Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Hardest Instrument to Play

On Monday I had my third violin lesson of my entire life, and I was asking my music teacher about his background of music.  He attended a music university or academy where its sole purpose was to prepare its students to teach music for an orchestra.  So, as I found out, he was required to learn how to play every instrument in the orchestra.  "What's the hardest instrument to play?" I asked.  I was expecting a reply of "piano," since it has always seemed the most ambidextrous and distant instrument to me.  Your fingers don't press strings, and you don't breathe into it to make sounds. You're supposed to make expressive sounds with a series of levers, hammers, and dampers that you don't have direct control over.

So I was a little surprised when he said, "The erhu is the hardest instrument to play." I blanked out until he explained that it was a distant cousin to the violin, except it had a resonator "box" instead of a body, it had a neck but no fretboard, and its bow was in between two strings that are tuned in 5ths.

I then thought back to grade school where a young college student who returned from China came into our world studies class with an erhu.  She'd tried picking it up, but for all we could tell, its sole purpose was to let guests know that they'd overstayed their welcome at dinner.

And so my teacher went into great detail about how to play the instrument, moving the bow back and forth between the two strings and the fast tempo which most pieces are played.  "What does it sound like," I pressed.  "The most melancholy instrument."

That wasn't much to go on, but when I went on youtube I recognized the sound before, but I'd actually misinterpreted it as some sort of Chinese flute.  And Mr. He along with all other top musicians with their respective instruments, show a difficult piece and instrument are made to look easy with the musicians' credo: Practice, practice, practice.


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