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Chinese Luogu: East Meets West in the Band Room
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Chinese Luogu: East Meets West in the Band Room

by Terese M. Volk

Multicultural materials for band are aplenty on the market. Authentic music arrangements, however, are very rare. To offer a more authentic musical experience of Chinese music through band performance, I took my own arrangement of a Chinese luogu piece called "Song of Festival" to the Edsel Ford HS Band in Dearborn, MI. I felt that if my role is that of "translator" or "liaison" from the culture-bearer or ethno-researcher to the music educator, I had better start supplying that translation in the form of useable materials for the band.

In my session in the school, I was both teacher and arranger. When writing my arrangement for "Song of Festival," I was perhaps more blessed than others. I had learned the piece while playing in a Chinese ensemble under Lu Guang, master musician and professor from Bejing. He transcribed all our music. We played from Chinese notation (Chevé system), and "Song of Festival" was one of our concert pieces.

I spoke with Lu Guang at length about the music we were learning in the ensemble and its appropriateness for use in school. He thought making band arrangements of luogu would be a good idea. To make this arrangement, I first rewrote the Chevé notation as Western notation. Then I designed the arrangement for a middle school or early high school band. How authentic sounding was the final product? Lu Guang had never heard the arrangement "in process," but when I played a tape of the piece, without telling him it was my arrangement, he exclaimed "That's Chinese!"

The issue of authenticity looms large for instrumental directors. There are so many selections available that are only Western compositions with an ethnic melody incorporated as thematic material. Or worse, some compositions have their only connection to a culture in the title. Usually there is no indication in the "Notes to the Conductor" to help the music educator place the piece in perspective.

On the plus side, some culture-bearers have written compositions for band. A few composers and arrangers have availed themselves of the expertise of ethno-educators for contextual information and suggestions for instrumentation. For my own arrangements, I often go to the folk tradition of music cultures. These often have more limited ranges and are a little more accessible for children. If there is a classical or children's repertoire, I find these also a source of materials.

Perhaps it is not so odd that a Chinese piece works for band. The Chinese themselves have been adopting musical sounds and forms from other cultures for centuries. I have heard jazz erhu, and "Santa Lucia" played on 2,000-year-old stone chimes accompanied by synthesizer. This is at least no odder than listening to luogu played by a concert band. And what is luogu if not a percussion ensemble, sometimes with an added melodic line? The percussion parts are easily reproduced with substitute instruments, but it is not too difficult today to purchase Chinese gongs and drums. For my session, I compromised: I brought in Chinese cymbals, but used the band's bass drum and tom-toms.

When assessing a new composition, I ask two questions. First, "What will my students learn about music from performing this piece?" This is the usual educational overview conductors' employ to survey a score, encompassing ranges, rhythms, orchestration, harmonies, and form. Secondly, I ask, "Is this piece representative of the culture, how authentic is it, and what can my students learn about that culture, and the music in that culture, from experiencing this piece?" The answers lie with culture-bearers or entho-researchers knowledgeable in that culture. I need to know the context of the music in that culture, as well as some basic knowledge of how it's music system works: theory, instruments, structures, and expressive elements. If "Notes to the Conductor" are to be of any value, they must include at least some of this kind of information. And I see that as our job as ethno-educators: to help provide that information, and to provide, or encourage, performance materials that will satisfy this need.

My lesson plan included contextual information about Chinese music. I showed the students Chinese notation, spoke about indoor and outdoor music, and played a song on my dizi (Chinese flute) to demonstrate an indoor instrument. I described heterophony in Chinese music, and they listened to a tape of the original luogu. I drew parallels between parade marching in the US and Chinese New Year's celebrations with Lion and Dragon Dances in the streets. The rest of the period was given over to rehearsal of my arrangement.

So what was the end result of my day at Edsel Ford HS? Did the students enjoy performing "Song of Festival?" The answer is a resounding "yes!" Playing all those 'cool' sounds of the Chinese gongs made the percussion section the envy of the band. The students begged to perform it in their next concert. Before I left, the band director and I made arrangements for them to so do.

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