Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shanghai, China March 1-June 19 Week 4

While spring has evidently arrived on the east coast of the United States, this week has brought the coldest weather yet since my arrival. Biting temperatures in the mid-30s combined with freezing rain and grey skies makes for a not so pleasant day. I had my second pipa lesson today (Monday. March 21st) and my teacher asked me how much time I have to practice. When I responded that I have about 30 minutes for each instruments that I’m studying, she kindly asserted, “You should practice more!” I didn’t mean to offer this by way of excuse, but I reiterated my purpose for studying Chinese instruments. The pipa is probably the most difficult of the instruments I’m studying. However, when played well the pipa has a magical power to instantly transport a listener to a distant soundscape. The young woman whose lesson I sat in on before me has evidently been playing pipa since the age of five. It’s a bit ambitious of me to think that I will progress quickly enough to play anything that involves complex voiced chords or dextrous right hand techniques within three months. Nonetheless, we’ll see where these three months leads me in the future in my work with Chinese instruments.
Tonight I began my course at Miracle Mandarin. My teacher, a young Chinese man nicknamed “Jack,” seems to enjoy what he does very much, and although the material covered today was review for me, I really don’t feel that I grasped the material well enough during the fall semester at Texas A&M when I took a crash course in Chinese offered through the Confucius Institute. I’m also taking private Chinese lessons while I’m here, but I feel that the structured curriculum of the Miracle Mandarin may better help me acquire basic grammatical patterns. Together with my private lessons, I hope to make at least moderate progress on my Chinese while I’m here. When class was over, I was shocked when I walked outside to discover the my new bike was stolen! It was locked too, but someone must have just picked it up and walked off with it. Oh well! This is not the first time I’ve had something stolen from me and it’s probably not the last time either! I was really enjoying getting around on that bike, and the nearest supermarket is really too far to walk on a regular basis. For another $75, I’ll probably pick up another bike and buy a lock that will allow me to attach it to a pole or something. 
Today, Tuesday, March 22nd, I had private lessons on the erhu and dizi. My erhu teacher Chen Chuyuan determined pretty quickly that the folk song I was working on was too difficult for me. On the erhu, there are a number of things you must focus your attention on. First, maintaining intonation with left hand pressed positions is extremely difficult. Without frets to guide you, it really takes time to become accustomed to the distance required to play a particular pitch. Even if you can play it relatively in tune, the pressure that you exert with your left fingers to some extent determines the quality of your sound. Chen mentioned that I should have deep indentations on my fingertips as evidence of the pressure I should be exerting on the string. And then there is the right hand! As if maintaining a stable intonation wasn’t enough to keep one occupied, you have to continually press down on the bow with the fingers of the right hand to maintain quality of tone, use the length of the bow for maximum volume, and last but certainly not least, remember to alternate between up bows and down bows! As for the dizi, when I practice I feel a similar sensation to when I first started practicing the shakuhachi 10+ years ago. I am not using air efficiently, and as a result my tone is thin and I’m suffering from oxygen deprivation. Forget about the upper octave! I can’t produce any pitches in the upper octave without overblowing, a sure sign that my lip muscles are not developed. What I’m concerned about is because the embouchure required for the dizi is so different from the shakuhachi, I can hardly produce a sound on the shakuhachi after practicing the dizi. My teacher Wang Jun-Kan says that a period of adjustment is necessary, but it is scary to think that I’ve come this far on the shakuhachi just to have my progress undermined by the dizi. After all, this is why I decided NOT to continue lessons on the shinobue. After my dizi lesson, Jing and I went to a “hidden” copy store down a dark alley off of West Fuxing Rd. and made an electronic photocopy (JPG) of my passport for my upcoming trip to National Taiwan University. We also picked up the Chinese translation of Dr. Witzleben’s book “Silk and Bamboo" Music in Shanghai: The Jiangnan Sizhu Instrumental Ensemble Tradition. I discovered through my librarian at Texas A&M that we have this book in our collection, so I have asked interlibrary loan services to check the book out to me and send it to Shanghai. This may provide some insight as to where I can go about hearing performances of Silk and Bamboo music in Shanghai. I understand that Dr. Witzleben conducted his research from 1981-1985, so I don’t know how dated I’ll find the material, since (!) 25 years has past since then. Nonetheless, it certainly will make for interesting reading during my residency here. 
On Thursday, March 24th, I attended a Jiangnan Sizhu student ensemble rehearsal at Shanghai Conservatory of Music. This ensemble meets every Thursday at 11:30AM and I’m looking forward to sitting in again. I was simply floored at the virtuosity of these student musicians. Although they were being conducted, everyone had their music memorized and the ensemble was tightly coordinated. I was impressed at how they negotiated sudden changes of tempo and dynamic contrast. I’m looking forward to learning more about this music once I receive Silk and Bamboo" Music in Shanghai: The Jiangnan Sizhu Instrumental Ensemble Tradition from the Texas A&M library
Shanghai Conservatory of Music Jiangnan Sizhu Ensemble
Afterwards, Jing and I had lunch at Noodle Bull followed by my weekly massage at Dragonfly. Jing was complaining about her neck and shoulders, so I arranged for her to get a massage downstairs. Afterwards, Jing took me to a charming place I hadn’t even heard of, Tianzifang off of Taikang Rd, located right across the street from exit 1, Dapuqiao Station, subway line 9. The cobblestone streets of this are lined with coffee and tea shops, wine bars, cozy restaurants, galleries, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques, handicraft shops, handmade shoe stores, and more. The shikumen-style architecture takes visitors to an imagined Shanghai of long ago. Don’t be fooled by the exterior! The prices in these shops are not for the faint of heart.

On Friday night after my group exercise at the Johnson Club, I wandered up Yongkang Rd. further than I ever had before and found a number of surprises. Most importantly, I found a grocery store more conveniently located than the ones beneath South Shanxi station. Although they don’t have imported goods – it’s intended for local Chinese – the prices were the most reasonable I’ve found anywhere. I picked up some breakfast items and snacks and began my daily search for a place to eat. Walking back along Yongkong Rd., I found a hole-in-the-wall sushi joint called Sheng Sushi run by three Chinese guys. A friendly trio, they welcomed me with smiles and an English menu with pictures! They specialize in rolls, and I opted for the aptly named Western Imperial roll, which had mango and avocado as a base. There were two other Americans there and when a phone order came in, one of the chefs passed the phone to one of them because the person on the other end could only speak English. After taking down this person’s order and noting the address – which took an inordinate amount of time – the chef asked him, “Would you deliver it for us too?” We all had a laugh. I will absolutely be going to this place again. It has the best Japanese food I’ve tried in Shanghai and the friendliest service of any restaurant I’ve visited thus far. 
This weekend Shanghai finally started to see some warmer weather, so on Saturday, March 26th I decided to make my way to the center of town, People’s Square Park and the Bund. I forgot how crowded this area can get during the weekend, especially in warmer weather, and how annoying it is for various touts to come up to you and try to see you watches, bags, and other useless items. I decided to play deaf and put on my iPod headphones. Touts still followed me around but it was easier to play dumb this way. I didn’t really find any of the shops interesting on E. Nanjing. Fuzou Rd, just a few blocks south however, was a different story. After checking out the skyscrapers across the river from the Bund, I made my way down Fuzou Rd. The first stores I popped in were Blue Shanghai White and Suzhou Cobblers. Blue Shanghai White prides itself on  hand-painted porcelain wares such as tea cups and trays. Their furniture was quite unique. Suzhou Cobblers sells overpriced, but colorful hand-embroidered slippers and bags. Just down the road on bit on the right was the House of Blues and Jazz, and even further down was the Foreign Language Bookstore. I spent a good hour in this store browsing and leafing through some of the travel guides. I was starting to get exhausted at this point, so I made my way back to People’s Square and took the subway back home. I was so relieved to be away from the bustling crowds and neon lights, and came to realize how lucky I am to have found a place to live in the Old French Concession. For dinner, I finally tried Sasha’s, located in an imposing historic building on the corner of Dongpin and Hengshan Rd. The interior is quite cozy, and I enjoyed a yummy caesar salad and margarita thin-crust pizza. The 2nd floor is simply stunning, boasting an impressive French menu with correspondingly high prices. I’m looking forward to coming here again when they open up the back patio. 
View of Pudong from the Bund

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