Each week, Daily Bruin A&E will explore the instruments of the World Musical Instrument Collection and their performers that all contribute to the musical landscape of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. This week, we highlight the Chinese erhu, a two-stringed fiddle used in solo performances, small ensembles and large orchestras.
Chi Li did not grow up playing with any toys. Her family had no radio or television, and movies were to be watched only on special occasions. Instruments, the ethnomusicology adjunct associate professor said, were her only means of entertainment.
Li’s father, a music teacher, introduced her to the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese bow-fiddle, when she was 5 years old. The erhu was one of several instruments her father presented her with, but she said it was the one she devoted most of her time to.
“I have dedicated so much time to my own instrument, and of course perfecting it,” Li said. “With instruments, if you don’t spend enough time on one, you cannot be as good, and at the time, I had spent so much time on it.”
Li started primary school at 5 years old, two years earlier than most students. She was very shy, but her father told her that if she wanted to perform with the erhu, shyness was not an option.
“Instead of practicing at home, my father would ask me to go out to the street and practice, or to some public place,” Li said.
Eventually, Li said practicing in this way helped her get comfortable playing in front of strangers.
Li went to school in the rural countryside of southern China during the time of the Cultural Revolution. For a while, schools shut down, and Li said she felt it would be impossible to ever go back.
In lieu of school, Li would spend 10 hours per day working in the fields. At night, she would pick up her bike and ride for an hour or more at a time in almost complete darkness, with her erhu on her back, to perform for audiences.
“People would wait for over two hours for me to come and perform,” Li said. “That was people’s only time to gather and hear the music, and playing for the audiences would help me get through my hard times. It was the highlight of my day.”
After the Cultural Revolution, her public practice helped her prepare to apply to the China Conservatory of Music, a prominent music school in Beijing.
Li played the erhu at the conservatory, and by the time of her graduation, had reached the highest level of the school’s orchestra. She was then recruited by the National Traditional Orchestra of China to play erhu as a soloist.
Li’s devotion to the erhu inspired her to take another step with the instrument: bring the sounds of the erhu west to the United States.
“The main purpose of coming to this country was that I wanted more people to hear Chinese music,” Li said. “I have learned so much from playing it, and I wanted to show the world how beautiful this music is.”
The erhu, Li said, is an outlet for her to go to and play on her own whenever she has the free time.
“It’s natural for me now, I come to this instrument,” Li said. “No game, no movie, nothing will make me happier than when I play the erhu. It is the happiest thing. It is the happiest time.”