Playing cello, feeling lucky

Sara Williams

The cello landed one Kent State student far from his home and loved ones in China

Yuan Zhang, a 26-year-old graduate student, walks down the road from his apartment complex at a slow pace. He’s going to catch the bus. Yuan ambles along, the tiny stones crunching under his feet. He appears to be in no hurry.

He is on his way to practice the cello. It is something he says he will be doing for the rest of his life.

He has no car, cooks mostly cheap rice dishes and loves going to the movies when he can afford it. In the apartment he moved from, Yuan slept on a bed of blankets. A small stipend and the money his quartet makes is all that supports him. Yuan says he feels lucky for the opportunity to be here and to work hard. The cello and a stubborn dedication have sustained him while he lives far from his family and girlfriend.

Yuan’s cello is not even his; it’s a loaner and it looks old and worn. His cello is still in China.

Yuan could be called a simple man, but only when he stands and steps from behind the cello. Sitting down behind the big instrument, he is transformed.

In huge recital halls and tiny practice rooms, his slightly awkward and bumbling movements become fluid. He places his feet soundly on the floor on both sides of the instrument and becomes very serious.

When his fingers land on the neck, covering the thick strings of the cello, his hand makes a delicate arc and as he places the bow, something magical happens. The tenor of the C-string vibrates through the floor and the violin sound of the A-string contrasts, making it sound like two different instruments.

Yuan sometimes closes his eyes when he plays. He is an animated performer and the glossy black of his hair swings over his forehead each time the bow swings down on the strings. The sounds coming from his cello are graceful and fluid.

The irony in his music and his transformation behind the cello is that he never wanted to be a cellist. When he was a child, Yuan wanted to be a conductor.

Yuan’s teacher looked at his hands and asked if he wanted to learn the cello. Padding on the fingertips and long fingers facilitate playing the cello. His teacher told him that if he did, he would be close to the conductor, so he took up the instrument when he was 4.

Music runs in the family. His father plays the flute.

Keith Robinson, a founding member of the Miami String Quartet and cello faculty member, says to become a professional cellist, starting young is imperative. “Young” is between the ages of 5 and 7.

“You have to make the decision at an early age, or your parents do,” Robinson said. “Dedication has to begin at that age. It’s not easy for a young kid to practice. Behind most musicians, there’s strong parents.”

Dedication didn’t stop at the hours of practice. For Yuan, his cello took him to America.

“For Yuan to sacrifice seeing his parents has to be hard. I bet he doesn’t even get to see them once a year,” Robinson said. “Most kids can’t wait to leave home but halfway around the world is a different animal.”

Now, the cello has become a way of life for him.

“It’s salty, sweet, bitter and sour all mixed together,” Yuan said. “There’s satisfaction because you love it, but it’s so hard.”

From the hours of practice, Yuan’s fingertips sound plastic-coated when he taps them on the table.

So much time and dedication has gone into the cello, and still he struggles to make himself known in the music world. A common misconception, he said, is that if the music is played well enough, there are jobs aplenty.

“It doesn’t work that way,” He said. “You have to make people hear you. If you are close to people, they can feel your energy and they love it.”

Yuan is from Shijiazhuang, China. Shijiazhuang is the capital of the Hebei Province, known for its textile industry. It has a population of about 8.75 million.

At the age of 12, he left Shijiazhuang for Longy School of Music, a cello boarding school in Boston.

“I just remember it being very cold,” He said. “I went home that winter and told my parents I didn’t want to go back.”

“I still remember the first time I called my mom. Still do,” Yuan said. “I just got into the phone booth and started crying.”

Missing his mom is an unhealed wound, and he brings her up often. Yuan hasn’t seen her in four years. Fond childhood memories have become a kind of sustenance in her absence.

“Once, when I was preparing for a test, my mom actually took me to a park to study and then after that we even went out for ice cream,” Yuan said.

As an only child, memories of his parents revolve around the concept that when they had time, they liked to spend it with him.

He laughs about the adjustment of being sent away at the age of 12, but becomes serious again when he talks of missing his parents and the transition to America.

Learning the language has not been easy.

“My aunt, at 6, taught me two sentences. This is an apple. This is a plane,” Yuan said. “I wasn’t very good at it.”

Yuan wanted a green card. For two months and two-hour sessions, Yuan attended a class where it was demanded he speak constantly in English. Although he felt good when it was over, the demons came back when he was leaving for Boston.

“I got on the plane and said, ‘Oh shit, I can’t speak English. I can’t manage this,'” Yuan said.

Now, the language is rarely a problem.

Less frequently, though, a phrase will slip under his radar.

Recently, while practicing, his teacher told him to let the sound build slowly.

“She said, ‘Don’t blow your wad too soon,'” He said. “I had to have someone explain it to me. It was really embarrassing.”

To learn the intricacies of the language, Yuan reads. Reading the “Lord of The Rings” out loud has helped him. He thinks picking something of interest, as science fiction is to him, helps.

He clucks his tongue as he talks about his Japanese girlfriend Yoko who struggles with English sometimes. When watching movies, sometimes she turns the subtitles on, he says, and this makes it harder to learn.

The dedication that has allowed him to become a concert cellist has pervaded his desire to learn the language and he said he tries to share it with his girlfriends so that she won’t struggle.

Memories of China remain clear and although he hopes to return one day, he is comfortable and has made friends.

“I’m not China, but I’m a part of China,” He said.

He relates this to playing music, when the composer is a different nationality and he has to play with that in mind to do the piece justice.

“When playing a piece of German music, I don’t have to be German to play it, but I have to know it,” He said. “If you lose who you are, or your nationality, there’s no point in expressing yourself through music.”

Different nationalities have become familiar to him. When he was at the Boston boarding school, roommates had to be from a different country.

One day, if he can get a job to support himself, he hopes to go back to China to live.

The differences between Chinese culture and American culture are not that broad, he said, aside from the diversity here. Yuan said, to him, people are just people.

“To see through skin and see each other on a personal level is something I think a lot of Chinese people need to learn,” He said. “But, you still have your Chinese rednecks.”

Surrounded only by his friends and a borrowed cello, Yuan is far from family and his girlfriend, a pianist living in Boston, whom he hopes to marry. Being away from loved ones has become a kind of trend in his life.

“I’m just used to it,” Yuan said. “I just keep busy. There are times you don’t have the energy to think about those things anymore.

The cello, present in his life since the age of 4, now earns a little green.

His group, the Hausmann quartet, charges about $2,000 for a two-hour concert or about $500 per member. They’ve done a couple of weddings at about $800. Yuan said some people have been taken aback by the rates, but so much work goes into the preparation. Practicing each song for hours each day is the preparation for the performances. The four members met and decided to start the quartet.

Bram Goldstein is a violinist in the Hausmann quartet. Bram met Yuan about 6 years ago when they played in a piano trio. Bram felt a musical compatibility right from the start.

“I immediately liked his passion for the music and his dedication in trying to make the best music possible,” Bram said.

Bram said that Yuan is a great cellist who is also multi-faceted. Being open and sensitive to the ideas and input of others helps to place him at a level beyond just a soloist.

For this instrument, Yuan has sacrificed a lot. He’s left his home in China, his fingertips are hard and calloused, he soaks his hands in hot water to loosen the tendons and he lives far from those that he loves.

“Maybe one day I’ll give it all up and become a chef,” He said through a huge smile.

Yuan is working on his second master’s degree in chamber music performance. He did his undergraduate work at Longy School of Music and got his first master’s in cello performance there.

With one more year left of school, he hopes to be a performer and a teacher. Teaching at the college level, he said, will be nice because the love of music is not newfound, but already ingrained.

Contact features correspondent Sara Williams at [email protected].