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December 3, 2020

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A music teacher with friends in high places

HIGH on the Tibetan Plateau, where catching your breath can be a struggle at 4,000 meters, thin oxygen levels don’t diminish the voices of children who love to sing but have no musical training.

Enter Zhao Xingzhou, a 60-year-old biology teacher and music lover from Shanghai, who volunteered to go to a Tibetan region of Qinghai Province as part of an educational exchange program.

For a year, he taught nine music classes for Tibetan children, tapping talent that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. He recently returned to Shanghai, bringing 16 of his students with him. They presented a song-and-dance performance at the Shanghai Poly Grand Theater on November 21.

“We have a room for music classes, but before Mr Zhao came, it had never been used, and some instruments were in disrepair,” Tenzin Kunsang, 14, one of the students, said during the performance. “We all loved singing, but we didn’t know much about music. Mr Zhao taught us so much. We want to sing on this stage the song he taught as a gift to him.”

Despite his training in biology, Zhao, who teaches at Yangliu Middle School in Jiading District, said he sees music as his “life.”

He plays many musical instruments, including the Chinese stringed instrument erhu, the violin, the piano, the flute and the trumpet. He is also an amateur composer and conductor. He even made his own violin.

When he first graduated with a teaching degree, he went to work at a rural middle school. During leisure hours, Zhao and the other newly graduated teachers gathered to sing, dance and play instruments. It was one of his most memorable experiences — a joy he wanted to share with students.

Last year, when Jiading District planned to send teachers to support poor areas of Qinghai and Yunnan provinces in a yearlong education program, Zhao noticed that Jiuzhi County in Qinghai was seeking a music teacher. So he applied.

He saw himself following in the footsteps of Chinese musician Wang Luobin (1913-96), who was dubbed the “King of Song in Western China” for his contributions to the composition and promotion of folk songs from western China.

Zhao’s application was approved by the school, and a month later he arrived in Jiuzhi, which sits amid the Bayan Hari Mountains, whose highest peak is called “Garden of the Gods” and is sacred to local Tibetans.

The first song Zhao wrote for his music classes was entitled “Garden of the Holy Mountain,” which later became the school song.

His high-altitude workplace is a middle school with 951 students, most of whom are Tibetan. His first assignment was to teach music to eighth graders.

“The principal told me that these boys and girls never had any music classes, and that surprised me,” Zhao said. “In the classroom, I found many instruments, but some had broken strings or lacked components. I repaired all the instruments myself and vowed that I would do my best to lay a good foundation of music for these children.”

In his first class, he picked up an erhu and asked the students what it was. No hands were raised.

Then he played “Racing Horses,” an original Chinese piece for the erhu, and asked the class to identify the piece. No hands were raised.

He then told the class about the instrument and the story behind the piece of music. Eyes widened.

Zhao went on to duplicate the process with a violin, guitar, cello, piano and electronic organ. Eyes opened wider.

“They are really talented in singing and dancing,” Zhao said of his students.

Youth on the plateau don’t have the same access to music as their peers in urbanized areas of China.

Singing is just in their souls, inspired by the quiet, stunning scenery of mountains, glaciers, rivers and grasslands.

Zhao taught them the rudiments of music, like rhythm and musical notes. He supervised daily practice on instruments.

“Once they learned the fundamentals of music applied to all instruments, they learned how to play other instruments,” Zhao said. “The music came from their hearts.”

As word of the new music teacher spread, young people from throughout Jiuzhi County came to learn music from him. His remit expanded from eighth graders to second through fifth grades.

In April this year, Zhao began teaching evening music classes at a local youth center.

“Once there’s a need, I’ll do my best to fill it,” Zhao said. “These children had no musical training, but they had talent and just needed some help to develop it.”

In May, the education authority of Guoluo Prefecture, where Jiuzhi is located, invited him to train 60 music teachers.

“Only 12 of them were music majors,” Zhao said. “The rest had some musical training and worked part-time.”

Although music education in the prefecture still has a long way to go, Zhao said a good start has been made. The more music teachers there are, the more Tibetan folk music can be developed and spread, he added.

Jiuzhi County this year has recruited four new music teachers who will initially be sent to more rural schools to give children in outlying areas the chance to learn music.

Zhao’s stint in Jiuzhi was scheduled to end in July. However, after a summer break back in Shanghai, Zhao’s attachment to his distant students brought him back to the plateau.

“I’ll stay until the end of this year, when I need to retire,” he told Shanghai Daily.

But that won’t be the end of his relationship with his Tibetan students. He has plans to visit them periodically.

Zhao’s story has moved many people and drawn in support from quarters he never expected. Some people donated money to help finance Jiuzhi music education. Zhao used the donations to buy the school eight guitars and eight erhus.

Shanghai Jiading Media Center, which interviewed Zhao before he returned to Jiuzhu in September, revealed that Zhao had the dream of bringing some of his Tibetan students to the “outer world” to perform.

The media center asked the Jiading Education Bureau to organize a performance for Zhao and his students. Funding was provided by Kostal (Shanghai) Management Co, a subsidiary of German auto-components firm KOSTAL Group.

The company has said it will also fund a new three-year program to support music education in Jiuzhi County, and in Deqin County and Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province.

At the Shanghai performance, Zhao couldn’t hide his pride.

Student Tenzin Kunsang sang, danced and played piano, with Zhao conducting. Another student, 15-year-old Norjin Lhamo, self-taught in English, sang “All Falls Down,” a song by American hip-hop artist Kanye West.

“The performance was great,” said Maria Ficek, 15, who was in the audience. “You could see that the students were very passionate about their culture. I feel very grateful that I could see something so special.”

Yi Fenglin, president of Jiading’s musicians’ association, said he and his team will organize music-exchange programs with the plateau community, both online and offline.

“Maybe we can make an album of these kids’ songs,” he said.

Zhu Hairong, head of the education bureau in Jiuzhi County, is very grateful.

“Jiuzhi is less advanced than other areas of China and short of teachers,” Zhu said. “But our children need all-round growth to develop fully. We thank people like Zhao and others who want to help us achieve that.”


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