Sometimes called a Chinese fiddle, the erhu can bark like a dog, chirp like a bird, and laugh like a human. Its name might not be the easiest to remember, but this ancient two-stringed instrument produces exquisite melancholy tones suitable for sophisticated classical music. Both aspects of the erhu – its playful, amusing side, as well as its serious, melodic side – are highlighted during a special arts-in-education program designed to introduce school children to Chinese arts and culture.
Students listen to the erhu and other indigenous Chinese instruments and then enjoy a traditional tea ceremony and receive a lesson in Chinese brush painting. The daylong program, which meets New York State education standards, is available to schools throughout the metropolitan region, with a special emphasis on under-served schools.
The day begins with a trio of classically trained musicians who present a concert and discussion, the centerpiece of which is a game of aural charades involving the erhu. Wang Guowei, artistic director of the group Music From China, uses the instrument to demonstrate various sounds and encourages children to guess which animal he’s mimicking. Mr. Wang and his colleague Sun Li, a pipa player, also perform traditional Chinese folk songs and excerpts of classical repertoire. They are joined by Ming Fong, a pianist who teaches at the Music Conservatory of Westchester and directs the Beijing International Music Festival & Academy.
After explaining the pipa, a type of lute, and the erhu are traditional Chinese instruments, Mr. Fong asks the children if the piano is a Chinese instrument. The most common answer, yes, leads to a gentle correction from Mr. Fong, followed by a discussion on the difference between Western and Chinese music. “I show them the pentatonic scale, a five-note scale that is the foundation for all Chinese music. Each note represents one element of nature: earth, fire, metal, water, wood,” he said.
The musicians were born and educated in China, but live and work in the United States and see themselves as cultural ambassadors. “We probably reach more young people than the Chinese embassies do,” Mr. Fong said. Indeed, during the 2012-13 academic year 1,500 students from local schools participated in Caramoor’s Chinese program, which has grown in popularity since its start a decade ago. During the first few years the event took place just a handful of occasions per term, but during the 2012-13 academic year it was held 30 times.
“I love that the program gives a well-rounded look at Chinese culture,” said Elizabeth George, a teacher at Bedford Village Elementary School. “(Caramoor) is one of the best and most educationally appropriate trips I have been on in my many years of field tripping.”
Jennifer Major, who teaches third grade at North Salem’s Pequenakonck Elementary School, described the program as a “perfect fit” with her school’s social studies curriculum, which includes a focus on China and Brazil. She appreciated that her class was able to see Caramoor’s artwork in person, rather than looking at pictures. “That makes a huge difference,” she said, adding the participatory aspect of the program helped to engage her students. “The musicians not only played music, but talked about how important art is to Chinese culture. They talked a little about the daily life in the villages and showed the kids a map, pointing out where they grew up. When we got back to school, we did a comparison between China and here.”
The field trip represented a perfect blend of fun and facts for the students. “I asked them about the Great Wall and they told me it was built to protect the Chinese from the Mongolians,” Pequenakonck third-grader Finn Keenan said. “We saw how the Chinese people write and paint, and we got to paint a design with black ink. We got to hear some music with a piano and two other instruments. We got to drink tea.” Best of all, he said, was the animal guessing game. “There was this instrument – I forget the name of it – that could make animal noises. It sounded like a horse, a bird, and a dog. It only had two strings. It was my favorite instrument there.” Finn may have forgotten the ehru’s name, but will not soon forget his day at Caramoor.