so I improvised a riq solo for them and they asked me to play on one of their drums, so I was also happy to oblige them on that account.  I will include some video below, and I have all of their performances on video (and some of mine), but I’m only going to upload a couple of the files here.  (I’ll be happy to show other files to anyone who asks.)

Z maliciously tripped by some mean little kid with a pole! 🙂

Once we made our way into the school compound, the basketball court was set up for a number of performances by the students.  There was dancing and singing, then more dancing.  Some of this was to live music provided by other students.  As always in China, some of the dance was performed to “canned” MIDI-ish music that was really cheesy.  The dance was fun, though.  They invited us up to dance with them on the most dangerous of the dances—dancing somewhat complicated steps while mischievous students are trying (and succeeding, in my case) to trip you with their supposedly rhythmically moving bamboo poles.  I still think that one of them tripped me intentionally, but there’s an infinitesimally small chance that I put my second left foot down in the wrong place.  (This happened BEFORE the “I Can Dance” post…)  More dancing followed, but this was less dangerous and I succeeded in following my guide student around the large, ubiquitous, folk-dance circles.

Students Hard at Work.

Our next treat was an arts-and-crafts demonstration where the students were making all kinds of traditional Chinese handicrafts:  paper cutting; “grasshoppers” out of long stiff leaves; shoe sole embroidery (I don’t quite understand this one, but I’ve got a pair of them…); drawing, and calligraphy.  We also visited two music classrooms where the students sang songs and played drums.  I played drums with them again and played one of my riq compositions.

Riq: It's Fun; or Not Fun.

A quick bit of warning:  If you ever find yourself in the midst of several hundred students who’ve never seen a foreigner before, think about what you’re doing when the first one says, “Hello” in that particularly melodic way that children have.  If you respond audibly—maybe with your own melodic “Hello”—then you’re liable to be spending the next substantial amount of time repeating the same trick!  Likewise, if ANYONE in China asks you if they can take their picture with you, take a surreptitious look around to see how many more are going to follow suit.  In one of these schools, I made both of these fauxes pas and ended up making my friends wait for me at the bus.  These kids REALLY wanted their picture taken with me.  And puzzlingly, they didn’t even care about the fact that it was on MY camera and that they’d never see the picture.  They were adorable and I made sure that every one of them that wanted it got a picture and a “Hello.”  But it was a time investment  🙂

We went to a second school in the afternoon, but it was pretty uneventful.  The students there were martialed into a large room where we harangued them for awhile about the importance of learning English.  We also answered all the standard questions:  How long have you been in China?  Can you eat our spicy food?  Where are you from?  dot.dot.dot.   The kids were cool, but there was no structure to our visit and it was a bit boring for most of the students in the room.  Grace did give a rousing call-to-arms about the importance of learning English in today’s society—and suggested some helpful strategies for doing so.  The students who were listening seem to have something useful.  There’s a weird thing in some of these schools:  Sometimes the boys will sit in the back of the room and pretend to be extremely bored.  In itself, that isn’t that odd, but I sometimes hear that these boys are the best students in the class and that they (almost secretly from the looks of it) get very high scores on their work.  Interesting.

The videos will be put into future post.  My files are too large for wordpress and I’m sitting in the Hong Kong airport, so I can’t modify them just now.

Bonus Link:  (Pole Dancing.)

Non-Pitched Melody

July 22nd, 2010

(A quick note to my family and friends:  This blog is intended to be a professional blog.  This post if the first of what will be MOST of my content–information and ideas for percussionists.  You’re welcome to read it, but it might be a bit boring if you’re not a percussionist.  You’ve been warned)

The concept of non-pitched instruments is a bit of a misnomer.  Snare drums and bass drums have pitches.  The beautiful sound of a fine triangle consists of many high-frequency pitches clashing together.  All instruments (pianos, violins, clarinets, etc.) consist of a combination of higher-frequency tones that we call overtones.  The difference between a violin (for instance) and non-pitched percussion instruments is that the ratio between the fundamental (lowest pitch) and the overtones (those higher-frequency parts of the tone) on the violin are small whole numbers (at least for the lower and more audible overtones).  This is beginning to be a departure from what I wanted to talk about here, but I want to include this brief discussion to illustrate the point that non-pitched percussion instruments DO have pitches, we just choose to ignore them because they are a different kind of pitch than that produced by the other instruments in (for instance) an orchestra.

When I was first experimenting with composing for drums, I didn’t know any of the information in that first paragraph.  I was extremely puzzled by the fact that when I composed for two drums one or the other of them sounded like a “final” pitch.  There were absolutely (harmonic-sounding) cadences between the drums, and I was mesmerized by the fact that if I ended a line on one particular drum the line would sound incomplete (like a half cadence—although I didn’t know the term at the time).  I would use that half cadence to create a “question” phrase, then end the subsequent “answer” phrase on the other drum.  All of my music theory knowledge at that point was subconscious (except rhythmic theory) and I didn’t even know the term “period” to use as a name for these antecedent-consequent phrases, but the subconscious knowledge was giving me hints and it was working to make my compositions sound “correct.”

I think the best way to use this information is to let your ear do its work.  Compose MELODIES with your drums and make those melodies sound good to your ear—allow them to have a shape and to question/answer each other.  Listen to great melodic composers (Those who inspire me most are: Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bartok, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich) and analogize what they did with pitches into what you are doing with “pseudo-pitches!”  Too many percussion pieces rely on simple repetition to generate content and it is my firm belief that we need to think more long-term-melodically when we are composing.  I like Minimalism.  Its ease-of-use has its place (and I’ve used it myself), but it is not the only way to compose for percussion.   Too many times it has represented the “easy way out” for percussion composers that haven’t yet struggled with the concept of melody for non-pitched instruments.  It’s time for us to wrestle this issue to the ground and to escape from the tyranny of repetition in our compositions!

Now to get off my soapbox and to move on with a more pragmatic note:  In the previous paragraph, I said “let your ear do its work,” but (to supplement your ear) here is some helpful information that I’ve picked up from studying/teaching music theory.  If you have two drums where the primary pitches are a half-step apart, then the top one will be your tonic (final, release, closing, answering tone) and the lower one will be your dominant (leading-tone, tension, opening, questioning tone).  If the tones are a whole-step apart, then your bottom note will be the tonic and the upper one will serve as a dominant-ish note.  Major and minor third intervals act as a tonic and a motion away from that tonic (but without changing chords).  Fourths and fifths are tonic and dominant by default (and you’d probably better match them to the key if you’re playing with pitched instruments).  Tritones will sound like the third and seventh of a dominant chord and they should be treated carefully for that reason.  Larger intervals can work, but you’ll need to use your ear on them and they don’t make for very good melodic writing.

The interesting thing is that these “tones” are so different from the pitches of other instruments that they (in all except the strongest cases) can function alongside regular music theory in whatever key the other instruments are playing.

Have fun and COMPOSE!  Melodically.  Please.

Bonus Link:  At the time of writing, there were NO returns in google for this link’s search…

Bonus Link II.


July 20th, 2010

A Little Princess' Throne!

There are more than 56 government-recognized minority groups in China.  (The majority of the people in China fall into the Han ethnic group.)  In this part of the Hunan province, there are a large number of people of the Miao minority culture.  The first thing I noticed out of the window of our bus was the larger number of pregnant women and women with babies.  I asked my friend on the bus and she told me (a little sheepishly) that they could have more children here.  Oops.  I should have put that together for myself and not asked her what turned out to be a sensitive question.  The rural communities (where the children often grow up to work in the fields) are sometimes allowed exceptions to China’s one-child policy—which was instituted to control population growth.  The policy has been successful (as far as I can see), but the necessity of it does seem to have caused some sadness in a culture that has—for thousands of years—taken great pride in having large numbers of children and the use of extended families as a “social security” technique.  At any rate, there were markedly more children visible on the streets here than on the streets in Changsha (the province’s capital city).

View from our Bus.

I felt “at home” here—more so than I do in China’s large cities.  The town of Fenghuang is a primarily agricultural city—surrounded by terraced rice fields, mountains, and gorgeous mist-covered mountains that made me wish I were a painter.

We were the guests of some administrators from the County Education department.  They gave us a tour of two of the Middle Schools and the one High School.  We also had a meeting with the senior administrators and I’ll report on that meeting in a future essay.  Being a guest (in Chinese culture in general, and in the Miao culture in particular) means being asked to drink.  A lot.

We were welcomed to a middle school on Saturday morning by a large group of teachers in traditional costumes carrying (what I considered to be large) bowls of incredibly strong rice wine!  Imagine… Alcohol on a middle school campus!  Obviously the kids weren’t drinking, but I guess there’s a reason that they call it culture SHOCK.  Luckily, there was little drinking involved at the school, just that one welcome bowl and a bit at the lunch.  My problem was the dinners…

Kiwi Juice! ...I think.

Now I have no problem with people drinking, but I personally don’t care for it.  Especially in public.  More Especially when I’m in a professional situation.  And Most Certainly when I’m the only foreigner in a remote region of a distant land.  The trouble is that I had to walk the fine line between being a polite guest—not offending the generosity of my hosts—and trying my best not to get smashed and possibly stupid!  There were lots of toasts going around in each meal and everyone (individually, in small groups, and en masse) wanted to toast the lone foreigner in our group!

I’ve been drunk once in my life.  I was 22 and getting ready to go to Desert Storm and thought that I needed that experience before I went somewhere that I could possibly die.  I didn’t enjoy the experience.  Consequently, I didn’t repeat it and, further consequently, I am a featherweight when it comes to drinking.  (I SHARED a glass of wine with my Father before dinner at Applebee’s and was still dizzy when we walked to the car 2 hours later.)

The solution that I found was a little bit difficult to sell, but it worked once a few of the other people (who quietly told me that they felt the same way) joined me. I filled my shot glass with tea (or when possible, with a local kiwi juice which they were very proud of), then simply suffered the “slings and arrows” assaulting my masculinity for a little while. Once they saw that I was serious and that I didn’t care if they said that I drank like a woman (There were several women there who would drink me under the table even if they were drinking 2-3 glasses to my 1!), they relaxed about it and even helped defend me at future meals.The Singing Waitresses!!!

This all worked fairly well, but I didn’t want the compromise to be all on their side, so when the large group toasted, or for especially important toasts, I would allow my (shot) glass to be filled with the paint thinner they called wine.  One toast that I would have liked to have made one of these exceptions was by the waitresses at a restaurant.  These three women wanted to toast me with a song that they sang three times, and each time was to be met with the drinking of a shot glass of wine.  I wish I could have done it, but I just didn’t have three glasses worth of that stuff left in me.  The girls were very sweet, sang beautifully (and a bit hauntingly), allowed me to substitute kiwi juice, and said (through a translator) “We’ll never forget this.”  There are very few Westerners in this part of Hunan…

The Saturday night meal left me heavily “buzzed.”  This was as close to drunk as I’ve been in 20 years and I was relieved to see that I got “happy” instead of “stupid” or “angry.”  I have little experience, and consequently, am not very good at judging just how many exceptions I should make for special toasts…  🙂

Bonus Link:  Not trying to be preachy.  I just thought it was interesting…

Good Cop, Grace Cop.

July 19th, 2010

Drums outside of a Rest Area Gas Station.

We were on our way to a fairly remote Chinese village in Western Hunan province.  I’ll write more about that tomorrow, but here’s an anecdote from the bus ride:

Our bus was stopped by a “routine” checkpoint on the Chinese equivalent of an Interstate Highway.  Upon inspection, the police decided that our driver didn’t have the proper qualifications and that we were going to have to stop at the adjacent rest area.  Rest areas in China are privately-owned and would be more like our equivalent of an “exit”—although (like ours) the Chinese rest areas don’t have access to a cross road.

In a rest area, you can expect to find a gas station, a restaurant or two (far from the gas station), and a small market as well as some restrooms that are well-kept by Chinese standards.  I may be a bit cynical about this, but it seems that this particular rest area might have been in collusion with the police running the checkpoint.  The police were funneling a LOT of buses into the rest area, which had been practically empty.  The restaurant, however, had plenty of food available, even though they wouldn’t have had any customers if the police hadn’t been channeling buses into what amounted to a very large parking lot for one restaurant/market.

So it turns out that our driver DID have the proper qualifications, but the police refused to acknowledge it.  They were saying that his license for driving a large tour bus didn’t qualify him for driving the small bus that we were using that particular day for our small group.  (Our bus still held about 20 people comfortably.)  A long debate ensued that we didn’t hear—actually, I don’t even know where they went.  Eventually, they came back to the rest area and our group’s leader purchased a carton on cigarettes, but I don’t think these never changed hands.

Grace (When she's not shouting at corrupt police...)

So I’m chatting with some members of our group and my friend Grace says, “Thomas, come with me.” and walks toward the place where the four police cars were grouped together and the officers were talking with our group’s leaders.  When we got there, I found myself watching a very heated argument between several members of our group and a bunch of cops that were in various levels of engagement with the argument:  these levels ranged from passively watching to angry shouting matches with my friend Grace.  It seems that Grace wanted me there to add pressure to their side of the argument.  I was the only foreigner in the group and several people (including Grace) would mention or point at me occasionally.  The conversation was way too fast for me to follow, but everyone in my group was calling their strongest contacts in order to put pressure on the police to let us leave.  Grace thrust her telephone into the hand of the most aggressive cop and made him talk to (who I later found out was) the police chief of Changsha city.

I was trying to help by doing things like walking around the police cars, looking pointedly at the license plates, then writing in my little notebook (I was really writing notes for this essay).  I tried my best to look angry, but I found the whole situation fascinating—and was especially interested in the police “leader” that was arguing with Grace.  Will this policemen respond to my eye contact?  (He actively wouldn’t make eye contact with me.)  Will Grace’s friend be able to pressure this guy into letting us leave?  (Not directly, but he seemed shaken.)  Were Grace and our group leader consciously playing a game of “good cop, bad cop” AGAINST the actual cops?!?  (It was really difficult not to smile at the irony.)

These guys were surprised by how fast the situation got heated up, which put them into a position where they had been “called” on their bullshit.  The policemen were looking for a way to save face and to let us go.  They got their wish when  a second driver from our tour company arrived and drove our bus (with our more experienced driver as a passenger) for the rest of the distance we had to travel on the highway.  In all, our trip was delayed for about three hours—but we got a nice little meal and an interesting experience to counterbalance our lost time.

Bonus Link:  (I just read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

Here I am.

July 2nd, 2010

Check out this map of where I am!

I’m north of India for the first time in my life!

Longer posts still on their way, I promise…

Bonus Link