A Musical Interlude

Trip Start Aug 29, 2012
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Trip End Ongoing


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What I did
Nanjing Middle School

Flag of China  , Jiangsu,
Saturday, October 20, 2012

Welcome back! We did not save you a seat.

After spending an exhausting day pushing through crowds at Chengdu's traditional food streets, Huang Qian and I arrived at the airport. A smile spread across her face as her mom's taxi pulled away. "Isn't she sad to see her mom go?" I thought. I understood the reason for her glee when she rushed me to the duty-free shop to purchase her first pack of cigarettes in five days.
 
A satisfied Huang Qian and an exhausted Yiwan lugged their belongings, including an entire roast duck from her mother, onto the plane. We arrived around 2am, well after the last trains rumbled away from their stations. Eager to collapse into our comfortable bus seats for the long ride to downtown, we rushed with the other passengers to the Greyhound headed for Jing'An Temple. Finally aboard, we glanced around frantically as we realized there were no seats left.

We stood in the middle aisle, arms spread like wings to grasp the steady seats on either side of us. I watched a sleeping Pudong rush past to the edgy voice of Amy Winehouse blasting through my iPod earphones.
 
Oppa Gangnam Style

People just can't get enough of the great and powerful Yiwan! Two days after we returned to Shanghai, Huang Qian's aunt and uncle came to town.  After spending the first part of the week relaxing, eating, and playing cards against the peaceful backdrop of the Leshan Mountains, we were going out, Gangnam Style! We headed to the 24-hour karaoke bar, or "KTV", to belt out some tunes. 

We performed creative renditions of Tante, Gangnam Style, 90s boy band music including the soothing sounds of NSync and the Backstreet Boys, and even some Beijing Opera. As none of us speak Korean, our version of Gangnam Style was particularly creative. I'm confident that our improvised Chinglish lyrics are going to catch on any day now.
 
Happy 130th birthday, Nanjing Middle School!

It turned out to be quite a musical weekend, as I had my first concert with the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra on Sunday. We headed to Jiangyin, a city two and a half hours up the Yangtze River from Shanghai. Luckily, another violist saved me a seat on this Greyhound. 

We pulled into an elite middle school with a campus twice the size of St. Olaf. It was adorned with red lanterns and celebratory banners: "Happy 130th birthday, Nanjing Middle School!" 

Our 87-year-old conductor attended Nanjing Middle School as a young lad and taught music there right out of college. As he's quite a loquacious fellow, especially during concerts, he volunteered this information to the students before we'd even tuned our instruments. I believe I saw him get a little misty-eyed as the auditorium erupted into applause. 
 
Chinese orchestra concerts can last 2-3 hours, even longer if you have a conductor who likes to talk to the audience. Before playing Dvorak's New World Symphony, he had various instrumentalists play the major themes. After all, what fun is music if the kids don't even understand it? Furthermore, what fun is music if you don't ask the musicians to improvise on the spot for the first time during the performance?

And we did play fun music! In addition to the New World Symphony and The Bartered Bride, we played a song our conductor wrote called "Elephant", a patriotic sing-a-long, and, of course, four variations of Happy Birthday. The bassoon, bass, and tuba players came to the front of the stage for the "Elephant" wearing special elephant hats. One of the three Americans in the orchestra is a bassoonist who doesn't speak Chinese. She had no idea this was happening until she was rushed, mid-song, to the front of the stage with her section.

The orchestra is full of these kinds of surprises. The surprise I received that night was much easier to stomach than hers. After the concert, the principal violist handed me a few hundred kuai, a "stipend" that we get after every concert. Not only do we not pay dues for the volunteer orchestra, they actually pay us to play!
 
Piano man
 
You'll be happy to know that my fabulous new pocket money was invested right back into China's music industry. I took a whole day the next weekend to explore Jinling Road, Shanghai's fabled music Mecca off of People's Square. 

The entire road is filled with shops selling guitars, keyboards, and Chinese instruments. I had arrived! Musical instruments as far as the eye could see in an alley nestled right between People's Square and the Bund! What could possibly go wrong?!

As they say, location, location, location...and, unfortunately, the other darn foreigners had discovered this location, too. They just have to ruin everything, don't they? A five minute walk from West Nanjing Road, I should've known the prices would be preposterous. I saw Casio keyboards being peddled for over $1000! It was time to turn to Taobao.

Taobao is China's shopping website where you can find everything from fake iPhones to grand pianos. When I saw a nice instrument with weighted keys being sold for the suspiciously cheap price of under $100, I jumped on the opportunity. It should arrive later this week. I'm crossing my fingers that it works better than my deafening, fake iPhone that only has one volume setting and can't send texts.
 
So cross your fingers for me as I await my dirt cheap keyboard and check out my other pictures at the bottom of the page!
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