On the couch with Xuefei Yang!

Ahead of Xuefei’s June 20 livestream concert (HERE) I asked our MGF subscribers what questions they had for her in this interview!

Here they are!

Thanks to everyone on our mailing list for sending these in!

What has prompted you to study guitar music as a career when you were young? As we know at that time (80s), classical guitar was not that popular as today in mainland China.

I felt it was destiny.  As a young child I didn’t even know what a guitar was. As a energetic child my parents wanted me to learn an instrument to cultivate me.  They thought about accordion. It was popular because it’s cheap and portable to accompany choirs.  But the music teacher in my primary school thought it was too heavy for a young girl, and instead put me into a choir/guitar group that she was starting in the school (group of children singing, and each playing a guitar). 

What have you done or still been doing to introduce traditional Chinese music to western audiences?

From the start of my career I have been transcribing Chinese music, performing some in my concerts and have recorded some on various albums.  My latest big project is a double album called Sketches of China which is my very first album of completely Chinese music.  It includes classic, folkloric & modern music.  It covers solo pieces, chamber music with other Chinese instrumentalists, and pieces for guitar and orchestra.  It’s a substantial recording and will be released globally on 7th August 2020 on all the usual digital platforms.  In addition to respecting the traditional music, I think its important for the music to develop and bring the music into our time.  This is why as well as transcribing traditional works, I’ve also been commissioning works from Chinese composers, and creating music with other Chinese musicians.  I hope this will open a new door to guitar repertoire, and bring a wider audience to Chinese music.

Are transcribed Chinese music pieces well received by audiences? How do you choose your repertoire?

It’s well received in China.  Overseas, it depends on how I program them and listeners expectations, some being more popular than others.  The two I am playing on Saturday are well received by both audiences.

You were one of the first, if not the very first highly talented guitarist to emerge for China after the cultural revolution.  What was the guitar scene like in China/Beijing when you were beginning?

A totally different landscape to now. It was in its infancy, and there were barely any resources.  We listened to copies of copies of copies of cassettes ! There was no guitar program at any  conservatoire .  When I entered the middle school attached to the Central Conservatoire, I was the very first guitar student in any music school in China.

What approach did your teacher(s) take with you to develop both your technique and musicality?

In short, I developed good technique when I was in China, but I was mainly an intuitive player.  I developed my musicianship since coming to London to study.

Do you play or did you study any other instrument?

Piano was compulsory at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing.  I always wished to play a bowed instrument but never got that opportunity.

Who are your favourite 21st century composers for guitar and what are your favourite 21st century guitar pieces?

I like many 21st century composers and compositions with no one favourite in either category. 

Do you have any favourite Australian composed pieces?

Again, no favourite, but I’ve enjoyed playing music by Philip Houghton, Nigel Westlake, John Williams and I am going to play the Melbourne Arioso on Saturday written for me by Ross Edwards. The piece is inspired by a Melbourne artists works. I have hand-picked a few pictures to go along with this piece that will be shown during the concert.

I really love hearing from artists about what hidden gems are found in their home country or region. For example, ‘what are those folkloric influenced pieces that an English speaking audience wouldn’t really be exposed to (but should)’ and ‘how do you consume new “voices” in the guitar space (i.e. streaming platforms such as Soundcloud, Spotify…. local scenes such as foundations, societies, bars)?
You’ll be able to listen to lots of Chinese music on my new Sketches of China album, there are a lot of gems in there – see the answer above.
I do use streaming platforms a lot these days because everything is there at your fingertips.  I use them for enjoyment and also for research.  

‘how long everyday do you spend on technical exercises and in your opinion what is the most important exercise ?

The most important exercise depends on the needs of the individual.  In general, the things that are just at your technical limit, or slightly beyond, are good to work on. Nowadays I tend to use parts of pieces as technical exercises.  I find that these days my technical practice is more effective when combined with meeting a musical goal, rather than just practicing a particular technique for it’s own sake.
The time I take depends on the repertoire I am working on.  No fixed routine.

What would you say to a child who is a bit reluctant to practice their instrument?

I think it’s normal for a child and even a professional.  I think it’s important to let the child choose some music they like.  If they enjoy it and are interested they are more likely to practice.

How do you get mentally prepared before playing any pieces?

It’s down to preparation before hand.  Knowing I’ve practiced, knowing the piece inside out, and experience from previous performances of the piece all help.

In this world where there is so much division in terms of race, religion, economic disparity, etc,  do you use your talent to try to bring people together to understand, appreciate, and respect one another, and to promote world peace?  If so, how?

Music is a universal language.  This is precisely why I am playing music from across the world on Saturday. By playing music from different countries and cultures it brings us all that bit closer.  Politics often works in the other direction.  In a divided society, we need to appreciate more what we have in common rather than what separates us.

I’d be interested to hear Xuefei talk about the place of music theory in her musical life. Is it something she just had to learn because it was part of the curriculum or does she use it as a daily tool eg when learning new material?

Music theory is a language for explaining music to other musicians.  It’s like grammar in language.  When we write and speak we use it, but most of the time without thinking too much about it.  For me, music theory is similar.   What I do use day to day in preparing pieces is cultural and stylistic knowledge – having some historic background to the piece, the society of the day, and performance practices of the period are all useful in shaping a performance.

I would like to hear about her ongoing journey with selection of guitars and how the Smallman fits into this journey.   Also how she deals with all the uninformed opinions and preconceptions with the instrument to convince any skeptics.  

There’s no one size fits all instrument.  It’s like choosing shoes – you don’t go hiking in heels.  For me, I like playing Smallman most at large venues, and playing with other musicians, you do need a bit of more resonance in those situations.  In the ideal world I like to use different guitars to suit different music, and I have done so on all my albums.  It’s not possible to do this in live concerts as I can’t travel with many instruments.  This weekend I am playing from home so will be using more than one instrument.  

Do you also like playing on period instruments like a Lacôte guitar or Parnormo or more traditionally built guitars?
Yes indeed. I have a copy of a Lacote and a Torres. I’d like to find a playable original one day !

What tension strings do you play and what kind?

Generally I use D’Addario EJ46LP (high tension polished strings) for live, and EJ45LP (medium tension polished) for recording.  On my period instruments I tend to use medium tension strings.

How do you overcome any pre-performance nerves?

In short, it’s down to preparation and experience of performing. They never go, but you get used to the feeling and experience makes you realise that its something that can be coped with.


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