Humans: How Music Changed My Life

The origins of music predate any kind of documented music; manifesting itself simply in natural rhythmic beats and sounds made by both animals and humans. This is known as “Prehistoric music” and the first man-made musical instrument is most likely to be our own voices. For many obvious reasons, we use it for communication, entertainment but also for the practical purposes of hunting or procreation. Fast forward into the era of “Ancient music” which was when music was first documented via sculptures and scriptures (about 3000 years ago). It was this period, that music branches out into a multitude of styles and variations depending on the regions and the people occupying them. In short, music expands and diversify with its creators. Thus, each person’s experience of music is individual, I’m hoping I can give you an insight into one such connection in this post.

Being a 6 year old, stubborn little kid, I never really appreciated the depth of music. I quit piano because it never really clicked and it’s safe to assume I wasn’t a natural. It wasn’t until, at the age of 15, I first heard a cello being played by Jacqueline du Pre, that I really felt a connection to an instrument. This marked the beginning of my appreciation of music.

I was very motivated and I started to dig in and research Vietnamese traditional music alongside Western Classical eras. One notable example that I came across was a comparison between ‘cải lương’ and Western opera. Growing up, my dad usually listened to this genre of Viet music:“cải lương” which is a form of modern folk opera. The style weaves the performer’s distinct vibrato to spoken dialogues during the scripted story which is layered with an orchestra of zithers (đàn bầu, đàn nguyệt, etc.) and traditional wind instruments to complete the play. Similarly, Classical Western opera features an orchestra of various instruments from the brass, string, wind and percussion families which compliment the sung dialogues of the play. It is true that cải lương’s history is fairly recent, as it originates in early 20th century (compared to Western operas in the early 16th century) in Southern Vietnam during the French colonial period and that it was available as theatre for the middle classes. However, it quickly became popular (during the 70s and 80s) and was later considered a national theatrical form, available for the general public.

Figure 1: Đàn bầu (gourd lute – a one-string zither)

Both types of performances follow the rigours of opera, however, the stories, compositions and acting styles are completely different to one another. You can hear an example of both an opera and a ‘cải lương’ performance in the links below.

Cải lương – pre-1975 (skip to 3:00):

The Magic Flute Opera (Mozart):

Coming from Vietnam, most people either play the violin or the piano, hence it was impossible to find a cello and harder still, a good cello teacher. I am lucky enough to have found one who is both passionate and inspirational such that without him, I would never be able to continue playing.

The reason why the cello appealed to me over the other, more common, instruments was exactly that: it wasn’t common to play the cello in Vietnam. However, what got me interested in the first place is that I found the sound of a cello suited how I wanted to play music. I was also looking for something different, something fresh, new, and out of the ordinary and so I was determined and excited to learn it. My teacher shared the same excitement when he first taught me as well, I remember asking him who he often taught cello to, to which he replied, “not often to Vietnamese students”.

I once asked my cello teacher what made him become a cellist. He told me that he was fortunate enough to come from one of the first generations of Vietnamese people to pick up the cello professionally, it is the reason why he is so devoted to handing down the skill to any eager cellists, especially for interested Vietnamese people. The cello is still a relatively new instrument, so most professional Vietnamese-based cellists know each other because the community is quite small (even if it is expanding as we speak). I’d say he has done a great job of inspiring newer generations to continue playing the cello, and amongst the inspired, is me. As the cello plays a significant role in my life, not only did it helped me learn a musical instrument (finally), but it also opened my eyes and fuelled my interest to discover a multitude of music genres besides classical.

I began to read more into the history of music and its cultural differences. Also broadening my musical horizons, I became more adventurous, I stepped out of my usual ‘pop’ comfort zone to discover indie, rap, hiphop, electronic, and more… and I never regretted it, I discovered new parts of me that allow me to enjoy each and every genre that I come across, all in my own way. It certainly is a fresh breath of air, and a pleasant one at that.

You could ask me what my favourite genre is now, and I would struggle to answer because there are times I only listen to indie rock, times where romantic classical was my only playlist and times where Vietnamese rap is my first pick. So, the answer is different every time, depending on my mood at the time. All in all, I want to say that music changed my life, it took one spark of inspiration and I was sold, just like my ancient ancestors, music is now a daily necessity.

Khang Nguyen, 21st December 2018, 18:14 pm

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