Gu-zheng Lessons | Chambers Music

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Gu-zheng Lessons

The guzheng, also spelled gu zheng or gu-zheng (Chinese: 古箏; pinyin: gǔzhēng;) and also called the zheng (箏) is a Chinese plucked zither.

The guzheng is the parent instrument of the Japanese koto, the Mongolian yatga, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh. The parent instrument of the guzheng is the se.

The guqin is similar to the guzheng, i.e., it is also an ancient Chinese zither but with fewer strings and without bridges.

The modern-day guzheng is a plucked half-tube zither with movable bridges and 21 strings. However, the number of strings may range anywhere from 15 to 25. Customized versions may have more than 44 strings. The strings were originally made of twisted silk, but at the turn of the 20th century most players used metal strings (generally steel for the high strings and copper-wound steel for the bass strings). Currently most performers use steel strings flatwound with nylon.

The guzheng has a large resonant cavity made from wutong wood (Paulownia elongata). Other components may be made from other woods or materials, usually for structural and decorative purposes.

The guzheng is tuned to a pentatonic scale, the 16-string zheng is tuned to give three complete octaves, while the 21-string zheng has four complete octaves.

There are many techniques used in the playing of the guzheng, including basic plucking actions (right or both hands) at the right portion and pressing actions at the left portion (by the left hand to produce pitch ornamentations and vibrato) as well as tremolo (right hand). These techniques of playing the guzheng can create sounds that can evoke the sense of a cascading waterfall, thunder, horses’ hooves, and even the scenic countryside. Plucking is done mainly by the right hand with four plectra (picks) attached to the fingers. Advanced players may use picks attached to the fingers of both hands. In more traditional performances however, plectra are used solely on the right hand, reflecting its use for melodic purposes and its relative importance in comparison to the left hand which is used solely for purposes of ornamentation. Ancient picks were made of ivory and later also from tortoise shell. Ornamentation includes a tremolo involving the right thumb and index finger rapidly and repeatedly plucking the same note. Another commonly used ornamentation is a wide vibrato, achieved by repeatedly pressing with the left hand on the left side of the bridge. This technique is used liberally in Chinese music, as well as in Korean gayageum music but is used only rarely in the music of the Japanese koto.

In arrangements of guqin pieces, harmonics are frequently used, along with single-string glissandi, evoking the sound of the guqin. Harmonics are achieved by lightly placing the left hand in the middle of the string while plucking on the right end of string.

The guzheng‘s pentatonic scale is tuned to Do, Re, Mi, So, and La, but Fa and Ti can also be produced by pressing the strings to the left of the bridges. Well known pieces for the instrument include Yu Zhou Chang Wan, Gao Shan Liu Shui, Mei Hua San Nong and Han Gong Qiu Yue.

Two broad playing styles can be identified as Northern and Southern, although many traditional regional styles still exist. The Northern styles is associated with Henan and Shandong while the Southern style is with the Chaozhou and Hakka regions of eastern Guangdong. Both Gao Shan Liu Shui and Han Gong Qiu Yue are from the Shandong school, while Han Ya Xi Shui and Chu Shui Lian are major pieces of the Chaozhou and Hakka repertories respectively.

Many new pieces have been composed since the 1950s which used new playing techniques such as the playing of harmony and counterpoint by the left hand. Pieces in this new style include Qing Feng Nian (Zhao Yuzhai, 1955), Zhan Tai Feng (Wang Changyuan, 1965) and the guzheng concerto Miluo River Fantasia (Li Huanzhi, 1984). Contemporary experimental atonal pieces have been composed since the 1980s.

A more modern playing technique is using the left hand to provide harmony and bass notes, heavily influenced by the theory of Western music. This allows for greater flexibility in the instruments musical range, allowing for harmonic progression. This however also has its limitations, as it prevents the subtle ornamentations provided by the left hand in more traditional music. Students of the guzheng who take the Beijing Conservatory examinations are required to learn a repertoire of pieces both traditional and modern.

Twelve Girls Band is a contemporary Chinese instrumental group that features the guzheng as well as other traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu and pipa. They perform traditional Chinese music as well as Western popular and classical music.