New Developments in China’s Music Education and Festivals

by Cathy Barbash

Just back from almost three weeks in China. While I write my reports on recent activity, here is a guest post from Qi Yue, Visiting Scholar at Yale School of Music and Executive Director of the Eastern Strings Music Festival. – CB.

In China, the music-education market is much larger and more promising than the performance market. As urbanization accelerates and huge numbers of middle-class families emerge, more and more parents are sending their children to private violin, piano and ear-training lessons. Kaoji (grade test) and competitions for music students are crowded with children and parents. If you happened to pass by the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing on a Kaoji date, you would see a long line from inside the campus to the outside sidewalk — not for just an hour, but for several days, until the end of the Kaoji.

This is the case not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but in most major cities in China.

On the other hand, the number of summer music festivals or schools for children can be counted on one hand. Some, funded from sources outside of China, have survived, but are still struggling.

A new one, with non-government backing and outside funding, is emerging. In the summer of 2006, Prof. Wing Ho, from Central Conservatory, started a viola camp, teaching nearly 20 students from all over the country in his apartment in Beijing.  In just over four years, the camp has grown into what is now called the Eastern Strings Music Festival (ESMF), of which I am the executive director. In August 2010, we presented a free outdoor concert by the Jing Bo Lake in Mudanjiang (a northeastern city with a population of nearly three million) to an audience of thousands. Performers ranged in age from four to 65 years old and included nearly 30 faculty members from major conservatories in China, along with 120 students from both the mainland and Taiwan.  The featured soloist was violinist Chen Xi, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 17. Under festival Artistic Director Wing Ho’s baton, the ensemble offered standard western fare as well as local songs specially arranged by a guest Taiwanese composer.

Wing Ho was a visiting professor at Yale School of Music (also his alma mater) for the 2008-2009 academic year and has been asked to serve on the jury for 2011 Primrose Viola Competition. In 2000, he established a string chamber ensemble for 12- to 14-year old students in the Middle School of Central Conservatory. The ensemble, which he continues to conduct, is among the finest in China and serves as an inspiration to string teachers throughout the country.

The mission of ESMF is to bring internationally known music educators to different local Chinese cities, especially those outside of Beijing and Shanghai. As such, it moves to a different city every year.  Since it began, ESMF has traveled from Beijing to Baotou, Xi’an and Mudanjiang.  Students from past years keep coming back, to experience different natural and cultural highlights, following an ancient Chinese saying, “Read ten thousand books and walk ten thousand miles.”

Moving from place to place can be difficult for festival organizers, but the students love this yearly change. [Qi Yue points out that he has taken many music groups on tour throughout Europe, the U.S., and China, including the Golden Sail Symphony Orchestra Europe Tour and New England Conservatory Youth Symphony Orchestra China Tour, so he is well-equipped for ESMF’s format. – CB].

ESMF students range from beginners to advanced; at the end of the eight- to 12-day festival, students perform publicly. ESMF has already performed in such venues as the National Center of  Performing Arts and the Forbidden City Concert Hall. Some of the alumni have been admitted to Juilliard, Central Conservatory and other major international music schools.

In 2011, ESMF plans to launch an international exchange program, as well as introduce new multimedia techniques. Like China, each year the festival is growing and evolving fast.

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