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Videos for learning guqin 1
Lowest string tuned mostly between B and Bb; compare lowest string tuned to A 2
第一絃的音高為 B - Bb
  Good angle for a teaching video 3                
The best way to learn guqin is face to face with a teacher - the traditional method and the way I learned. To a certain extent live online learning can substitute, the main problems usually being, first, just getting set up;4 second, the difficulty of both parties playing together at the same time.5 Videos fix that. One can play along with a good video if the tuning is pitched the same; one thing missing, though, is that the video is always exactly the same. In live learning the teacher may do things a bit different each time. This brings such rote learning more alive.

The present site has extensive information about fingering technique over the ages. However, it does not yet have a simple and unified directory of for learning the basic tablature. For this my recommendation is to look at a website such as that of 張培幼 Pei-You Chang:

The videos here through Lesson 6 have been made for a series of qin classes designed for beginners. My strong recommendation is that, before beginning, students familiarize themselves with background information such as one can find on this website. Particularly appropriate for this study are:

There are more pages on this site explaining the tablature used to show finger techniques, such as here, but beginners may also try to learn to play in the traditional manner: simply copy the videos.6

As for the melodies themselves, even beginners' melodies can be played at any level - there is a tradition saying that the apparently simple melodies often require more skill than do the typical virtuoso pieces (e.g., see Liu Shui comparison).7

There is also a tradition that says one should learn a melody thoroughly before playing it for an "outsider" - someone who does not also play. 8

All students are encouraged also to study the artistic and cultural context of this music. So beginning with Lesson 1 below, links are given to such information about each melody.

Videos (Comments on pitch and tuning methods)

There are also smaller .mov files here for some pieces, such as Cao Man Yin 1 and Cao Man Yin 2. Video quality is somewhat lower; more dramatic is the lower sound quality.

Other videos (see also Videos with first string tuned to A)
Other videos of melodies for students are here divided into three types:

  1. Songs: it is especially good for students to sing melodies before playing them. Singing while playing is more difficult, requiring memorizing the lyrics
    Songs are here subdivided into two sections:

    1. Songs from the earliest existing collection of qin songs, Taigu Yiyin (1511).
      In addition to two that are included above (Gu Qiu Feng and Feng Ru Song Ge) this includes the following:

      1. 南風歌 Nan Feng Ge (Song of Southern Winds); commentary; transcription
        This and the next piece use only five strings
      2. 思親操 Si Qin Cao (Thinking of Parents); commentary; transcription (sung)
        Another video has this piece played on the lap in a memorial garden
      3. 湘妃怨 Xiang Fei Yuan (Lament of the Xiang River Concubines); commentary; transcription
        Earliest version of 湘江怨 Xiang Jiang Yuan (its commentary links to its transcription)
      4. 亞聖操 Ya Sheng Cao (Lament of the Proximate Sage); commentary; transcription
        Same refrain for each of seven sections: good training to repeat a passage so often
      5. 黃鐘調 Huangzhong Diao (Yellow Bell Mode); commentary; transcription (not sung)
        This melody only here, with no commentary; set to lyrics of a poem by Li He.
      6. 歸去來辭 Gui Qu Lai Ci (Come Away Home); commentary; transcription (sung)
        Earliest version of a melody in the standard repertoire, with famous lyrics seldom sung
      7. 春江曲 Chun Jiang Qu (Springtime River Melody); commentary; transcription (not sung)
        The melody is related to a number of other pieces published in the 16th and 17th centuries; set to several lyrics from the Yuefu Shiji.

    2. Miscellaneous Songs from later sources

      1. 漁歌調 Yu Ge Diao (>1505; Melody of the Fisherman's Song; twice: solo qin then with voice); commentary; transcription (pdf)
        Lyrics by Liu Zongyuan; a prelude for Yu Ge (see below; uses the non-standard ruibin tuning
      2. 陽關三疊 Yang Guan San Die (1530; Thrice "Yang Guan"; solo qin); title?; commentary
        陽關三疊 Yang Guan San Die (1530; Thrice "Yang Guan"; sung with qin); transcription (pdf)
        A famous parting song expanding on lyrics by Wang Wei; uses the non-standard ruibin tuning
      3. 文君操 Wenjun Cao (1539; Song for Wenjun; solo qin); commentary; pdf of transcription
        文君操 Wenjun Cao (1539; Song for Wenjun; sung with Qin); listen with transcription
        A romantic song also called A Phoenix Sekes his Mate(鳳求凰 Feng Qiu Huang
      4. 醉翁吟 Zui Weng Yin (1539 & 1571; Old Toper's Chant) (sung: see lyrics)
        醉翁吟 Zui Weng Yin; commentary; transcription (same music but solo qin)
        Two settings of the same lyrics showing very different treatment
      5. 鹿鳴 Lu Ming (1618; Deer Calls); (sung; see lyrics; commentary; transcription)
        A banquet song published in 1618, with lyrics from the from the Book of Songs.
      6. 子夜吳歌 Ziye Wu Ge (1676; Ziye Songs of Wu); commentary; transcription
        Short song from a handbook published in Japan, with lyrics by Li Bai
      7. 清平樂 Qing Ping Yue (1676; Clear Peaceful Music); commentary; transcription
        Short song from same Japanese source, with romantic lyrics about the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl
      8. 水調歌頭 Shui Diao Ge Tou (1687; Water Tune Prelude); commentary; transcription
        Early melody that can be sung using the lyrics of a modern song popularized by Deng Lijun

  2. Earliest versions from the "standard instrumental repertoire"
    Specifically, the earliest version of melodies I learned from my own teacher, Sun Yuqin. Here note values are informed by the rhythms of the versions I learned from him; in contrast, my interpretation of almost all other pieces in my repertoire come purely from my understanding of the existing tablature itself. Note that the first four listed below (all having lyrics but rarely sung) are already listed and linked above,

    1. 仙翁操 Xian Weng Cao
    2. 湘妃怨 Xiang Fei Yuan
    3. 歸去來辭 Gui Qu Lai Ci
    4. 陽關三疊 Yang Guan San Die

    5. 春閨怨 Chun Gui Yuan (1799? Spring Chamber Lament); commentary; transcription
      Said to be earliest version of 玉樓春曉 Yu Lou Chun Xiao, a piece otherwise not published until 1931, where it is almost the same as here

    6. 良宵引 Liang Xiao Yin (1614 Peaceful Evening Prelude); commentary; transcription
      Can be traced through about 45 versions since 1614, but modern version still quite similar

    7. 梅花三弄 Meihua Sannong (1425; Three Repetitions of "Plum Blossom"; rec. August 2018); commentary; transcription
      The modern version can be traced through over 50 versions

    8. 漁樵問答 Yu Qiao Wenda (1559; Dialogue between a Fisherman and a Woodcutter"); commentary; transcription
      The modern version can be traced through over 40 versions

    9. 鷗鷺忘機 Oulu Wang Ji (1620; No Ulterior Motives Regarding Seabirds); commentary; transcription
      The modern version can be traced through over 30 versions

    10. 雁落平沙 Yan Luo Pingsha (1634; Wild Geese Descend on a Sandbank); commentary; transcription
      The modern piece can be traced through over 75 handbooks since 1634, many with multiple versions

    11. 梧葉舞秋風 Wuye Wu Qiufeng (1664; Leaves Dance in an Autumn Breeze); commentary; transcription
      This piece can be traced through over 25 handbooks since 1634, but the modern version still seems quite close to the original

    12. 流水 Liu Shui (1425; Flowing Streams); commentary; transcription (new Zoom video)
      At first similar to modern version but then does not have the "72 glissandos"

    13. 瀟湘水雲 Xiao Xiang Shui Yun (1425; Water and Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers); commentary; transcription
      Uses raised 5th string tuning; earliest version what is still today one of the most popular standards

  3. Miscellaneous further videos
    Students can choose to learn from a wide variety of available melodies. Those with video recordings include:

    1. 山中思友人 Shanzhong Si Youren (1425; Amidst mountains thinking of an old friend); commentary; transcription
      No musical relationship to the modern Yi Guren (Thinking of Old Friends)

    2. 鶴鳴九皋 He Ming Jiu Gao (1425; Cranes Cry in the Nine Marshbanks); commentary; transcription
      An early melody last published in 1590 (scroll in video has image)

    3. 楚歌 Chu Ge (1425; Song of Chu); commentary; transcription
      "Farewell my concubine"; song from 1511 used as prelude (comment on lyrcs; scroll in video has image)

    4. 漁歌 Yu Ge (>1505; Fisherman's Song; has as prelude Yu Ge Diao (above); commentary; transcription (pdf)
      Gentlemen imagine themselves fishermen; often called Ao Ai, it uses the non-standard ruibin tuning (compare the standard tuning Yu Ge)

    5. 杏壇 Xing Tan (1525; Apricot Tree Pavilion; commentary; transcription (pdf)
      Illustrations depict Confucius in Qufu playing qin under a "xing" tree while teaching students (scroll in video has image)

    6. 採真遊 Cai Zhen You (1525; Roaming to Gather the True; commentary; calligraphy of Cai Zhen You; transcription (pdf)
      Title recalls the account in Zhuangzi of a conversation between Confucius and Laozi (see scroll on left side of video)

    7. 春曉吟 Chun Xiao Yin (1525; Spring Dawn Intonation; commentary; transcription (pdf)
      Aligned as prelude to Zhi Zhao Fei but can also be same for Chun Si (next).

    8. 春思 Chun Si (1525; Thoughts of Spring; commentary; transcription (pdf)
      Has no prelude but the melody Chun Xiao Yin (previous) can be used as such.

    9. 大明一統 Da Ming Yi Tong (1539; Unity of the Great Ming; commentary; transcription (pdf)
      Glory to the Ming dynasty and long live the emperor!

    10. 色空訣 Se Kong Jue (1625; Canon of Form and Emptiness; commentary; transcription (pdf)
      This musical setting of the Heart Sutra can be sung in English or Chinese, but also in Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Guqin videos  
Most of the videos currently online here are .mp4 files with sizes ranging from about 30 MB to over 100 MB per minute. Depending on the computer, it may be possible to play them simply by clicking on them, or it might be better first to download them onto a computer. In any case, the aim is to recapture the essence of the way I learned qin, by sitting across the table from the teacher and trying to imitate him or her as much as possible. With this arrangement it was not possible either to look at my right hand or to look at written music.

Most of these videos have been made using a camera with a built in microphone. Because of the simple setup and because the videos have been made for students, the camera is generally closer to the qin than it is in the above image. Having the lens so close to the qin makes it appear rather larger than it is in real life.

Comments on pitch (for relative pitches see Qin Tunings)

For most of the video recordings here the pitch of the bottom (1st) string is tuned to B flat/A sharp on a piano; thus for guqin standard tuning the pitches of the seven qin strings are usually the equivalent to what on a modern piano is Bb, C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C'. In contrast, Chinese conservatories try to enforce the Western standard of A=440 on Chinese instruments, specifically tuning the guqin so that the bottom string is the equivalent of C on a piano.

In this regard it is important to remember that, although historical documents have suggested early Chinese interest in finding an ideal pitch, there is no evidence to indicate how this might have affected qin tuning. Traditionally, however, there was only relative pitch, the actual pitch of the strings depending on such factors as the size and quality of the instruments, the quality of the strings, and the tastes of the individual players. For reason, although in my transcriptions use Western staff notation, the notes should be considered as relative pitch: C = do (1/gong in the Chinese system); D = re (2/shang); and so forth.

In fact, all of my recordings, including these videos, have been made over a period of time and so the relative pitch is not always consistent: the bottom string might also be tuned to A or B natural, rarely C. Personally, in places of relatively constant temperature and humidity I have kept my bottom strings tuned to between B and B flat, perhaps tuning them up for performance, or tuning them down when the humidity is higher/changing.

This is all related to the fact that I use silk strings. Silk strings are very strong and reliable if they are not tuned too high for the temperature and humidity. The modern Chinese conservatory standard does not allow such flexibility. Instead it has abandoned the silk string tradition in favor of modern nylon metal strings, favoring an aesthetic very much influenced by Western performance standards.

Comments on tuning methods (for achieving various tunings see Tuning a Qin)

    There are several stages in this process. The first stage is the most complicated, but once that first stage is complete the guqin is usually easier to tune than Western string instruments in which the strings are directly wrapped around the tunings pegs. The stages are as follows:

  1. Preparation of the strings and tassels
    Before beginning to tune a qin the strings must be prepared by putting bowed knots at one end of each string; the tassels are prepared by knotting them so that when they go through the tops of the tassels the tassles are at the front edge of the bridge when the qin is roughly in tune. Since the tassels go across, behind and then below the bridge, it is important that the distance between the top of the tassel and the place where it enters the peg be exactly correct. By constrast, the length of the tassel after it leaves the bottom of the tuning peg is not fixed. The looped end of each tassel is pulled through the respective hole in the qin behind the bridge, usually with the assistance of a strong but thin and flexible piece of metal (e.g., a paper clip).

  2. Initial tuning
    The unknotted end of each string is put through an opening in the respective twisted tassel, and then wrapped around one the two feet below the opposite end of the instrument: wrapped lower strings go around the foot away from the player, the unwrapped upper strings go around the foot closer to the player. When first stringing or when re-stringing a silk string qin you have to expect some initial stretching, usually requiring a complete retuning. Silk strings are very strong: once looped and tied on the string you can pull then very hard to stretch the string. Generally you can also tune them much higher than their intended eventual pitches: within a few hours they will settle in closer to the intended pitches. The actual tuning is generally not done to the player's left by re-tying the strings to the feet but at the player's right by twisting the tuning pegs with the right hand. (Important: since strings usually break where they rub against the bridge, it is recommended that when loosening or tightening a string one use the left hand to lift the string off the bridge.)

  3. Rough tuning (uses stopped and open strings)
    Rough tuning may require re-tying a string around one of the two legs. Otherwise, it is done by matching the pitches of open strings with stopped strings. For example, one might begin by matching the pitch of the open seventh string with that of the fourth string stopped in the ninth position, then adjusting the sound of the open sixth string so that it has the same pitch as that of the fourth string stopped in the 10th position; the pitch of the third string stopped in the ninth position would then be adjusted to match that of the open sixth string, and the pitch of the open fifth string would be adjusted so that it matches that of the third string stopped in the 11th position. The open second string is an octave below the open seventh; the open first is an octave below the open sixth.

  4. Fine tuning (uses harmonics)
    This is done by using harmonics instead of stopped sounds. Again harmonics in the 7th position are matched with those of lower strings in the 9th position, and harmonics in the 9th position are matched with those of lower strings in the 10th position. A possible harmonic sequence is to match the seventh string 7th position with the fourth string 9th position; then adjust the fifth string 10th position so it matches the seventh string 9th position, and adjust the sixth string 9th position so it matches the fourth string 10th position. The fourth to seventh strings now have correct relative tuning and so the third string 9th position can be matched to the sixth string 7th position and so forth.

Eventually there will be some demonstration videos.

2. Tuning the first string to A
For those who prefer the more mellow sound of lower tuning, or who fear the strings breaking; see separate listing.

3. Best angle for demonstrating
This high angle allows the student to see more clearly which string the teach is plucking. It must be added, though, that in face to face teaching the angle is not so high. When I studied with my teacher I do not remember specifically seeing exactly where he put his fingers - the action was too fast, so I had to gain an intuitive sense of where the relative positions were. By trail and error this became more clear, but having a sense of where the positions should be without having to look anywhere but one's own fingers is an important part of playing guqin (and probably most instruments).

4. Setting up
This is often a particular problem if one wishes to follow the ancient tradition of silk strings. It is rare that one can buy a guqin with silk strings, much less one with the silk strings tuned. In addition, nylon metal strings are usually tuned to the Western standard of A=440. There is further discussion of this under silk strings.

5. Technical issues
To avoid feedback video chat apps only allow sound to go in one direction at a time; if you can get around that there is also the problem of time delay, not matter how short.

6. Learn by copying
When I began studying with my teacher, Sun Yuqin, he said, "Do not look at the tablature, just copy me." In fact, although the tablature looks rather complicated to those unfamiliar with it, once you learn to play a piece it does not take a lot of instruction to understand the tablature. (Further below.)

7. Difficult pieces
This is rather comparable to the attitude of those who say Mozart is more difficult than Chopin: according to them, the pyrotechnics in the latter may impress a lot of people but sophisticated listeners (i.e., "zhi yin") appreciate a more subtle approach. This does not mean that they cannot enjoy Chopin, and appreciate all the hard work that goes into learning the techniques needed to play it, but they also think that Mozart requires as much skill, just not of a flashy sort.

8. Playing for others
My teacher Su Yuqin told me I should play a piece "at least a thousand times" for myself before playing it for an outsider (i.e., someone who does not already play qin). However, in my experience today (especially on the internet) it often seems that there is little connection between the skill level of player and their willingness to play for others.

As for me, I am split between a desire to follow this instruction from my teacher, and my desire to play and document melodies that I have not heard before, mainly because in most cases none of them is known to have been played by anyone in centuries. Every time I "finish" such a reconstruction I love the result, but then instead of dwelling on that, once I have recorded it I am then likely tempted by looking at tablature for another "new" melody. Later when I listen to an earlier reconstruction I can hear that I should have done better when recording it. But then, rather than re-do that, I go on and reconstruct yet another new melody, hoping that the earlier reconstructions are at least good enough that they will inspire others to try to do it "better", or at least in their own way.

9. Preliminary exercises
When I began studying qin there were never "exercises": one just learned melodies. This was done by facing the teacher and trying to imitate what he did (see image)

10. Transcriptions
As mentioned above, my teacher told me many times not to look at the tablature, just to copy him. He thereby emphasized that this is an oral tradition: I might occasionally consult the tablature, if I wished, but I was learning from him, not from the tablature. To me this is related to the issue of whether guqin melodies are compositions or creations.

In this regard students should as much as possible try to learn from the accompanying videos, consulting the transcriptions only when the videos are not clear.

11. Looking Left
The right hand should strike the strings about midway between the 1st hui and the bridge; changing this position can give a slightly sharper or more rounded sound, but such changes are small and should not require looking at the right hand. It is much more important to look at the left hand, because it moves up and down and one requires great precision to get proper intonation.

The main exception to looking at one's own left hand actually comes when studying with the teacher: here the student must look at and mimic the teacher's hand movements. Fortunately, since the teacher is somewhat to the student's left across the table, both the teacher's and the student's hands are within the same field of vision, if not the direct focus.

Unfortunately, learning to play without looking at one's own hands does not mean that sight-reading the written score becomes easy: the information conveyed by qin tablature is in some ways more detailed than that conveyed by staff or number notation, at the same time it omits the important detail of the note values (rhythm), which must be learned from the teacher or, if the tablature is actually the teacher (as in dapu), by careful analysis of the overall structure of the melody, not just each separate note.


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