Guzheng in Seattle: A Chinese Harp Cures Homesickness

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Shirley Wang (Photo by Laura Ohata/NWAW)

By Laura Ohata
Northwest Asian Weekly

YanFen Wang just moved from Shanghai, where she studied a Chinese classical harp called the guzheng. She says, “Sometimes, when the room is silent, and all you hear is the guzheng, your heart will fill with joy, but other times your heart will be broken. The music is really beautiful.” YanFen was excited about her husband’s transfer to Seattle, but she feared she would have to quit taking music lessons with her daughter.

She says, “My friends said, ‘You can find a teacher in Seattle, but that teacher is not going to be very good.’”

With any big move, changes in language, food and culture cause feelings of loss and homesickness. So, despite her friends’ warnings, YanFen sought out a new guzheng instructor. She says, “I called the phone number and the teacher replied immediately. We decided to see if the teacher was good, so we went to Issaquah to meet her.” That is when she encountered Shirley Wang, a master of the guzheng.

A true master, Shirley Wang began studying guzheng in Mongolia at the age of six and moved to Beijing to earn an undergraduate degree at the Central Conservatory of Music and a graduate degree at the China Conservatory of Music. She taught guzheng for seven years, three of which were at the British School in Beijing. Then, she met and fell in love with her boyfriend, who asked her to visit Seattle to see if she liked it in 2010.

“When he was in Beijing, he was more quiet and followed me around, but when I visited Seattle he was more like a host,” says Shirley. “I liked his family and the city and the people were friendly. He applied for a fiancé visa, so I had 90 days to make a decision, but I decided he was Mr. Right.” Shirley’s parents were concerned but they respected her decision. Still, moving to a foreign country is difficult. She says, “Sometimes I miss home and family, but now we have Skype and FaceTime. So, every other day I can video chat with my parents.”

Since moving to Seattle in 2011, Shirley Wang has performed for three consecutive years at Microsoft CHIME (Chinese New Year Celebration), as well as The Bellevue Collection, Westminster Chapel, and many smaller engagements. “Shirley … plays with her heart. Her music expresses her calm, radiant presence, so anyone listening can feel soft, soothing and uplifting energy,” says Sandy Marvinney, Communications Chair and member of the Board of Directors of the Seattle Chinese Garden. “When she played in the Seattle Chinese Garden last June…everyone was mesmerized.”

This year, the guzheng recital in the Seattle Chinese Garden also included a tai chi demonstration and Chinese painting. Shirley Wang says that the same moving meditation and breathing techniques used in tai chi are also employed in Chinese painting and the guzheng. “Every time we play a song …when you start and when you end you take a deep breath,” says Shirley, as she moves her hands up and down in slow, graceful movements.

Marvinney says, “We are so fortunate that Shirley is teaching in our region…It has been the most popular instrument in Chinese culture since ancient times, so it is important to keep this traditional music alive and share it with the wider community in Seattle. People of all backgrounds enjoy music and gardens, and both open windows to learn about and appreciate wonderful aspects of Chinese culture.”

Margaret Britton, Vice President of the Seattle Chinese Garden, says, “Shirley is truly a guzheng master … She is especially devoted to her students of all ages, as she showed off their talents at a recent recital in the Seattle Chinese Garden. As an added bonus, she offers lessons in English or Mandarin!”

Today, Shirley Wang has more than 20 students from Bellevue, Redmond, Seattle, Snohomish and Yakima.

To better serve her students, she is opening a new studio, in September, just south of I-90 in Bellevue. “I do group lessons,” says Shirley, “Like a mother and kids when they get home, they encourage each other to improve. For co-workers, every time they have classes together, they feel the competition, and they have to practice well. Maybe they think, ‘I don’t want to do worse than her, so I have to practice more.”

YanFen says that she loves studying guzheng with Shirley because she is strict, and demands a lot of hard work. In spite of that, her daughter thinks she is a nice teacher, and she loves to play guzheng. When asked how studying music impacts her adjustment to life in the Seattle, YanFen Wang says, “I feel like I can keep my identity somehow. Sometimes I cannot feel the difference from my hometown when I live here. The lifestyle is the same. I can cook Chinese food myself. I can play the guzheng, and that lets me feel like it is not so difficult to stay.” (end)

For more information, visit: http://www.seattleguzheng.com.

Opening in September: The Seattle Guzheng Studio, 14950 SE Allen Rd., Suite #A, Bellevue, WA 98006, http://www.seattleguzheng.com.

Laura Ohata can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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