In 2011, I discovered a small Koto collecting dust in the corner of a friend's house. I asked to have the keys to house for a few weeks so I could try it out while people were at work. I didn't know what it was called, or how it was meant to be played, but I did know that it was magic. After some research, I ordered a similar instrument, a Guzheng, online. It arrived with no instructions in English. I did my best to assemble the 21-stringed instrument with its 21 moveable bridges and tune it correctly. The instrument felt quite intuitive to play, since I play piano and guitar, the harp's layout and feel made sense. I was able to write songs that sounded much like a song I would write on a Western instrument, but I wanted to learn more about how it was meant to be played.
The next year, my father sent me a text message while shopping at Crystal Mall (a busy Asian mall next to Metrotown in Burnaby, BC). He had walked past a tiny shop with a guzheng in the window. It was the "Crystal Guzheng Centre", run by Sonia Liu. I biked across the city and walked in to have a look around. Sonia didn't just sell guzhengs, she ran a small school! I signed up for private lessons right away.
With the help of the Canada Council for the Arts, I studied with Sonia Liu for the better part of a year. She prepared me to complete my first RCM examination. The week before I was meant to attend the exam, she asked me if I had something "Chinese" to wear. A dress. I rushed down to Vancouver's Chinatown and spent hours before settling on a beautiful black silk dress adorned with bright red and gold flowers. I felt nervous and out of place at the exams, crowded into a room at UBC among dozens of Asian school children and teens. In the exam room, there was a row of neatly dressed adjudicators who had come over from Mainland China to oversee the exams. I felt confident as I played "Fisheman's Song at Dusk", and before I exited, the judges nodded with appreciation and asked if I had other musical training (yes, I have gr. 10 RCM Piano). I passed my gr. 3 Guzheng with 98%!
With more knowledge under my belt, I returned to singer-songwriting. With slight changes to the tuning of the instrument, it is much easier to play songs in common the I-IV-V-I progression. "The Sargasso Season" is a series of 8 songs that I wrote on the guzheng about transoceanic journeys. Here are some video samples of earlier work. A recording of the full project is in the works.
"The Sargasso Season" Original Songs for Guzheng at TEDxSechelt
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