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An Examined Life, Colored by Music

May 23, 2013

Once a week I tutor a young woman named Joyce in language arts. She is tall, with a wise but often distant expression. Three months ago, her father, a leading software engineer in Shanghai, sent his family on to Silicon Valley to settle. Joyce is 15 and a straight-A student; she can barely remember the last time she got a B. Next year, as a junior, she’ll be taking 5 AP courses, one honors course, as well as advanced orchestra.

She plays piano and oboe. She prefers the oboe because she feels her sound on that instrument is truer, and because she likes her oboe teacher. “His lessons are full of passion, and he always describes the background of the composers.”

And she might add — perhaps the real reason she likes this particular teacher — he allows her to experiment and to “add my own thoughts to the piece.”

Joyce began playing the piano when she was three and the oboe at six. She was introduced to music by her mother who, at bedtime each night, played old radio recordings of classical music performances.

ZhengAt one point Joyce also wanted to play the zheng, an instrument with up to 25 strings that you pluck like a zither. Joyce was mesmerized not only by the harp-like sound from the metal strings but by the artistry of the instrument itself, the beauty of the exotic birds and plants that to her suggested an object that must belong to an elegant lady. But then her mother bought a piano.

Music has always conveyed elegance as well as sophistication and worldliness to Joyce. At 11, she took a two-week course in music theory at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, which was established in 1927 and stands as one of the great portals of western music in China. And then there is the conservatory itself, in the center of the city, on Fenyang Road, with the charm of an urban park and the old buildings, and those extraordinary gates at the entrance, as though to say you’re entering a place not just of higher learning, but higher consciousness.

Life As Never-Ending Examination

But for Joyce growing up, balanced against the liberation and beauty intrinsic in the study of music, there was also a rigorous practice schedule and preparation for that most important exam held each year to mark your musical progress. With the passing of each exam you receive a certificate of approval; there are 10 levels to complete. Joyce first took the exam when she was six. That was to complete Level 3. The next year she skipped to Level 5.

“When a mom is asking her daughter, what would you like for dinner?, she cannot answer. What is your favorite dish?, she cannot answer. Because there is always a fear that you will come up with the wrong answer and there are only right and wrong answers.” - Joyce, 15-year-old student

She remembers vividly being 11-years-old in the fourth grade and preparing for the exam. You receive the music to be played two months beforehand. One piece, always very fast, is designed to show finger technique. Then a slower piece that demands you carry four melodies at the same time. And then there is a third, very long piece to demonstrate overall ability and endurance.

The test is particularly important in getting into middle school, and plays much the same role as music plays in getting into an American college.

“This system is ridiculous,” Joyce told me once, “Can you imagine a kid who is 11-years-old playing six hours a day all through the summer? It’s too much.”

Another time she told me: “In high school, everything is about scores and there are no college counselors. There is no one to really guide you. You learn all these things but you’re not focused on any one thing and since you were a little kid you are not taught to make choices, only to take the advice of your parents. When a mom is asking her daughter, ‘what would you like for dinner?’ she cannot answer. ‘What is your favorite dish?’  she cannot answer. Because there is always a fear that you will come up with the wrong answer and there are only right and wrong answers. Everything has a definite answer.”

“I will tell you this. I saw this story on the news a couple of times and I have heard it 10,000 times from other students. No, it’s not an ‘urban myth.’ When you take the final, final exam in 12th grade there is a reading comprehension part. Maybe five or six passages. With each you answer a few questions. It’s not multiple choice. Each answer is a small paragraph. The strategy is to enable just a few to get a very high mark. So maybe out of 2,000, 100 or less will get a high mark. They always have really tricky questions.

“One of these passages was from a novel by a famous writer. I forget his name. A Chinese writer. And they gave the same exam they give the students to the writer. He got a zero. A big fat zero. Not one right answer.”

Life By A Different Metaphor

I tutor Joyce but the lesson is often mine. I am struck by her stories of competition and struggle. Stories about the plague of 9th graders who commit suicide each year because they are endlessly told that unless they get the highest marks they will be washing dishes or cleaning the street. A view that is itself, of course, a reflection of lost humanity. Or stories about the brightest of the bright who get into Beijing University and then, once across the threshold, turn to drugs and sex, and disintegrate. Stories about her friend who would rather play the zheng but takes up the piano because it pleases her parents and, after all, the parents are working so hard, paying so much money for instruments and lessons, and even in the upper middle class in China these days it’s important that each member of the family be able to look at how the other is struggling.

Joyce is unlike so many other students I see: She has a sincere love of scholarship, she has true intellect, and while some might call her headstrong, even arrogant, her shortcoming is simply that she hasn’t learned the art of suffering fools gladly. More than anything she is anxious to make her own mark, and not just to think ‘outside the box’, but perhaps to find some new metaphor altogether.

As for her music, one gets the sense that while it makes her life “much more colorful” her attention is slowly turning away. Each day she practices for 30 minutes on the piano and 30 minutes on her oboe. On her music stand when I spoke to her recently: Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de Salon. But, whenever she has a question or the conversation strays, it's never about the music.

She hopes to go to the University of Pennsylvania, and one day become a risk manager at J.P. Morgan Chase. This is the paradox. The good mind attached to old balloons. I tell her to aim higher, to free herself from ancient expectations, to forget being an actuary — unless she really has to do that — and instead dream of starting a new kind of bank altogether, or else find an occupation that matches her attachment to the zheng.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is