• Savage Content

While the Music Continues

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

This article is a repost from our sister site, Our Life Logs®

Well, let me start my story with a parable:

“There once was a very small girl whose mother asked her to fill up a barren valley with water. Each day, the small girl carried her small bucket from the creek near their home to the valley. Nothing seemed to happen at first. There was nothing but a shy puddle that mocked   her efforts. But she did as her mother said.  Years later, a strong woman poured out the last bucket of water into the once-barren valley, and together, the woman and her mother, now ripe with age, swam in the sea they created.”

Now, what about my journey? Let’s go back to the beginning.

1 | I Loved the Sound

In the narrow river valley city of Lanzhou, China, I was born an only child in the 1980s. My mother was a music teacher and my father a ballet dancer; music was a foundational cornerstone in our family. I should clarify that my father was a ballet dancer until I was born, and then he obtained a high executive government job. Dad loved ballet, but it simply wasn’t going to pay the bills. My parents raised me to love and cherish music all the same.

When I was a little girl.

I started learning the piano and later dancing when I was four years old. My mother had access to an assortment of instruments thanks to her job, so she suggested I learn the guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument, when I turned five. As I inspected this new instrument, my young mind was mesmerized by the melody that escaped its plucked strings. I loved the sound; it was like a calming waterfall running down or the waves breaking at the seashore. How a simple pluck of a sequence of strings could create a melody so beautiful!

As I began to learn, my mother kept an eye on my progress, making sure I practiced every single day. She wanted me to develop a habit for playing, thinking that would help me grow as a musician. But you know how it is with parents; many don’t realize that if you force a kid to do something, they’re going to wind up hating it. Although I was in love with guzheng, playing soon became a chore.

I didn’t want to practice for hours on end, but I was a shy girl and never fought back against my mother. I just kept playing, even when I didn’t want to. I still remember the days of my mother cooking in the kitchen, the sharp smell of spices wafting through the house as I practiced in the next room. I couldn’t get away with slacking off. Mom would know if the music had stopped! I wasn’t confident at all in my abilities, but I kept at it anyway because life was easier when you did as you were told.

2 | Something Switched Inside Me

For the next 10 years, I continued practicing, day after day, until I realized playing the guzheng had become part of my life. But it would be another decade before I would truly understand the importance of that realization. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me come back to the year when I was 15.

That year, I was graduating middle school and like my peers, I was looking into options of high school to pave my way to college. I knew I was never the brightest student in the class when it came to academics. I was extremely shy and didn’t have much confidence. But somehow, at age 15, something switched inside me and suddenly, I wanted to be the best version of myself. I told my parents I wanted to go to the best high school so I could work toward getting into the best music college in the country.

My parents blessed my decision, and I started working hard towards my goal. Eventually, thanks to my music abilities and those extra tutoring sessions after class, I was able to fulfill my wish. I got admitted to the best high school in the area.

Joining a whole new environment, I took this as a perfect opportunity to reinvent myself. I took all the chances I had to make a change. Instead of keeping to myself like usual, I started talking to everyone. I became devoted to keeping up with my classmates. Our classroom was huge, and my seat was in the back from where I couldn’t see well. I asked to sit in the aisle in the front row so I could see better during class. My books were balanced in my lap, but I didn’t care. I had this hunger for education that I kept at the focal point of my thoughts all through high school.

Somewhere along the way, my distaste for practicing the guzheng went away, and I learned to love it. It was my ticket to success—well, success in my own definition.

3 | What Was I to Do?

My efforts paid off. In 2000, I was accepted into my dream music school in Beijing—The China Conservatory of Music. Of course, I was thrilled to get in, but I also felt like I only got in because I worked hard, not because of my talent. I felt inadequate, like I wasn’t meant to be there. I saw many students who were much more talented than me. I struggled through lessons they easily completed. My confidence dimmed.

So, what was I to do?

If there was one thing I learned from my years of  guzheng practice, it was that time and effort did make a difference. So, I decided to use hard work to make up for the gift I was missing. I was determined to be the top student, no matter what it took. I would record all the class lectures, then listen and take detailed notes. I never wanted to lose the ground I had gained. I studied hard, kept to a strict regimen, and most importantly, I practiced, practiced, practiced!

Each day, from 6:30am to 10:30pm, I was totally booked. Between meals, classes, and a nap (because when you’re moving nonstop for 16 hours, you have to take a nap), I practiced about six hours a day. I shared a practice room with two other students, and they probably hated me, because I always used up all the free hours they could practice.

For four straight years, I stuck to this crazy schedule. I stuck to it so much that I didn’t even have a problem with not being allowed to go out during the SARS outbreak in 2003. It’s fair to say I pushed myself hard, perhaps a little too hard. After all, practice didn’t bring much joy. It was more like a means of survival. I don’t regret it at all though, because that hard work helped me graduate as a distinguished student and kept me focused as I went out into the world.

With my guzheng, in my 20s.

4 | An Epiphany

After graduation, my teachers encouraged me to go for my Master’s. I took the advice and participated in the test. Unfortunately, I failed the English portion and was unable to get in. My confidence again started to shake. I was so frustrated, because why did I need English if I was just going to play music for the rest of my life?

I was not ready to give up. Determined to pass the next time, I joined the New Oriental English School to improve my language. In the meantime, I began teaching music to make a living. Then, as I sharpened my English skills, I had an epiph