Do I Sound Chinese Now? A Musical and Cultural Analysis of Students’ Learning Experience in the Northern Illinois University Chinese Music Ensemble

November 25, 2013

Multicultural music education in the U.S. took a significant step forward when the Tanglewood Symposium of 1967, “Music in American Society,” recommended that the expansion of the repertoire taught in schools include the “music of all periods, styles, forms, and cultures” and “music of our time in its rich variety,” specifically “popular teen-age music and avant-garde music, American folk music, and the music of other cultures” (Choate, 1968, p. 139). In response, some institutions started to incorporate non-European music, for example, jazz and other world music ensembles, into their standard curriculum in the 1970s to expose students to a wider variety of music, including Chinese music.

The Northern Illinois University (NIU) Chinese music ensemble (CME) was the first college Chinese music group in the U.S. and currently the only student group in Illinois. Ethnomusicologist Dr. Kuo-Huang Han established the CME in the 1970s with the mission of promoting Chinese culture through learning its music tradition. In this early stage, Han integrated performance elements into his ethnomusicology curriculum at NIU by using a particular pedagogical approach, musicking as Christopher Small (1998) termed it later, to closely tie performance practice together with its relevant cultural elements, such as symbolism, aesthetic values, and the programmatic functions of music, especially those of Chinese music.

Since musicking is embedded in each social/cultural group in a unique way, the different values of each culture shape the music and affect how it is taught. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to create an “authentic” musicking experience within which cultural outsiders can be completely immersed. After succeeding Dr. Han at NIU, I have striven to use his all-encompassing approach to work with the students in the Chinese Music Ensemble reinstated in 2010. My goal is to provide the students with Chinese musical and cultural stimuli so that even though they are Americans, they can also “come to understand and to enjoy musicking” like Chinese music students (Small, 1998, p. 12). As a result of this approach, musical and cultural challenges inevitably emerged. Through observations of lessons and rehearsals, interviews with the CME primary instructor, Professor Yung-Hsin Chen, and the ensemble members, and an analysis of artifacts, such as program notes and music scores, I was able to define and illustrate these challenges.

Curriculum Structure

The addition of the Chinese music ensemble to the already-flourishing NIU world music curriculum has helped broaden both the musical and cultural horizon of our students and the NIU community at large. With the mission of promoting Chinese culture through learning its music tradition, the NIU CME teaches cultural awareness and understanding through this unique music and ultimately helps enhance the cultural diversity in the American multicultural society.

Members of the ensemble learn to play assorted authentic Chinese instruments, such as er-hu (two-string fiddle), yang-qin (hammered dulcimer), pipa (long-neck lute), liuqin and yuehqin (small lute), zhongruan (medium lute), daruan (large lute), dizi (bamboo flute), sheng (mouth organ), and luogu (assorted percussion instruments). Western instruments such as cello and double bass are included sometimes to provide an extra bass line for larger orchestral pieces. 

Individual lessons and group rehearsals make up the major part of the curriculum.  In addition to playing the instruments, members are introduced to basic Chinese music theory, cipher notation, the standard repertoire of solo instrumental, chamber (silk and bamboo ensemble of the south band of Yang-Zi River, or Si-Zhu), and orchestral music. Performance practice and the aesthetic values and symbolism of traditional Chinese music are also taught.

One credit hour is awarded to students who attend rehearsals (two sessions per week with necessary extra rehearsals before concert dates) and take mandatory private lessons (at least one session per week) throughout the semester. A final concert featuring all student performers, in solo, small chamber, and orchestral settings, is held each semester to showcase their learning outcomes. Since spring 2010, the CME has successfully given five full-length concerts and appeared in four annual world music concerts. Moreover, the CME was invited to give educational workshops and demonstrations at venues such as the 2011 Illinois Music Educator Association All-State Conference, the local library, and at several elementary schools in the Northern Illinois area.

Teaching Methods

The primary instructor of the ensemble is Ms. Yung-Hsin Chen, a Chinese music expert originally from Taiwan, specializing in many instruments including the erhu, pipa, and some other types of lutes. She is also an experienced modern Chinese orchestra conductor. Throughout her career as a soloist, instructor, and conductor, she has won a great number of awards including several first-place medals in many regional and national music competitions in Taiwan. A graduate of the National Taiwan College of Art (now National Taiwan University of Art) with outstanding recognition, she was recruited into several prestigious Chinese orchestras and was sent on government-sponsored tours to France, the U.S., South Africa, and several South American countries. She has been the volunteer Chinese music artist-in-residence at NIU and has been in charge of the ensemble since Spring 2010. In addition to conducting the group, she gives private lessons on all the Chinese instruments featured in the ensemble.
Due to Ms. Chen’s limited English proficiency, the rehearsals are often bi-lingual, fluctuating between Mandarin and English, interpreted by me. Two blackboards full of music terminologies in both Chinese and English help Ms. Chen carry out instruction during most private lesson sessions when I am not present. In addition to standard musical terms for techniques, expression marks, and some notational symbols, the list also covers bi-lingual titles of the selected pieces, some conceptual statements of Chinese music, and idioms. Both Ms. Chen and the CME members are able to make good use of these blackboards to communicate with each other efficiently.

Cipher notation is adopted and is taught as part of the curriculum. Although new to this notation system, most of the students in the group are capable of comprehending it because of the similar “Movable Do” principles they were taught in their music theory classes. However, challenges still exist because they are novices on the Chinese instruments they are assigned to play. Usually, it is the fingering and position that confuse the students in finding correct pitches in different “keys” or “tonalities.”

Because of the availability of Chinese instruments at NIU, we insist that our members learn at least one Chinese instrument. When assigning the instruments to the members, other than their personal preferences, we also take into consideration their primary western instrument proficiency and assign them something similar so that they can transfer the basic skills and techniques into the Chinese instruments. For example, students who play the guitar are usually assigned to play the pipa.

However, in order for the music to sound as authentically Chinese as possible, the students must be taught advanced techniques so that certain styles of timbre and ornamentation can be executed properly. Usually taught in private lesson sessions, theses special techniques include bending, various degrees of vibration, and sliding on most string instruments such as pipa and erhu, and fluttering on wind instruments, such as dizi. Professor Chen would demonstrate on her instruments or sing musical phrases with appropriate ornamentation styles and expect the students to play the phrases repeatedly back to her until they get it. It is through this modeling approach back and forth that subtleties in interpretation are explained and reinforced.

The group rehearsal is usually fast paced, demanding, and intense. The members learn to pay close attention to “listening” to each other and the conductor with the “auditory” learning habit built from private lessons, rather than just merely “reading” note by note from the scores. We frequently ask the members if they know what they did wrong and encourage their self-diagnosis. This “auditory” emphasis allows the members to engage in a self-reflective learning process in which they can carefully and efficiently examine the musical details, such as intonation, articulation, phrasing, and ornamentation, on their own. We believe that the focus on aural awareness and self-examination helps the members to develop not only listening skills but also critical thinking ability.

The primary goal of the ensemble is to introduce Chinese music to the American students. The ensemble’s repertoire therefore consists primarily of traditional Chinese tunes, although some famous western melodies, such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and J.S. Bach’s “Minuet in G,” are often used not only as beginning level etudes to reinforce members’ techniques but also as a way to showcase Chinese instruments’ capability of playing western music. Most of the music we play is in pentatonic modes with western SATB arrangement, partially because of the director’s preferences for the modern Chinese orchestral genre. Members’ limited proficiency on their newly-learned instruments is another reason that the repertoire at this stage still stays mainly within this western genre, in which parts are specifically written down note by note, instead of being expanded to the traditional silk and bamboo style that demands highly skillful improvisation techniques. Based on my observation, audience feedback, and the members’ self-evaluation on the traditional silk and bamboo pieces we played, it is apparent that our attempt to incorporate pieces in this style has not been successful yet because of our members’ lack of mature techniques, personal improvisation experience, and intellectual understanding of the musical idiom.

Aesthetic value and philosophical concepts about Chinese music are always discussed during both private lesson sessions and group rehearsals. “The sound beyond the strummed string” (絃外之音) is one of the most explained concepts when extra ornamentation needs to be added in order to carry out a deeper level of expression. Due to the programmatic nature of Chinese music, images and stories relevant to the music are also often mentioned to help the member gain a more comprehensive view of the music to interpret it more appropriately.

Another traditional characteristic of Chinese music, Tempo Rubato, an important feature deeply rooted in the meditative principle of Daoism, is also introduced to and practiced by the ensemble. Usually through countless exercises of reciting, singing, and even moving together to feel the flow of the free rhythm, we expect the members to grasp the concept of Chi (spirit or 氣) from breathing and moving together before they were allowed to play some free-metrical passages on their instruments.

A very unique teaching philosophy implemented in the ensemble is borrowed from the Chinese I-Ching (易經). The triple meanings of I: ease and simplicity, change and transformation, and invariability, reflect the three instructional stages in the pedagogical approach and Professor Chen’s special teaching style. After the members have successfully demonstrated their understanding of simple materials, they would be expected to learn new elements, such as additions of ornamentation, variations of timbre, and changes of tempo or rhythm, according to their ability. This constantly changing process usually lasts until before the concert when Professor Chen believes that the members are capable of a high quality performance.


In a musicking process full of new and foreign learning experiences like the one the CME members have encountered, challenges inevitably emerge. The most significant challenges come from learning the music itself and adjusting to the different cultural values embedded within the music and its setting.

First of all, the requirement of using authentic Chinese instruments creates a steep learning curve for the members. Although most of them are music students and are competent on at least one western musical instrument, it is quite challenging for them to learn a Chinese instrument at the beginning because it requires “a totally different mentality” and “an enormous investment of time just to get the instrument sound right,” as Dominique, a freshman vocal major who plays the erhu in the group commented (personal communication, April 22, 2012). Some mature students, who practice enthusiastically hoping to build up a good foundation, reported that they were “afraid of practicing it wrong” because they do not possess enough knowledge about the instrument and the music to make good judgment and correct themselves when “it doesn’t sound right” (Aerie Dover, Quentin Dover, personal communication, April 25, 2012).

Moreover, incremental complexity through increasing variations in timbre and phrasing is reported to be confusing as well, because it forces the members to learn different interpretations of already-learned materials each time and encourages them to discover, embrace, and appreciate the “changes” in the music. Eric Schroeder, after the second year of studying the pipa with Professor Chen, reflected:

I was finally able to grasp the concept about the constant change of the music I study. It takes me awhile to get used to that, last week you played it this way, now that you got it, then this week you would have to play it another way… once I grasp the concept that what we did last week was what I can do last week, and now that I’ve got better, I have to think a different way to make it sound better than last week, … because all that experience you had yesterday changes today, you should definitely try to play how you are today (personal communication, May 10, 2012).

Many non-notated aspects of Chinese music require the members to be creative and flexible. Unlike the scientific principles so highly valued in western music, Chinese music’s value lies in its implicit nature that allows musicians to constantly develop new ideas and to either dwell in a meditative state or take a philosophical stance. American students who do not have fundamental knowledge about all these important values of Chinese music consequently find it difficult to comprehend the meaning behind various stylistic interpretations. For example, the Chinese style Tempo Rubato is one of the “confusions” the members frequently encountered, and they sometimes even considered the free metrical passage at the Chi (beginning, 起) section and some accelerando passages at the He (concluding, 合) section toward the end of the music “irrational” and therefore hard to follow.

Another aspect of the non-notated Chinese music found to be challenging is the semi-improvisation technique required of the members in a si-zhu setting. As ethnomusicologist David Hughes (2004) pointed out, “flexibility of melodic realization” is so highly valued in the traditional si-zhu style that the individual musician who wishes to master it will have to possess a very high technique level and a deep understanding of the Chinese musical idioms (p. 274). Unfortunately, nobody in the NIU CME is yet competent enough to demonstrate these skills and knowledge.

The major cultural challenge derived from the CME members’ musicking experience is discipline. Throughout the instruction, we strive to create a musicking environment that provides the members with as authentic Chinese experience as possible and implicitly integrate into the curriculum three important values in Chinese humane art: humbleness, endurance, and humanity. However, this has been the most challenging part of our work at NIU so far. The utmost Chinese virtue in scholarly music, humbleness, is the most difficult concept to be conveyed to the members, mainly due to their high self-esteem. Collisions between our expectations of hard work and their expectations of praise often happened in private lessons and during rehearsals. This generation of American college students want things to be “fun” and “cool,” so when they realize that the fundamental work expected of them is usually hard, less immediately rewarding, their dedication and determination to become “culturally” informed persons/musicians may decrease. Although not directly affecting the way music is taught, these discipline factors have caused new students’ hesitation to participate in the ensemble, commit to excellence. So, indirectly, recruitment has become a challenge. The fact that the CME consists predominantly of returning members only exemplifies the difficulty in recruiting new members.

Nevertheless, these returning members do prove that they are capable of embracing musical and discipline challenges and that they can endure regardless how demanding we (the instructors) can potentially be. With the knowledge and skills obtained gradually from being part of the ensemble, the members have learned to be critical and sensitive about the music and the sound they produce and are always pleased when they realize that they have made progress. I believe that a reciprocal learning process has taken place as a result of members’ intimate interactions with each other and the instructors from their “auditory” learning experience and their overall immersion in the musical and cultural curriculum we offer. As a dizi player put it, “the most rewarding moment is when you told me that I sound more Chinese now and when I can play dizi like that all the time” (Glynnis White, personal communication, May 10, 2012).


Ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood (1960) believed that just as students can learn a second language, they should gain competence not only in the music of their native culture but also in the music of other cultures. Hood’s idea of learning “from the inside” to experience music’s technical, conceptual, and aesthetic challenges is what we attempt to implement in the NIU CME curriculum (pp. 55-59). The unique Chinese music platform established by Kuo-Huang Han almost 40 years ago was never meant to be a replica of an actual Chinese music setting to allow American students to learn Chinese music “from the inside” as Hood would have expected. However, sufficient immersion of the members in what NIU has offered proves to be effective not only in improving students’ overall musicality but also in cultivating their awareness of cultural subtlety. We realize that we cannot provide the students with an absolute Chinese music environment in which they can be completely immersed. We also recognize that regardless of their efforts, the students might never sound as authentically Chinese as possible just as how difficult it is to speak a second language without an accent. Through the course of developing an appropriate curriculum for the NIU Chinese music ensemble, we do not compromise musicianship and discipline. However, I have to admit that authenticity is never the only goal I have in mind when working with the students. Sounding Chinese might be rewarding, but I think experiencing an overall cultural exploration with my students is more appealing in this learning process!


For samples of the Northern Illinois University Chinese Music Ensemble performance, visit the YouTube clips below:

Spring Morning on the Yang-Ming Mountain (陽明春曉)

Colorful Clouds Chasing after the Moon(彩雲追月)

Joyfulness (喜洋洋)

House Full of Gold and Jade( 金玉滿堂)


Choate, R. A. (1968). Music in American society: Documentary report of the Tanglewood Symposium. Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.

Hood, M. (1960). The challenge of ‘bi-musicality.’ Ethnomusicology 4(2), 55-59.

Hughes, D. (2004). When can we improvise? The place of creativity in academic world music performance. In Ted Solis (Ed.), Performing ethnomusicology: teaching and representation in world music ensembles (pp.261-282). Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Small, C. (1998). Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

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