A View from the East
By Jason Ham United States Military Academy Band, West Point, New York
It seems as if at every turn there is a portion of the world that is beginning to embrace the tuba and euphonium in ways not previously imagined or possible. The recent conference in Budapest was a great display of this, for who would have thought that such a conference could have taken place in this location just 15 or 20 years ago? Nevertheless, with the presence of the Internet and the readily available recordings that now exist for our instruments, there is little doubt that the euphonium and the tuba are more readily studied and performed today than at any other time in history. However, with a population of nearly a billion and a half people (that’s about 1 in every 4 people in the world), China continues to lag behind the growth that the tuba and euphonium has experienced in the last few decades. While undoubtedly the current Communist Party existence in China slows this growth, a recent visit there this past October tells clearly that the growing western influence in China has made both the demand and the need for euphoniumists and tubists in that country very real.
Jason with members of the euphonium and tuba sections of the PLA Band
In May of 2004, my commanding officer in the United States Military Academy Band pulled me aside to ask if I was interested in joining him in a trip to Beijing, China, to perform with the Military Band of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Without hesitation, I accepted the offer. Not only had I never been to the Orient, but also I had almost no idea what the euphonium and tuba were doing in that portion of the world. To have the chance to witness this first-hand was surely going to be an amazing opportunity, and I was delighted at the thought of being in a world so unknown to me. So, on October 16th, I departed with Thomas Rotondi (Commander, USMA Band), Mary Kay Messenger (USMA Concert Band Vocalist), and Wayne Tice (USMA Concert Band Principal Saxophonist) for the 14-hour flight across the world to Beijing.
When we arrived on the afternoon of the 17th, (a total of 35 hours traveling with the time difference), we were met by an entourage that greeted us as nothing shy of absolute royalty. Our arms were quickly emptied of our bags only to be hastily filled with two-dozen of the sweetest smelling roses I’d ever been near. After a brisk ride to the hotel, we soon found ourselves at an exquisite meal of some of China’s most brilliantly prepared dishes. It was here that we got to know the band staff via our translator for the week, Zhao Liu. Zhao is currently a freelance flutist in Chicago, as well as a former member of the People’s Liberation Army Band. It was his first trip back to China in five years, and we were happy to have him join us.
Interviewing members of the PLA Band
That first meeting was truly a wonderful experience, and we were greatly enlightened about the military band life in China. The PLA Band is the only full-time professional military band in the entire nation. Comprised of 240 members, the group is divided into three ensembles of 80 members each, and the age of its members range from about 14 to over 50 years old. Founded officially on July 10, 1952, this ensemble has roots that date back to 1947, when the first wind ensemble in China was believed to have been founded. With the founding of the Demonstrator’s Party in China, there arose the need for military music, and to this end, in 1947, China’s first professional wind ensemble was founded. Banding subsided briefly with the arrival of the Communists in 1949, before they founded the Band of the PLA in 1952 (with many of the same members that had been in the Demonstrator’s Party Band).
The (6 member!) tuba section of the PLA Band
Each of the three ensembles maintains a schedule in one of three capacities: performing, training, or ceremonial work. On a yearly rotation, each ensemble rotates these duties, until returning to their current capacity after two years. While there, we had the opportunity to work with the performing unit (obviously), which rehearsed two times a day for most of the days that we were with them. Apparently, this amount of rehearsal is somewhat unusual, and is only reserved for very special events or upcoming performances that will demand extra rehearsal time.
Obviously, with such a short history and with the hindrances of a communist government, the wind band tradition has been stifled. While the group contains its fair share of amazingly talented musicians, the fundamentals of wind playing have been missed in part, with intonation being the most glaring example of this omission. With the majority of their native repertoire being in duple meter, triple meter is a challenge for the group. Styles such as Broadway and jazz are virtual unknowns, but it was indeed an honor to give them an introduction to such literature while we were there. I will never forget both the band’s and the audience’s reaction to an arrangement of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that we had brought along with us! It vividly illustrated how much I take for granted every day, even in consideration of the style of music that seems so common here in the USA and elsewhere around the globe.
Jason performing with the PLA Band
Without question, the most inspiring day in the trip for me was October 25, 2004. Following the afternoon rehearsal, the euphonium section invited me to dinner and I gladly accepted their invitation. At about 5:30 that afternoon, I departed the hotel with our translator and was taken to a fine Korean restaurant. It was nice to walk in the room and see the familiar faces of the section, in spite of our language barrier. In the room were Sun Tao (a 9-year member of the band), Chung Zi Gung (a 32-year member of the band!), and Wang Wie Nan (who also had an English name – Allen -and is a 3-year member of the band). I quickly learned that we were to be joined by China’s only euphonium teacher, Mr. Bi Chang An.
In the interim, I had the chance to question the section about the euphonium’s history in China, and I was confirmed in my questions when Bi Chang An arrived to our little room. It seems as if the euphonium’s presence in China essentially began with the founding of the Demonstrator’s Party ensemble in 1947. Prior to that, little is known of the euphonium’s development in China, even amongst those who have had contact with the first teachers of the instrument here. At best guess, it seems, the euphonium may have been brought to China by the Russians, possibly from a military band tradition there.
From the Demonstrator’s Party came China’s first real teacher of the euphonium, a man by the name of Fu Ji Hen. Apparently, he was also one of the first members of the People’s Liberation Army Band. Following Mr. Hen were two teachers by the names of Bai Yu Tong and Gu Wen De, both of which were his students. It was in this time that there was an establishment of a music school for the Band of the PLA, which employed part-time teachers for each instrument, including the euphonium. Both Mr. Tong and Mr. De shared this capacity until 1987.
Jason with Bi Chang An, China’s only euphonium teacher
In that year, Mr. Bi Chang An took over as the only teacher of the euphonium in Beijing (and in all of China). Bi Chang had been in the PLA Band prior to his appointment, and since then, has had some 400 private euphonium students. Presently, Bi Chang teaches seven days a week, seeing students in the public school system on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. In a typical week, he will visit three different public schools. On Wednesday, he teaches the members of the Air Force Band in Beijing (although not a “professional” ensemble), and on Saturday and Sunday, he sees his 20 current private students, which includes the members of the PLA Band.
Farewell toast with Sun Tao (left) and Chung Zi Gung (right)
It is safe to say that the euphonium’s development in China apart from Beijing has been painstakingly slow. As I was told by Bi Chang, the last American Euphonium Soloist to reach Beijing was Dr. Brian Bowman, when he visited Beijing with the United States Air Force Band 16 years earlier in 1988. After calling Dr. Bowman, I did find out that his visit there was part of a multi-city tour that involved a reduced wind ensemble and vocal group. While the visit was undoubtedly positive for American exposure to a somewhat still closed-off China, there was no interaction between the euphoniumists or tubists in Beijing and the Air Force Band. In my time in that room with Bi Chang, Sun, Wang, and Chung, I had a most distinctive feel that my presence there was appreciated, as they sense that the rest of the euphonium world is indeed changing. It goes without saying that the Chinese are most definitely interested in future visits by euphoniumists and tubists from around the world.
Euphonium masterclass for the PLA Band
Admittedly, I have the highest hopes that as China continues to open up to the west, the euphonium and the tuba will proliferate right along with advanced wind and brass ensemble techniques. Fortunately, this process has already begun. The tubists and euphoniumists of the PLA Band have already taken the initiative to try to form the first Chinese chapter of ITEA, right in the heart of Beijing. Additionally, I am trying to help the tuba quartet from the Band of the PLA travel to the 2006 International Tuba-Euphonium Conference. Obviously, the implications of these events are tremendous in such a populous nation, and I look forward to enabling these processes in whatever way I can. However, the need is clear to the rest of the euphonium and tuba world: in the face of the massive censorship of the Chinese government, the only way that the euphonium and tuba will advance is for us to make contact with the musical institutions and festivals across the country and make the trip to perform there. As I now know first-hand, the joy of the advancement of our instruments far outweighs the costs of such an incredible opportunity.