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Music Helps Win Acceptance
Last weekend, the Shanghai Grand Theater played host to a group of special performers, each of whom has transcended a physical or emotional disability to become an accomplished performing artist.

Deaf dancers, blind singers, and a blind pianist were led by a handicapped conductor in a performance that confirmed the notion that physically and emotionally challenged people often develop talents in other areas to compensate for their disabilities.

The members of the Chinese People's Performing Art Troupe of the Disabled have overcome their disabilities to realize their shared dream of performing in public. Although their backgrounds are diverse, they share a love for the performing arts.

Two of the troupe's leading lights are conductor Hu Yizhou and pianist Sun Yan. Their stories, set forth in the following biographical sketches, are truly inspiring.

Courage to Conduct

Hu Yizhou cannot read music. Yet when he hears it, the affect it has on him is startling. He gives it his undivided attention, bending his head to hear every note.

Born in 1978 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, Hu, better known as Zhouzhou, was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome, a congenital handicap that has severely limited his intellectual growth. But music is not only about intelligence.

Those who believe that intelligence can be measured would do well to watch Hu, who, with an Intelligence Quotient of 30 (the minimum IQ of an adult is 70) is nevertheless a dynamic presence onstage. Hu is living proof that human beings should not be judged by numbers. Invited as a guest conductor by the National Symphony Orchestra of the United States and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Hu has already attained international recognition for his achievement. He has also conducted the symphony orchestras of The Central Ballet Troupe of China and the Central Opera Theater. During his latest concert series in the city, he wielded his baton in front of the Shanghai Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra, conducting Brahms' Hungarian Dance No.5, and Strauss's Radetzky March.

Hu has the ability to feel the various movements in a com-position, commit them to memory, and lead the orchestra members with the passion, if not the precision, of a seasoned conductor.

Though some might not consider the 24-year-old a bona fide conductor, there is no doubt about his enthusiasm for music.

Wang Bin, a 11-year-old blind Peking Opera performer, is one of Hu's best friends, and he seemed more comfortable with Wang than with the throngs of reporters waving microphones in his face upon his arrival in Shanghai. To a reporter who politely asked who his favorite composer was, the camera-shy conductor muttered Strauss.

Zhang Huiqin, Hu's mother, says that her son has "an innate sense for music" and when he hears it, whether it's emanating from a department store speaker or a home stereo, "he gives it his full, undivided attention."

Jiang Xiebin, a famous Chinese conductor, was quoted as saying that Hu's talent is "pure beauty," and that the young man has a connection with music that cannot be taught -- a soulful sensitivity to harmony and melody that "even some trained conductors lack."

The young conductor's father Hu Houpei is a cellist in Wuhan Symphony Orchestra, and when Hu was a child, his dad always took him along to rehearsals. The child showed an interest in music from an early age, listening quietly at first, then gradually beginning to imitate the movements of the conductor, Zhang Qi.

In 1997, Zhang Yiqing, a documentary director with Hubei TV Station learned of Hu's interest in music. The director made a documentary about Hu's fascination with music that was aired in China, Europe and the US, which brought the young man to the attention of several prominent orchestras. Joining the troupe of disabled performers, Hu has toured around China and the world.

Feeling The Keys

Two days before his concert in Shanghai, blind pianist Sun Yan was practicing Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody backstage at the Shanghai Grand Theater.

Seated on the bench, his nimble fingers dancing across the ivories, the 19-year-old was thoroughly involved in the work.

When he finishes the rehearsal and sits for a chat, Sun seems far more mature than most 19-year-olds, talking about music the way an architect might reflect on a magnificent structure. "Actually, there are a lot of blind piano players," says Sun, "but very few are distinguished. I aspire to be among that select group. And I know that the only way to accomplish that is through hard work."

As the only blind student admitted to the middle school affiliated with the Central Conservatory of Music, Sun says he has been fortunate.

"As I get older, people will focus more on my musical ability than on the fact that I am a blind kid who can play the piano reasonably well," says Sun. "And since there are no piano competitions especially for the blind, I will be competing against sighted players, and judged by the same criteria applied to sighted pianists in my age group."

Sun was born blind, and has, he believes, developed a heightened sense of hearing due to his disability. At the age of 3, he was able to play back a song heard on the radio once. He has the aural equivalent of a photographic memory and can play a complicated composition after hearing it a few times. At 7, he won the first prize in a children's piano competition in Changchun, his hometown in Jilin Province.

When he was recommended by Liu Shikun, a renowned Chinese pianist, to the central conservatory, none of the instructors volunteered to take him on as a student. Eventually, a teacher named Yang Jun agreed to take Sun on as a student. It seemed to Sun as though there were obstacles to his success at every turn. Beside the difficulty in finding a teacher, there are precious few musical scores for the blind written in Braille available in China. His mother was a great help, and she learned to read scores so that she could help out. "At first, she found it so hard that she began to cry," he says apologetically.

As word of his talent spread, however, more and more people began offering assistance of one kind or another. During his stay in Shanghai, pianist Kong Xiangdong gave him some pointers and suggested that he try to participate in the Sydney International Piano Competition next year. "Right now, my biggest problem is that I'm not relaxed enough when performing," says Sun. "But my teacher and I are finding ways to overcome this, and my dream to become a distinguished pianist is as alive as ever."

(Eastday.com February 25, 2003)

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