By Lena Price
For ChinaInFocus and ReportingTexas
As her fingers glide along the wooden instrument’s thin, white strings, Shao Jingqun never glances up at the book of music propped open on the stand in front of her. She doesn’t need to.
For the past 50 years, Shao’s life has revolved around the guzheng – a Chinese instrument similar to the piano but about two millennia older. She keeps three of the instruments in her North Austin home, where she teaches classes six days a week.
Shao said she can’t remember a time when she could not play the guzheng. She started taking lessons as a six year old in her native Guangzhou, often practicing more than seven hours a day on top of her other studies.
“The music was very beautiful,” she said through her husband, who often translates on her behalf during lessons with students that don’t speak Mandarin. “I was rarely frustrated, because I always knew how badly I wanted to learn.”
Shao said she felt validated the first time her teacher asked her to play in public when she was about 12 years old. At a small community center in Guangzhou, she performed the “Fisherman’s Evening Song,” an ancient Chinese composition that she still plays for her students today.
After graduating from the Guangzhou Music Institute with high honors, Shao started teaching and performing across China. Her music has taken her from Singapore to England and Canada. She eventually settled in Austin about 10 years ago, after her son got a computer science job in Texas.
When Shao moved to Texas, she said she was not worried about finding venues to perform in or potential students. The instrument is still more popular in China than in the United States, but the Austin Symphony Orchestra invited her to perform on several occasions, and her name got around.
Some of Shao’s students travel from as far as Houston to take lessons with her. She said she enjoys teaching American students, but there are definite differences between them and the ones she used to instruct in China.
“It’s harder here,” she said. “Students don’t have time or they don’t want to practice as much. But there are a few exceptions.”
Michael Hegedus, a graduate student in Chinese language studies at Ohio State University, was one of the exceptions. He stumbled upon the guzheng in 2003, and met Shao when he moved to Austin in 2004 to study music through UT’s graduate program. He said he never thought he would find a guzheng instructor in Texas and has enjoyed working with Shao despite an initial language barrier.
“It’s interesting to pair the instrument with Chinese culture,” Hegedus said. “Music is a good way to transcend cultural barriers.”