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Firebird Raises Heat in East and West

May 16, 2011

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SFCV Podcast April 28 2011

Spotlight on summer music camps including the Firebird Youth Orchestra

You might think that the purpose of having a large group of kids playing ancient Chinese instruments in the heart of Silicon Valley is to preserve that music and culture. And yet the Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra (FYCO) is more about combining the best of both worlds. Perhaps a model of the immigrant experience itself, the result is wholly fresh and new.

Each Sunday, on the campus of the San José City College, FYCO takes students, age 7–18, through a comprehensive sequence of classes, including technique, musicianship, small ensembles, and the larger orchestra. They learn an instrument from one of the four sections of the orchestra: the bowed strings (erhu), the plucked strings (yangqin, liuqin, pipa), the woodwinds (dizi, sheng, suona), and a large percussion section (luo, gu, bo, bianzhong). Classes are no-nonsense, held in a mixture of Mandarin and English, depending on the teacher. Breaks present a contrast, with lively conversation in English, snacks provided by parents, and plenty of iPods and other modern trappings.

The Whole Is Greater

Director Gordon Lee fosters a distinct philosophy at FYCO, emphasizing group cooperation and putting the individual player secondary to the whole. He says Chinese thinking about music is the opposite of Western customs, in that it trains individuals to be prizewinners. “On mainland China the attitude toward music is to be a soloist, to distinguish yourself, and to stand out. Team collaboration is not part of the mentality. There is really no such thing as chamber music or musicians starting their own orchestras, because 95 percent of the symphonies are state-run.” The situation is a bit different in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“Even the Chinese concept of music is not ‘democratic,’ as you have in the West,” says Lee. “Either there is a very strong soloist, as in the Beijing Opera, or all of the instruments play in a narrow range together in a unison line. Counterpoint is more of a reflection of the Western democratic society, but this is something we do in the Chinese orchestra.” FYCO’s repertoire is a fascinating mix of newly composed works (some by Lee himself), collaborations with Western ensembles, and traditional Chinese works.

If the modern, large Chinese orchestra is unusual in the U.S., it’s also fairly unique in China. Based on the Western symphony orchestra, but with traditional Chinese instruments (sometimes supplemented with the Western cello and double bass), it’s a 20th-century invention that is itself a blending of East and West. The first orchestra in China was founded and conducted as late as 1935 by Lee’s mentor, Jilue Chen, with the support of the Central Broadcast Station Music Division; there are only a few similar groups performing today.

Not Just Music Education

Reasons that Northern California families choose FYCO for their kids are similar to those they give for choosing a Western youth orchestra: Parents appreciate quality music education. And yet here, the added value is cultural experience. Board Member Dr. Gwo-Jen Day, who grew up in Taiwan appreciating both Chinese and Western styles of music, has been a staunch supporter of FYCO since its beginning in 2000, currently handling an administrative role as well. His eldest daughter, Christina (now 16), was one of the charter members, and his two younger daughters play, too. “I wanted my kids to learn an instrument, and to have the opportunity to play in an ensemble — not like piano, for example,” says Day. “FYCO helps connect them to their Chinese culture, and creates a wonderful community.”

Former FYCO member Ginger Yang found the experience so rewarding that when she left for college she founded the MIT Chinese Ensemble, or MITCE. According to Yang, “Throughout my four years at FYCO, from not really knowing how an orchestra functions to becoming the pipa section leader, I felt myself improve immensely in my skills, not only as a musician but also as a leader. From being the shy little girl who felt she was lagging behind, I became the one who was encouraging others to build on their skills. MITCE would not have been possible had I not had the experience in FYCO.”

Another graduating member, Spring Sun, formed the YUE Chinese Music Ensemble at UC San Diego to promote the music that had become so special to her.

Crossing the Generation Gap

Despite these brilliant successes, the challenge remains as in any Western youth orchestra: maintaining relevance in the eyes of the digital generation of American-born kids, when all classics seem passé. Day supports parents constantly in their struggles to keep kids engaged. His advice relates much more to psychology than to style of music. “I tell them to focus on the process and not the end result; to recognize the challenge of their specific instrument; be patient; recognize their child’s individual learning styles; and to make it fun!” His kids played the theme from the Disney movie Mullan every day last year; it was a popular choice by the local school band, too.

Additionally, FYCO faces the challenge that they are teaching a musical language quite foreign to American ears. Second-generation Chinese are simply not immersed in the Eastern soundscape as they are in the Western, whether in shopping malls, with their school peers, in media, and in American society at large. “I was so surprised to learn that when we play arrangements of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Bizet’s Carmen, they absorb it very quickly,” says Lee. “But when we play more traditional, Eastern music like the Beijing Opera piece, they learn much more slowly. It’s just not in their ears.” But student Christine Day says it only compounds the learning experience. “After experiencing Chinese music, you start to realize and pay attention more to the minor differences, as well as similarities, between the two types of music, Chinese and American. Then you try to make those distinctions more clear, and try to get outsiders to see and appreciate them.”

Direct Lineage

Gordon Lee, also known as Tan Xie, and all the teachers at FYCO are Chinese-born and -educated. During the Cultural Revolution in 1969, Lee was sent to a farm near the border between Siberia and China, to work in a Peking Opera and dance/song troupe as a composer, conductor, and pipa player. In 1973, he studied Chinese music at Sichuan Conservatory of Music under Professor Jilue Chen, who later encouraged him to come to the U.S.

“When I first arrived,” says Lee, “my style of teaching was very harsh and imposing. I brought other teachers here from China who were the same way, because in China learning is teacher-centered. Here it is student-centered.” This “teacher-as-king” model did not succeed very well with the American-born students, and Lee's daughter became discouraged with her lessons on the pipa (though she later resumed playing it). The first FYCO teachers spoke no English, and all lessons were held in Chinese. A gradual shift over the next few years brought a more relaxed approach and bilingual teachers. “It works better,” says Lee. “Now I realize it’s a youth group and I want to lead them to do their best, but participation is the most valuable outcome.”

In 2004, FYCO was the first Western group invited to play in China on a cultural exchange. Says Lee with a grin, “We played Take Five [Dave Brubeck’s American jazz hit] on Chinese instruments, and the teachers there were shocked! Some objected, saying, ‘Chinese music is Chinese music, and this is not.’ But later, when Obama was elected, I heard a Chinese orchestra playing the same tune.” As relations between the East and West become more critical and as the world shrinks, FYCO becomes more relevant — developing a platform from which to share a universal language.

Visit theFirebird Youth Chinese Orchestra Web site for information on summer classes and the fall program.

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.