GONE are the days where only the elderly are seen plucking and bowing the traditional Chinese musical instruments with experience and soul.
In the past, the very whisper of Chinese orchestra would bring to mind boring traditional songs which rarely ever piques the younger generation’s interest.
Even the mention of the Chinese violin/viola (erhu) will conjure up images of the Chinese opera or sad ballads.
While traditional Chinese orchestras may seem to be dying off, a new breed of young musicians are hoping to turn the tide.
These ensembles can be seen centre stage in shopping centres nationwide, performing at least 100 shows during the Chinese New Year season, spreading festive cheer and serenading audiences with their very own Chinese New Year repertoire. Among the more established ones are Regal Chinese Orchestra, Zhuan Yi Chinese Orchestra and Yi Xiang Ler Chinese Orchestra.
“Ten years ago, or during my father’s time, I would say it was a challenge to get people interested in Chinese musical instruments,” said Yi Xiang Ler Chinese music centre teacher Soh Zhong Yang.
“But things are changing and I do see more and more young people being exposed to and accepting of these traditional instruments.”
Zhong Yang, who also heads the Yi Xiang Ler Chinese Orchestra, said his team of performers was usually made up of those aged between 14 and 35 years old.
His brother Zhong Yao and sister Neng Ying are also in the orchestra founded by their father Soh Boon Kim in 1995.
This musically talented family also ropes in students and teachers from their centre to perform with them.
Changing the Chinese music scene
Zhong Yang’s aim is to get more young people on stage to perform so that a younger group of audience can relate to the performance better.
“Younger people are also more energetic and hyped up, so with them on stage, the whole performance will naturally become livelier.
“As opposed to watching a group of seniors play on stage, the music will be excellent but it will be harder for the younger generation to relate.
“The elderly musicians are also more prone to only sticking with the traditional way of playing and will not want changes made to the songs,” he added.
The 32-year-old plays all the Chinese musical instruments, thanks to his father who is both an orchestra conductor and founder of the music centre that opened in 1987.
Starting with the moon-shaped mandolin (liu yue qin) when he was five years old, Zhong Yang confessed that he hated playing the instruments as he was growing up because the music was very traditional and rigid.
“So it is understandable why not many young people choose the Chinese instruments as their first instrument of choice.
“Not only is it harder to master and learn but the songs are also really traditional and outdated,” he noted.
He took about 10 years to learn and master the erhu, which is said to be the hardest Chinese instrument to play.
“So to keep alive the interest in traditional Chinese musical instruments, we have to improvise and make it relatable by introducing a fusion of songs and make lessons more fun,” he said.
Apart from performances in public, he takes it a step further by going to schools to perform and educate the pupils about the musical instruments.
How these young people get inspired and inspire
Zhong Yang said all it would take was one significant musical exposure to a particular instrument to get one interested to learn and be passionate about it.
“I remember hearing the sound of the Chinese bamboo flute (di zi) once and instantly I was attracted to it, so I started taking lessons,” said Ashwin Kalai Chelvan, 23.
Being a rare addition to the Chinese orchestra, the business and commerce student has been playing the flute for three years now.
“I never knew there were so many Chinese musical instruments until I performed with the group. I want to learn the Chinese zither (guzheng) next.”
Ashwin, who also plays piano and the Indian flute, said he enjoyed performing with the Chinese orchestra because he wanted to inspire youths to listen more to live music.
Chiaw Kin Hoon had a similar musical moment which drew him to learn the erhu.
“I watched a Hong Kong actor play it in one of his movies and I was mesmerised by the instrument,” he said.
The 18-year-old told his parents about his interest to learn the instrument and has been playing since five years ago.
“While performing the other day, I overheard a little girl telling her mother that she wanted to learn the erhu too. It felt good knowing that I had inspired her through our performance,” he said.
He said there had been similar situations before, which made him believe that more of such performances would encourage people to help keep the Chinese culture alive.
Joining him in the Chinese orchestra are twins Koh May Jane and May Bel, who play the guzheng.
“It’s really fun to perform and if the audience can see us performing and having fun, it may inspire them to learn an instrument too,” said May Jane, 14.
They picked up the instrument at nine years old, after watching their friend play it at home and loved its melodious strum. May Bel is now learning to play the percussion.
Medical student Tan Yen, 20, said playing the Chinese guitar (pipa), which she first learned seven years ago, relaxes her.