With both parents playing suona, and their siblings made a living playing the traditional instrument, its “distinctly loud and shrill” sound formed the soundtrack of Liu Wenwen’s youth.
Perhaps Liu, who was born in Jining, a city in Shandong Province, should have been expected to start learning suona at 4 years old, with his parents teaching him the intricacies of the Chinese wind instrument and its double reed mouthpiece. At first, however, she was reluctant to learn.
Suona is typically played alongside other traditional Chinese musical instruments, such as gongs, drums, and sheng, a multi-reed organ, and one of the oldest Chinese wind instruments with reed folk groups during performances. weddings and funerals in rural northeast China.
“I didn’t want to tell my friends that I was playing suona because the musical instrument was considered old-fashioned and rustic. My childhood dream was to become a dancer because, at the same time, I was training in Chinese folk dance, ârecalls Liu.
However, her parents, whose families have long played suona, insisted that their only daughter carry on the tradition.
Liu’s father’s family have been playing suona for over seven generations. Liu Baobin received veteran training suona master Ren Tongxiang, known for having adapted and interpreted the famous suona room, Hundreds of birds paying homage to Phoenix. Liu Wenwen’s mother, Liu Hongmei, is a 12th generation musician in her family, who performed suona since the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
“For my parents, suona is beyond a musical instrument. It is about family and history, which runs in their blood, âsaid Liu Wenwen.
She remembers getting up at 5 a.m. and her mother taking her to a garden near her house to learn how to play. suona. After about two hours of training, Liu Wenwen went to school, before returning home to practice some more.
During the summer and winter holidays, her mother took her to Beijing, Shanghai, and the cities of Shandong to visit a veteran. suona players, who would increase his training with their different styles of play. Such training also exposed Liu Wenwen to a wide range of repertoires.
Today, Liu Wenwen, 29, who is a suona a teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, understands his parents’ perseverance and loyalty to the instrument.
âI’m doing the same thing now and I’m proud to tell people that I play suona,â she says.
She obtained her master’s degree from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 2018 as the first suona major student of the country. Today, as the country’s first student in a doctoral program in suona performance at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Liu Wenwen is also one of the most active young players in China.
On Sunday, she gave a concert in Shanghai with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Under the direction of conductor Zhang Liang, she performed musical pieces arranged for suona and symphony orchestra, including a world premiere of a musical piece called Opening of the big door composed by Xu Jianqiang and The ballad of the Yellow River composed by Zhou Chenglong.
âThe instrument comes from rural China and all of these musical pieces feature elements of folk music, such as songs from Shaanxi province, which provide audiences with a glimpse into these unique rural cultures,â says Liu Wenwen.
At the end of the concert, she invited her students to join her for a performance of Hundreds of birds paying homage to Phoenix. The students who were seated among the audience walked towards the stage, imitating the sound of birds on the suona.
She keeps in the habit of training at least three hours a day, playing suona requires oral muscle function and breathing techniques. Before his concerts, Liu Wenwen usually isolates himself and spends eight hours a day training.
One of the most memorable concerts she played was in 2017 when she performed Hundreds of birds paying homage to Phoenix in Australia alongside award-winning composer Tan Dun and working with the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras.
âThe rooster was the Chinese zodiac sign for 2017 and Tan Dun suggested that I exhibit my musical instrument techniques to Western audiences. So I imitated the sounds of a rooster on stage, which I learned from my mother. warm and the public was won over by the versatility of suona. I was very excited, “recalls Liu Wenwen.
“Like many traditional Chinese musical instruments, suona has a very long history and it has been widely played by the Chinese people on important occasions in the past. It’s still tied to their lives, âsaid a veteran suona player Liu Ying, professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
At 15, Liu Wenwen moved to Shanghai and began studying with Liu Ying, who was impressed by the teenager’s strong skills and her family’s long history of preserving the musical instrument.
“Suona may not seem like a very sophisticated musical instrument that looks simple, but it requires a lot of skill to play. Lots of classic suona The songs, which are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese folk culture, take at least 10 years for a player to produce the best sound, âLiu Ying told Liu Wenwen.
She traveled to rural China to visit suona players, learning skills and repertoires from them.
âIt is very difficult to learn their skills just by observing their performance. The sounds are produced by their mouths. I can only hear the sounds and try, over and over again, to reproduce them,â says Liu Wenwen.
With the urbanization and development of rural China, folk groups face a decline. The sound of suona is also in danger.
âIn the past, my parents’ siblings played suona, but now I’m the only one of the younger generation still playing, which is sad, âsaid Liu Wenwen.
However, the young musician is ambitious and wants to work with musicians from different musical genres, such as jazz and bossa nova, with the aim of giving suona a contemporary touch and attract a younger audience.
She noticed that there are young people suona Players actively promote the musical instrument on social media platforms, which helps the instrument to experience a revival. For example, a young man named Chuanzi adapted the hit by Norwegian music producer Alan Walker, Spectrum, with suona. Another player, Asheng, adapted the song by American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish Bad boy for saxophone and suona.
âThere are a lot of children in Shanghai who are learning Suona, which is a good sign. Their parents, born in the 80s and 90s, are open-minded about the instrument,â says Liu Wenwen.