The Mountains We Climb Are Worth It!

Photos and video attached.

I am only now coming to understand what I wish I had known before our first women’s choir rehearsal at the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies in Zhuhai, China.

I began rehearsals with them with little to no understanding of the Chinese culture and spoken language. Before our first rehearsal in September, I only knew some women were coming to the Centre for Choral Studies to learn how to sing classical music. I assumed they could speak English since they were in a British choral setting. I assumed they had sung before and would easily model the singing I demonstrated. I assumed that my pedagogical approach in the states would transfer easily to China. What a lesson this has been! I can’t remember the last time I taught a first ever introduction to music theory to an audience that had never seen or even experienced classical music. Nor can I remember the last time I taught someone that had never sung in a choir before or studied privately. I know I have never given a singing lesson to someone that did not speak my language.

Unless you expect to have a painful go at repetitive rote singing, music theory must be a part of the curriculum even for a community choir. Repertoire must be selected that reinforces the theory. After a couple of weeks of wrapping my head around all of this, we changed our approach and began to connect the theory directly to music sight-singing exercises and then transferring that knowledge to our carefully selected repertoire. The first half hour of our rehearsal is spent understanding how the twelve-tone system is constructed and notated as written in classical music.

But, in order to be truly effective, I needed a more thorough understanding of the culture and history of the arts throughout China.  I assumed since so many Chinese children play piano, that they learn from the system that consists of staves with five lines and four spaces, treble and bass clefs, and designated note values. However, most are learning the twelve-tone system through simplified music notation called jianpu. Even children studying piano, play from these scores rather than the commonly used system in the west.

Doing a little research, I found that traditional Chinese instruments used a notation called Gongche. Many of the ancient instruments were stringed instruments and had anywhere from 4 – 50 strings.

IMG_2204(1)Yangtin, 22 strings ~ found in a Shanghai music store that leases practice/teaching space.

The Gongche notation did not mark the relative length of notes. Instead, it marked the percussion intended to be played at regular intervals, written alongside the notes. Gongche is notated in the same format as traditional spoken Chinese: top to bottom and then right to left. The rhythm marks are written to the right of the note characters and are actually left open to the artist’s interpretation. Because of this free licensing, variations among different traditions increased the difficulty of maintaining this system to present day.






Jianpu 1 2 3 (4) 5 6 (7)
Movable “do do re mi (between fa and fa♯) sol la (between ti♭ and ti)

Now, with the introduction of the violin and other stringed instruments including the piano, the numbered musical notation system jianpu is used. It is not only used in various parts of Asia but even in the United States and other European countries. If one attended a piano class taught here, you most likely would see a score that looked like this:

|1·  1·  |1  23·  |   Row, Row, Row Your Boat

|1 1 5 5 |6 6 5 – | Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

From seeing this, you would understand that 1 is do. The punctuation that follows defines the rhythm:

Whole note: 1 – – –  Half note: 1 –                   Quarter note: 1               Dotted quarter: 1·

Eighth note: 1        Dotted eighth: 1·             Sixteenth note: 1

Dotted sixteenth: 1

If a chord is notated, the numbers are stacked (lowest note on the bottom). Can you imagine how a Bach trio sonata be notated? Exactly.

Thankfully, in addition to the eight choirs offered at the choral centre, separate theory classes are made available to everyone. These theory classes use curriculum of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, levels one through eight.

About forty women in the beginning choir and eighteen women in the intermediate choir come once a week not only to learn a new musical language, but to sing in English, Latin and German. About half of the women in the intermediate choir come a second night of the week and devote an additional two hours to theory. Can you imagine committing yourself at this level to learn so much NEW? But, the singing of this music moves them in ways even they cannot articulate. You can see their hearts melt and their minds grow when they hear a piece like Franck’s Panis Angelicus, in Latin. They want to sing it over and over again.

I have to say, this is not the only mountain we climb every week. There are many vocal productions issues because of the required pronunciations of Chinese. The language wreaks havoc on the voice. Most onsets are glottal. Because of the third tone, vocal frye has a strong presence in their sound. Anyone that knows me, knows I can’t tolerate suppressed larynges! Because the four tones are used, inflection of the musical text is completely overlooked which makes phrasing, dynamics and syllabic stress non-existent.

Still, I can’t believe there are women in the south of China that love singing this music as much as I do. They learn many new concepts every week and practice in the interim so they are sure to get it right. Our steps are baby steps, but the steps are moving in the right direction. It is a pleasure to share what I know with others that are thirsty to learn.

Oh! Did I tell you we begin singing rehearsal with something we used to do in high school chorus? Line up for your shoulder massage! We make a long train and massage each other’s shoulders adding a chop at the end. I don’t think we do that anymore in the US. I know, personal space is important.


Their latest gem is John Dowland’s Come Again, Sweet Love which I hope to post soon.


Swanson, L. 10.9.2017. China Photo Library.

Published by

Lynn Swanson

Music Director & Organist, Grace Episcopal Church, Gainesville, GA Music Director & Conductor, New South Festival Singers, Atlanta, GA Music Director & Conductor, Cobb Summer Singers, Marietta, GA Advisor to The Institute for Healthy Singing, The William Baker Choral Foundation former Assistant Director, Zhuhai Classical Children's Choir

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