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Learning to play the qin
Including techniques and materials 1
Traditionally a student mimics the teacher,
not looking at written music (compare online)
Why study guqin?3 In addition to the beauty of its music and its uniquely personal nature,4 playing guqin is a wonderful way to become involved with, and knowledgeable in, Chinese literati culture.5 This is because, although it is quite possible to enjoy the music simply as music (or as a force of nature), deep appreciation requires - and should inspire - inquiry into the culture of the people that produced it. This, in turn, reinforces the learning.6
Regarding my own teaching method, it is called teaching historically informed performance because, while it follows the traditional method of student copying teacher,7 there is also discussion of the historical and cultural background of melodies studied as well as of more purely musical issues, such as modality and rhythm, plus how these may have changed over the years.8 Related to this, teaching is exclusively done using silk strings (though students with metal stringed qins are quite welcome to continue playing them at home),9 and the melodies taught are almost exclusively their earliest known versions.10 This means that the melodies students learn include not only ones currently played by no one other than myself or my students, but also ones that are the earliest versions of melodies still popular today (such as those I learned from my own teacher, Sun Yuqin).11
Although I have instruments that may be available for rent, getting started usually requires buying a qin. Good instruments are becoming increasingly expensive, but it is still possible to get learner's instruments at quite reasonable prices; likewise with silk strings.12
It must be emphasized that I never claim that my reconstructions are accurate, only that I have done over 200 such reconstructions and can make arguments about why I interpreted the tablature as I did. Only if many other people also work extensively and systematically at this will we be able to have a deeper understanding of what qin music sounded like in the past.14
The guqin has a reputation as an instrument difficult to learn. As a student I always enjoyed it, so I never thought of it as difficult. What may be difficult is playing it in a way that others can appreciate it. If that is your aim, it is particularly helpful to remember such concepts as playing qin for an ox.
Links to further information about
qin tablature and playing technique:
From here there are links to further instructional pages for these. Though not complete, they range from basic information to the most arcane, such as those connected to early melodies, to the most basic. This site now includes the following; some other sites have further detail.15
The You Lan techniques date from the days when the tablature was written in longhand tablature; understanding them requires extra effort but is important for early HIP. Sources for this are listed here:
Attempts to modernize the tablature are at the other end of the spectrum, a primary aim being either to make it easier to add to staff notation, and/or so that it can be written by computer and perhaps without any Chinese. The first effort I heard of in this regard was that of 王光祈 Wang Guangqi in his book 翻譯琴譜之研究 Fanyi Qinpu zhi Yanjiu (Research into Translating Qin Tablature), Shanghai, 1931. I have a 1971 reprint from Taiwan. This page shows that he used a mixture of Roman and Arabic numerals and music symbols as well as some Chinese symbols (shorthand).
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)
There is an increasing number of qin teachers active not just in China but also in Southeast Asia, Europe and North America. Most teach with metal strings.
Note also that a number of qin teaching DVDs have been made. For example, in 2002, Guangzhou Dongtian Culture Enterprise, as part of their Dongtian Music Classes series, published a 5 VCD box-set showing Prof. Wu Zhao teaching qin. I don't know if it can be ordered from
their website. There are also instructional VCD / DVD sets by other players. To my knowledge, all use metal string qins and all are in Chinese.
Why study guqin?
As an aside, because so many Chinese know that guqin is important, but so few know much about it, from the beginning of my studies when I spoke to Chinese friends about guqin they would often say, "You know so much more about Chinese culture than I do." This, though of course not true, was quite flattering and thus encouraging. For those not taking the studies seriously this provides an instant veneer of cultural knowledge.
The personal nature of guqin studies is underlined by the quietness of the qin, especially a qin with the traditional silk strings. With other instruments you may have to worry about bothering other people when you practice. With silk string guqin you can just go into your home or studio, close the door and not worry about others.
Playing qin as a way into Chinese literati culture
Many if not most people who study the guqin do so because they know how important it is to traditional Chinese culture: the actual music seems secondary. For me the music has always been primary. Interest in Chinese culture is partly what led me to study guqin, but it was the fact of enjoying the music that made me want to go deeper. As I began to reconstruct more and more old melodies I not only found this connected to my love of early Western music, in particular through historically informed performance, it also drew me more deeply into Chinese culture: every time I discover a potentially interesting new melody I want to feel a connection to the minds of the people who created and appreciated it, hence the detailed commentary on this website that accompanies the melodies I play or have tried to play. Every time I take a tablature and turn it into a melody I think: "What kind of people created such lovely music?" I realize that I will never really know, at least not in a way I can put into words, but perhaps if I can uncover another piece I will have come a little closer. .
Reinforcing the learning
There is a passage in 荀子 (the book of) Xunzi that, although it does not directly mention guqin (concerning which see these passages from Xunzi) might be considered relevant to learning guqin. The idea conveyed in this passage is often written in English as follows, with the attribution generally being to Confucius ("Confucius said...."),
Playing guqin music while studying its important cultural associations is a great way to become deeply involved in traditional Chinese culture. Ironically, though, very few of the authors of the internet sites that cite the above quote seem to have become involved themselves enough to find out that it cannot actually be found amongst writings attributed to Confucius himself. The idea may be Confucian but, as some do point out, its source seems to be a section of Xunzi, Book 8 (CTP, 儒效/23), which begins,
This section of Xunzi goes on to elaborate on this concept. (Knoblock translates 儒效 Ru Xiao as "The Teachings of the Ru". "Ru" ["scholar", "to educate", etc.] is often considered synonymous with Confucianism, but its full meaning is broader than that.)
The above does not suggest that simply by playing guqin one will naturally become more than minimally involved in Chinse literati culture. In my own case, though, loving the music made me naturally want to know more about what produced it. I try to convey this inspiration to students.
Historical and cultural context
This is the focus of my website, so most of this information is readily available here. Modal understanding benefits greatly from hearing the examples together with the discussion.
Teaching with silk strings
For the mere purpose of connecting with philosophical aspects of the qin, for expressing this musically, or simply to play for enjoyment, it is quite possible to do so playing on a silk string qin, a metal string qin, a zheng, or even on a piano. However, only by playing with silk strings can one hope to re-create the aural world of the people who created qin music over the millennia. The differences in sound quality are immediately obvious when heard live or through a good sound recording and playback system. They can also be measured scientifically. Still, not everyone finds the differences significant, just as not everyone cares whether Bach is played on instruments of his day or on the 19th century equivalents. Some say that because they themselves cannot hear the differences in sound between metal/nylon, composite and silk strings, these differences must be insignificant. Some will even contend that because they themselves can play on metal strings and silk strings in the same way, there is no reason to explore how playing them differently might lead to bringing out the special qualities of the silk or metal string sounds.
In addition, many teachers (trained in nylon-metal or composite strings) and/or their students say that it is too difficult to learn using only silk strings, as though all the students of past generations who learned on silk were at a big disadvantage. As for their constant complaints about the quality of ordinary silk strings, when I began studying in Taiwan in 1974 the quality of available silk strings was not very good, but this only became a problem when I was called on to perform. Even if this was at one of the "elegant gatherings" so popular with players the environment (noisy room, people more interested in talking than listening, changing humidity) often puts silk string players at a particular disadvantage. In addition, today most of the players at such events are likely to be people who have played only on metal. If they try on your silk strings the beginners in particular will get scratchy sounds and blame it on the strings rather than on their technique (metal string players are usually too heavy handed on silk strings). They will say the silk hurts their fingers and not believe accounts of silk string players who find nylon metal strings painful. If the instrument goes out of tune many won't know how to tune it (though re-tuning with silk strings is much easier than doing so with nylon-metal).
One other comment on silk strings: contrary to what metal string advocates say, if you can keep your silk strings in a relatively stable environment, and do not feel the need to tune them up to the Western concert pitch so beloved by metal string players, they are long lasting, hold their tuning quite well, and do not require a lot of care.
Some of the original versions of melodies I learned from my teacher are almost the same as versions played today, others are very different. Also, it should be remembered that we have little concrete information as to what extent these early written versions were intended to be prescriptive or simply descriptive. For example, perhaps they showed how a particular teacher taught that melody, but the teacher may also have played it other ways at other times. Thus, although I teach the melodies exactly as I play them, I also encourage the students (once they have mastered this) to experiment. This can include studying the modern versions (I began doing reconstructions by studying some of those done by such masters as Guan Pinghu and Wu Jinglue). It is interesting then (at least to me) to discuss how some modern versions stick to an idiom that could still be ancient, whereas in other cases (such as the modern triple rhythm Jiu Kuang, where the triple rhythms sound interesting but have little historical justification) they should be clearly labeled as modern innovations.
Uniqueness of the HIP repertoire
Many qin players are only comfortable with versions of melodies with which they are familiar. Metal string players in particular, if you talk about the colors available only with silk strings and how this affects method of play, seem simply to tune out. Others, however, are quite interested to hear "new" melodies (i.e., old ones they have never heard before) or "new" versions of melodies with which they are familiar.
The purpose of writing this is not to argue that reconstructed older melodies are better, just that the older ones reflect something unique about their times just as the newer versions reflect things unique about our times. Being able to appreciate one should not conflict with being able to appreciate the other.
Getting started: instruments and their strings
There is some information on buying a qin here under Acquiring a Qin. Within the USA one possible source of less expensive guqins is: Sound of Asia in Los Angeles. I have been told that the guqins they sell for $350 are quite usable, but I have not heard them myself (though I have heard others that sell at about that price). For those wishing to use silk strings on an inexpensive instrument I generally advise getting a light weight instrument. The sound will not be very rich, but it will still have what sounds to me like more character than the sound on an inexpensive metal stringed qin. But since such instruments are invariably sold strung with metal strings it will probably be necessary to get advice and/or assistance in setting them up with silk.
As for the silk strings, recently I have been favoring the rather expensive Marusan Hashimoto silk strings, but most of the recordings on this site were done with ones similar to those that can still be found today for under US$50 a set.
A final note: when I began studying in 1974 I had a qin rather comparable to a light weight modern inexpensive instrument, and it had quite coarse silk strings. My teacher said it would take a couple of years' use to break in the strings, and I just assumed this was the way it had always been. Now perhaps I am spoiled by having good instruments and good quality strings, but recalling my own early experience sometimess tends to make me somewhat impatient with people who are ready to abandon silk strings because they are "too much trouble" (太麻煩 tai mafan").
Importance of this work
As someone who loves early Western music, which is an almost completely reconstructed tradition, it has always puzzled me why some qin players and/or scholars seem so resistant to the idea that a similar movement for the qin could produce equally interesting results, not to mention beautiful music.
Specific playing instructions
The following sources have further information about guqin playing techniques. In general they are more tailored to modern qin play than the information on the present website.
This information up to date as of December 2020.
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