When I first arrived in the United States in 1984, I encountered a vibrant collegiate Jazz scene. University Jazz ensembles had slowly started to compete in popularity, among students, with wind ensembles and symphony orchestras. Furthermore, jazz techniques and sounds were the dominant styles heard on TV and some film scores. Any student musician with aspirations of doing Hollywood studio work had to have great sight-reading and solid jazz improvisational skills. Unluckily, Academia was training students for jobs that were about to disappear.
At the same time, many of the traditional job markets for those “musicians in training” were starting to disappear or had completely been eliminated. Midi had arrived with a bang in 1983 and “live music” started being replaced by midi programmers and sequencers. The technology advances led by Roland Corporation and Sequential Circuits had a crushing effect on live-music jobs on the strip. The exuberant Big Band sound that was the Las Vegas traditional sound had been replaced by smaller keyboard-dominated ensembles; a reflection of what was happening in the music industry worldwide. Furthermore, this new musical sound was much cheaper for the clubs than hiring a full 16-piece jazz big band. Similarly, in the movie industry, the lush orchestral scores of 60’s and 70’s composed composers such as John Williams, Alfred Newman, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith started being replaced by the midi /synth sounds of Hans Zimmer (Rainman, 1988), and Maurice Jarre (Witness, 1985). Again, as usual, Academia was about ten years behind.
Fast-forward to 2017. Jazz college faculties are still training students for Big Band performance even though there are very few professional big bands anywhere in the United States. Bebop is probably the oldest jazz style that is covered in jazz improvisation courses, but for the most part, improvisation is being taught detached from stylistic traits. To make matters even worse, jazz major numbers at state institutions of higher learning seem to be in a gradual decline as more alternatives are being made available (e.g. Commercial Music). This, alongside the siphoning of resources from the arts into what are probably considered more important areas to the economy (following the trend to make state institutions more responsive to private enterprise needs), has created a crisis within music education. The end result is that students are less equipped to handle the demands of the current music industry and on the other hand, have less knowledge of their own musical traditions.
As dire as I think the situation is here in the United States, my recent trip to Asia has given me insight into possible solutions – not all is lost!
A few months ago I saw a traditional Chinese musical performance online. The musician was Liu Ying, professor of Suona (aka Chinese Oboe) at Shanghai Conservatory. He performed a traditional virtuoso piece for the Suona called Bai Neau Chao Fon (Birds Praising the Phoenix). This is a showcase piece of extreme beauty and technical difficulty. Liu Ying’s performance is something to behold; not only does Liu Ying makes this extremely difficult piece seem like child’s play but his stage presence captures the audience’s attention and captures the imagination. Even the musicians in the orchestra appear to be captivated by this extraordinary performance. Why am I mentioning this performance? Well, on my most recent trip to China I had the opportunity of meeting Liu Ying and this gave me an insight into why traditional Chinese music is having a resurgence in China and the rest of Asia. Yiu Ling is a charismatic teacher and probably one of the greatest virtuosos on his instrument. He has dedicated his life to teaching traditional Chinese music and many of his students are now playing important roles in Chinese music performance and education.
Liu Ying’s virtuosity and charisma attract students from all over Asia. While visiting him at the conservatory, there were a group of three students that had traveled from Hong Kong just to take a few lessons with the master musician. In many ways, visiting Liu Ying was also the primary focus of my Shanghai visit, and after just a few minutes with him, I understood what why he is such a sought out teacher. His love of music is contagious and his mastery of the instrument is unquestionable.
The Shanghai Conservatory, where Liu Ying teaches, is currently considered one of the top music learning institutions in China. It attracts students from all corners of China and also from other Asian countries. During my stay in Shanghai, I attended a concert celebrating the 85th Anniversary of the Communist Party. At this event, Yiu Ling and his students performed a piece. There were probably 10 of his students on stage. All played the piece flawlessly and by memory. Playing by memory seems to be the norm in Asia; not only on solo pieces but also in ensemble pieces. The expectations are very high, and all music students are under enormous pressure to live up to those expectations. These expectations are backed by the support; currently, the conservatory is finishing construction of a brand new building within their current compound that will ensure their capacity for future growth.
Two of Liu Ying’s former students from Shanghai Conservatory have become prominent teachers themselves. I met Zhang Qian-Yuan, the new young professor of Suona while visiting Professor Talimu Zhao, former president of the China Central Conservatory in Beijing. He was clearly proud of the new professor and even though there was a language barrier between all of us, we managed to talk about some Suona issues. She is very active in the Beijing traditional music scene and has already quite a few recordings and DVD’s under her name. During my visit, Professor Zhang was more than eager to demonstrated her suona technique and knowledge for all those present and played a couple of traditional suona pieces that showed her mastery of the instrument.
The other Liu Ying former student I met was Jiao Dian, lovingly called “Professor Focus” by his friends, a young professor at the Zhejiang Conservatory.
The Zhejiang conservatory is located in one of the most spectacular campuses I have seen. All the facilities are new and some are still getting the final touches. This state of the art school focuses on all aspects of traditional and contemporary music and will sure be at the forefront of music education in China. The facilities are about two years old and their futuristic and technological advances make it an ideal place for young musicians to hone their skills.
Without a doubt, China is investing in music education with the knowledge that this will pay dividends in the near future.