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Through the living room

Reylon Yount ’16, a resident of Lowell House concentrating in Environmental Science & Public Policy and East Asian Studies, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing to study yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) with master He Huang. Yount has performed on campus as a soloist at Harvard Foundation’s 2013 Cultural Rhythms, with The Harvard Undergraduate Drummers, at the Chinese Student Association’s Chinese New Year’s Banquet and at the 2013 Asian American Association’s event FEAST. Additionally, in the fall of 2013 he was a featured soloist with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. After graduation, he plans to pursue a professional music career and development work in China.

Reylon Yount '16 in Beijing

Reylon Yount ’16 in Beijing

I walked through the modest gate of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, listening to the wet clack of my flip-flops against the muggy air. After I pressed a button at the base of his building, I could hear another student’s yangqin arpeggios emerge from the call box as he buzzed me in. I felt like I was in a time warp as the dim elevator sporting an advertisement I recognized from two summers ago took me swiftly upward (a different kind of rabbit hole). I waited quietly at the threshold of the apartment and finally heard the yangqin music crescendo as Professor Huang opened the door.

Huang He is a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music and a renowned master of the yangqin. Also known as the Chinese hammered dulcimer, the yangqin is a 400-year-old instrument that evolved from the Persian santur, which was brought to China along the Silk Road. The yangqin world is defined by Huang He’s work almost as essentially as the Chinese landscape is defined by the Yellow River, after which he is named.

Professor Huang has composed a significant portion of the standardized repertoire taught to students throughout China. As a tenth grader, having only seen him in instructional videos on YouTube, I was thrilled when my teacher in San Francisco, Yangqin Zhao, told me she could put me in touch with him. Throughout the summers of 2010 and 2011, I studied several pieces with him, two of which were his compositions. This summer, I’ve returned to Beijing to pick up where we left off.

He is more patient with me than he is with students from the conservatory, who have devoted their entire lives to studying, practicing, and performing yangqin. While I played, three of his students watched me, slapping away on their knees with weighted practice mallets, and in turn, I watched them when they played. There are few opportunities to watch people my age playing yangqin at that level in the U.S. Their renditions of brand new compositions often leave me breathless.

Reylon Yount '16 playing "Journey to Lhasa" by He Huang on the yangqin.

Reylon Yount ’16 playing “Journey to Lhasa” by He Huang on the yangqin.

It is exciting to know that tucked away into Beijing’s vast skyline is this small apartment, through which some of the best yangqin players in history have passed. This living room has suspended between it’s glossy walls some of the most immaculate and innovative yangqin music ever played. It is Huang He’s home – decorated with potted plants, portraits, and teddy bears – and he indeed takes care of his students as he does his family.

After the lesson, Professor Huang took me through the living room to the back window, where, bathed in the hazy white light of Beijing summer, we discuss our plans and prospects. During these chats, he invariably slides the door shut and lights a fragrant cigarette. After I get used to these confining conditions, a sort of whimsical intimacy sinks in; we discuss my strengths and weaknesses, important learning opportunities while I’m in China, and the responsibilities that come with being his only student from beyond Asia.

I can’t help but feel inspired as I sit there, cloaked in caterpillar smoke, and listen to the divinations of this legendary man.

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