On the second day Zhang was in this country, she ran into Frank Tao at the Chinese Culture Center, with whom she exchanged notes about the local Chinese music scene. Tao later introduced her to members of Jumping Buddha, and she’s been a part of them since.

Touring with Jumping Buddha, Zhang has performed at various festivals, giving world music performances at Bay Area venues, school workshops, and on radio programs such as KPFA 94.1, KKUP and KALW 91.7.

For Zhang, playing in America is very different than in the Chinese orchestra. “When I play with Jumping Buddha, I learn to play with my heart,” she says. “In the orchestra, you are controlled by the conductor. But here when I play with Jumping Buddha, it’s freer, I can do my own interpretations of the music. I pay more attention to creativity ... I think that’s the advantage to playing here in the U.S. There’s more room to be an artist.”

Raised in a musical family with one sister who’s a violinist, and another who’s a vocalist, Zhang began her musical training young with her father Zai Zhong Zhang as her first formal teacher. “My father is a lover of music more than anybody I know. He played erhu very well ... My father’s dream was to play the erhu as a professional musician,” she remembers.

Zhang started erhu lessons when she was ten years old. She remembers her father riding the bicycle over many hills to take her to lessons. After class, he would take time to explain the mistakes made during the lessons on their ride back home. Looking back, Zhang attributes her achievement to the pivotal influence her father had on her in the early years. “I really appreciate my dad. If he had not done this, I would not have achieved this, even [if] I had the talent. Nobody knows. I really got a lot from my father.”

In 1977, at age 17, Zhang was accepted by the Central Conservatory Junior Division in Beijing China through a highly competitive audition process that weeded out a thousand applicants for just one position. “I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I went through three auditions to get accepted into the Conservatory ... My father was so proud he told everybody. Now everybody from my home town Zheng Zhou in Henan Province knows about me.”

Within two years of studying under the famous erhu professor Liu Zhen Hua, Zhang graduated with honors, and earned the privilege of studying at the Conservatory College Program. From 1980 through 1984, Zhang studied under the nationally acclaimed professor Lan Yu Song at the Department of Chinese instruments of Central Conservatory of Music, earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Music in 1984. “The [deepest] impression I have of the Conservatory is that it is very difficult to find a practice room. Everyone is on a schedule. Everyone wants more practice,” Zhang says.

After graduation, Zhang became a member of the National Traditional Orchestra of China. She performed with the orchestra for 12 years from 1984 to 1997, touring within China and abroad throughout Asia. As a soloist, Zhang was featured by the Beijing Radio Broadcasting Station, one of the largest radio stations in China. Additionally, Zhang has performed erhu with traditional ensembles touring throughout China, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States.

Zhang has had her share of hard times as well. When touring throughout China, the orchestra would be on the road daily, two to three months at a time, visiting rural towns and villages where the sound system was poor and the group had to set the stage up themselves.

“Back in 1984, Chinese people liked pop music and Western classical music. Chinese music was not popular ... Sometimes I felt so disappointed by their reactions,” she admits. “But I feel the progress of Chinese music since then. Later, as orchestra music became more and more famous, people liked us more and more. Now it is really hot.”

Looking back on her career, she has only one piece of advice to give: “My most important lesson is to forget yourself. Don’t be selfish when you play. Don’t think about the audience. Get into the music. That’s most important.”

As a maturing artist, Zhang’s favorite erhu music is the “Leisure Poem” by Liu Tian Hua, who she considers a true erhu master. A leading music scholar in the 1920s who developed the erhu into a professional instrument, Hua wrote ten erhu pieces, each one a unique expression, some of which Zhang will play in her upcoming concert.

“Leisure Poem” sounds like a lone scholar, reflecting on his nightly walks in the moonlight in China while considering his course of life. A thoughtful soul-soothing piece, which Zhang interprets with refined and clear artistic detail on her album, the song ranges from festive playful moments to lonely nostalgic thoughts in the night. “His music has real character,” she points out. “[He doesn’t work] just people’s emotions. He presents the artist’s thinking with his music,” she says.

“I think erhu is a worth-while instrument to put your energy into,” Zhang says. “It’s not just about technique. Erhu music has a lot of room to grow.” She adds: “It is the main instrument in Chinese music, and China has a long history of culture. It’s good to know a lot about Chinese culture through learning erhu. Some things about the Chinese soul you cannot learn except this way.”


(by Yafonne)


©2003    7/8 Music Productions