The sound of rural music

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Music is the strongest form of magic, they say, and it was indeed when an ensemble of young singers from humble homes took center stage at the iconic China National Opera House to belt out a tribute to everyday heroes.

The new opera house in downtown Beijing, which opened this summer and has been a popular hub of classical dramas and ballet productions, hosted Childhood on the Ridge-2022 Concert of Art in Action on Aug 14, offering rural school choirs a golden opportunity to regale urban audiences.

A bunch of 151 children from eight village schools performed onstage that evening, the livestreaming of their concert drawing more than 100,000 views online. Their singing may not have been technically flawless like professionals, but their unbridled enthusiasm had spectators glued to the seats.

"It was the choir's first Beijing tour. We were excited and overwhelmed to perform at the China National Opera House. We are talking about the trip and the concert even a week later," says Leng Yin, the vice-headmaster of Dongfanghong Primary School and one of its music teachers.

Located nearly 2,000 kilometers from Beijing, at Renshou county in Meishan city of Sichuan province, the school choir was founded by Leng in 2019.

"It is hard to believe that a choir from a small village performed on such a prestigious stage. Definitely an unforgettable experience for all the children," the 38-year-old adds.

The 30-strong school choir struck a chord with three songs, including Gu Yong Zhe or the Lonely Warrior, originally sung by Cantonese pop star Eason Chan for a video game. The track, going viral on social media this year, is hugely popular among kindergarten, school and college students in China.

"The warrior song is a tribute to ordinary people who work hard and never give up. The children dedicated it to their parents who are always brave in the face of adversities. Most of these parents work in cities, far from home, to ensure their children have a better future," says Leng.

"The lyrics are poignant, like one section that roughly translates into 'who said only those standing in the light are heroes'."

The choir of Dongfanghong Primary School was chosen to perform in Beijing because it won the first prize in a competition hosted last year by WeSing, the online karaoke platform of Tencent Music Entertainment Group.

The choir was awarded a song, titled New Hope, which sort of became the school's anthem. The competition organizers visited the campus to make a music video too. New Hope was once again performed by the schoolchildren at the Beijing concert on Aug 14. The vice-headmaster admits that he didn't expect the school choir to win the online contest, let alone perform in Beijing.

Born and raised in a small village in Renshou county, Leng joined the primary school as its first and only music teacher after he graduated with a major in music education in 2009.

"The school's infrastructure was very poor. There were no musical instruments. Nevertheless, the kids loved to sing and I became their coach," he recalls.

In 2010, the school bought its first piano for 10,000 yuan ($1,465).It was a big sum for a small rural institution, but Leng, who back then made just 1,200 yuan a month, pitched in and ensured money didn't hinder music lessons. Buoyed by the enthusiasm of his students, he founded the choir in March 2019.

Fourth grader Gu Keyu was among the children who joined the choir that year. Leng noticed that Gu had a knack for singing, but was extremely shy. He usually stood in a corner and crooned to himself. The teacher decided to employ confidence-building measures, so that Gu could sing out loud and proud.

The boy lived with his grandmother while his parents worked in the city. Rehearsing with the choir every week was among his favorite things. Leng encouraged Gu to learn new songs at school and then record them on his grandmother's phone back home. The strategy helped. At the Beijing concert, Gu, who graduated from the school this summer, was one of the choir's lead singers.

"Today, I feel so glad to see him (Gu) sing onstage with unwavering confidence. There are many like him. Choral singing gives these children a shared mission and inculcates them with a sense of collective responsibility to achieve it. They feel confident and proud when they learn to sing a new song together," Leng says.

Tang Honglin, a music teacher at Gu's school since 2014, says understanding the strengths and weaknesses of every participant was the key to a successful choir.

"I understand him (Gu) because I was like him. My parents were away at work and I felt abandoned, which made me an introvert. Music gave me the freedom to express myself; it became my oasis of happiness when alone," the 31-year-old says.

Born in Renshou county, Tang was left in the care of his grandparents because his parents worked in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. They came home only once every two to three years. He graduated from a school in Mianyang, Sichuan, in 2014 with a major in music education.

Tang says children in the county are not as privileged as those in big cities who are introduced to music at a very young age and learn to play various instruments.

"When I began to teach music at the school, I had no idea where to start. We floated the choir to inspire children to sing and have fun together, something that made them happy and compensated for the economic privileges they didn't have," he says.

Today, Dongfanghong Primary School has four music teachers and boasts better infrastructure, says Tang. The choir trains for 30 minutes during the daily noon break and has two classes after school every week.

"As a music teacher, I too benefited from the Beijing trip. I met teachers from other rural schools and we exchanged ideas about music education. Hopefully, we will participate in more such shows, which will give the children exposure and broaden their horizons," he adds.

The Aug 14 concert was organized by Tencent and Hefeng Art Foundation, which launched a charity project in 2017 to promote fine arts, dancing and music education in rural China.

Besides the 150-odd children from eight schools who performed in Beijing, more than 1,800 more from 70-plus schools in Yunnan and Shandong provinces and the Tibet autonomous region, among others, are part of the project. Their performances were livestreamed online the same day.

"Most village schools don't have academically trained music teachers. We train these teachers, hoping to improve the quality of music education in rural areas," says Li Gang, vice-president of the Capital Normal University's music school, who joined the charity project in 2017.

Li recalls that the first few classes attracted over 600 teachers, 20 percent of whom actually taught Chinese and math in schools. They doubled as music teachers because there were no trained regulars.

These teachers are now primarily trained in choral singing, choir conduction and vocal modulation. On Aug 12, as many as 132 music teachers from Hebei, Shandong and Sichuan provinces came to Beijing for a weeklong training.

"In addition to teaching children how to be appreciative of music, choral singing helps them conquer their fears and make friends. The charity project is a long-term one and we are proud to be a part of it," Li says.

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