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June 4, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 6.5- Discovering Chinese Dizi (What Playing Bamboo Flute Has Taught Me)


“It just has to be beautiful. If it is beautiful, it is okay.”

I laughed nervously. Here I was, about to break all the rules I knew about music and preparing myself to go back on years of musical precision, hours and hours of practice and attention to detail. I flexed my fingers, fingers that used to turn numb from working passages over and over again, and found them suddenly at a loss, unsure of how to move.

“Are you sure?”

My teacher, Tony, nodded earnestly.

That was my first big revelation about playing the Chinese dizi, a simple six-holed bamboo flute that I’ve come to love and respect these last couple of weeks. It was never about precision, like it was with Western flute (drilling holes into wild bamboo stalks doesn’t yield the most accurate of instruments, after all). It was the whole mentality that was vastly different. I had a hard time overcoming this obstacle during my first few lessons- I wanted something precise, an exact set of notation that would convey what was expected of me, from the first note to the last. What I got from Tony was:

“Just make it beautiful.”

“You don’t have to be so exact.”

“Make it your own expression.”

Oftentimes he would grab the flute from me and rigidly play a passage, fingers moving robotically, bobbing his head exactly in time with the beat. “No,” he would shake his head furiously. “Like this.” He would play the passage a second time, this time really evoking the emotion of the music, adding intricate trills here and there, maybe an extra warble on this note, stretching and squeezing the phrase as if it were a delicious taffy. It was so strikingly… beautiful. I could taste the sweetness as he finished playing.

“Now you.”

I brought the bamboo flute up to my lips, then paused. “How did you do that…?”

“Just relax. Play whatever feels right.”

I was daunted by the sudden magnitude of possibility, too timid to move my fingers freely, to roam outside the world of set notation and exact playing I’d come to associate with music. “Do you mean I should just improvise, make up whatever?”

Tony shook his head. “You cannot change the music. But you can make it your own.”

I’ve been dealing with that mystery for three weeks now. There are no exact rules on what you can or cannot change in a piece of music. Believe me, I’ve asked. But it has been one long learning experience, starting right at the beginning with the notation. First off, traditional Chinese music looks completely different from Western notation. Jianpu (“simple notation”) looks confusing at first, but actually is very intuitive. The numbers align with solfege (1=do, 2=re, 3=mi, etc.).

A dot above or below a number signifies the octave. Any lines beneath the numbers cut the duration in half, much like Western notation (1 line means eighth notes, 2 lines means sixteenth notes). And that’s it. Of course, dizi has its own special notation as well. A squiggle, a ribbon, and a star, as I like to call them, represent a mordent, a fast slap trill, and flutter tongue respectively.

But like the Pirate’s Code from Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re more like “guidelines” than rules.

Different musicians will create their own unique personalization of any solo work, more so than just stylistic differences that Western musicians talk about. Every Chinese dizi recording that I’ve heard online plays it drastically different- they change actual notes, modify note durations in a way that just aren’t allowed in Western music (except for in cadenzas), and throw in insane “special techniques” that I don’t even know how to describe in words. My old flute teacher would pull out his hair if I showed up to a lesson and was like, “Yeah, I took some liberty with Bach, so I hope you don’t mind. I think it sounds better with extra notes every other measure, so I added those in. Also I changed the key to minor instead. Also there’s a passage where I flutter tongue everything and play some of the notes flat because it’s boring if everything’s in tune.”

I’ve come to love it, though. I’m a little sad that we only got connected to these Chinese orchestra students halfway through the program, but my teacher Tony has been fantastic. In the one month of exposure that I’ve had to Chinese dizi, I’ve come to appreciate everything about it- the tone, the music, the style of playing. I’ve not trying to perfect my tone or drilling my fingers to the bone with intense technical passages like I did with Western flute. If anything, technical passages are the easy stuff in dizi music. What’s hard are the lyrical passages in which you’re expected to internalize and create your own personal embellishments. There’s a degree of creative spirit- playing only what is written on the page is boring or incomplete. Copying someone else’s rendition is plagiarism. I see now that technical ability aside, most of dizi practice is spent actively thinking about the music, trying to engage with the emotional side of the music, and brainstorming how to express that with your own flair. It’s certainly made me a better musician.

I’ll admit that when I first started trying dizi, my ego was up in the clouds and I looked down on dizi as just a simple instrument. “It only has six holes,” I scoffed. “It can’t even play chromatics accurately- how hard can the music be?” I was convinced that dizi, as a traditional Chinese instrument, was just completely overshadowed by the complexity of Western flute. The fingerings were laughingly simple, I was able to produce sound right away, and even sight reading jianpu didn’t cause me too much trouble. To me, dizi was vastly inferior to the Western flute, which had evolved over hundreds of years, been revolutionized by the demands of Western orchestras, and achieved a standard of perfection in terms of tone, color, and technique. Just look at someone like James Galway. It takes several lifetimes of arduous practice to master such an instrument in the way that he does, to really control the flute, to have mastery over three-plus octaves, and to perfect pure, singing tone on every single note. In comparison, I expected to master dizi by the end of next week. How very, very wrong I was.

What I realized later was that dizi and Western flute just cannot be compared like that, just as you cannot take a fork and a spoon and claim that one is better than the other. The two types of flutes evolved separately due to form and function. Western flutes initially strove to imitate the human voice, which was considered the ideal instrument during the Renaissance Era. The complexity of western orchestral music and the rise of the flute as a solo instrument in the 18th century led flute makers such as Theobald Boehm to strive for greater manipulation and control: this pushed for accurate scales, convenient gizmos and levers, efficient design, and better quality of materials.

Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) Progression of Flute Design

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

Large image of “DESCRIPTION” by AUTHOR

As for dizi, you can’t really grow “better” bamboo. And the function was completely different, as well. Historically, Chinese dizi were used primarily in opera as an accompanying instrument. Contrary to western flutes, which endeavored to blend into a larger ensemble or orchestra, Chinese dizi developed a distinct and sharp tone that would carry well through the entertainment courts where operatic performances were often featured. (This also explains the lack of music written for dizi duets, the competition between the two voices would make them incompatible).

Dizi designs haven’t changed for over a thousand years. If I were to describe to you the main differences between dizi and Western flute, the first would be the tone. Western flute is soft and blendable, dizi is sharp and distinct. The secret to its unique sound? I lied about the dizi having six holes- there are actually five more, four tuning holes at the end of the flute, and one more special “membrane hole” that lies in between the embouchure hole and the first finger hole. That’s right. It just chills there and acts as a resonator, sort of like a reed made of super thin rice paper. It was invented during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) by Liu Xi, who also nicknamed the dizi 七星惯 (“seven star tube”), as a heavenly reference. I think that’s pretty epic.

What’s not so epic is that as a flute player, I’ve never had to deal with reeds or putting on rosin or anything of that sort- my flute is complete in itself, and all I need are my mouth on metal to make a sound. With dizi, it’s a whole new world of adjusting and being mindful of the way the set-up of the instrument influences the sound. Apparently, putting on the membrane correctly and being able to adjust it to control your tone is both a practice and an art, and definitely something I still have yet to master it. Tony says I have 9,990 more tries to go before I get any good at it. (Fairly encouraging.)

Aside from the membrane hole, which gives dizi its characteristic tone, there’s only a few other differences that are worth mentioning:

-Dizi are perfectly symmetrical, whereas Western flutes are not. This allows for left-handed people to hold and play dizi the opposite way flutes are typically held.
-With dizi, chromatic notes are difficult, but not impossible. Covering half a hole is a regular practice, in addition to sliding fingers on and off the holes for special effect.
-Each bamboo dizi is confined to one key. Modern Chinese orchestra players will bring a whole case of dizi with them, big and small ones of varying keys, and swap out depending on the piece.
-The introduction of Chinese orchestras and the inclusion of dizi in ensemble playing has led makers to split dizi into two parts, to allow for tuning.
-Special techniques that dizi music has include but are not limited to: tapping, appoggiatura, tremolo, legato, flower tonguing, augment, glide, trill, overtone, prong, and horse-neighing. I’m serious about that last one.  “Like a horse” is written directly in the current solo that I’m working on. Try replacing “dolce” or “cantabile” with that in Western music.

Dizi certainly threw me a curve when I first started, and it took a while to adjust to the freedom of style that accompanied it. But, forks and spoons- I was way too quick to judge the dizi when I first started. There are layers of complexity I have yet to understand in such a simple yet beautiful instrument. And it is beautiful. Ten years of long tones, scales, Taffanel exercises, and etudes during my study of Western flute have impressed upon me that technique, accuracy, and musicality are the core elements to music. Five weeks of dizi lessons with my teacher Tony, a student at Peking University, has revealed to me that in actuality, music is about reaching into the notation and grasping the soul of it, finding the essence of the emotion that inspired it- a farmer in the lowland fields, a yak up in the mountains, a beautiful blossoming flower, the yodels of Tibetan monks- and conveying that story in whatever form speaks most to me.

This particular solo is called “New Song of the Herdsman” (牧民新歌). You can listen to how different these two flutists’ interpretations are. (Additional notes: At 1:26 in the first video, when the accompaniment comes in… it gets me every time. There’s something about the erhu and yangqin at that moment that totally speaks herdsman to me. Chinese instrumentation is also strikingly beautiful. At least to me, every time I hear a traditional Chinese instrument, it makes me think of the thousands of years of ancient Chinese history. The second video loses a bit of that flavor since it uses a Western orchestra as accompaniment, but the soloist really makes up for it with her creative interpretation and that zing she adds with her throat flutter-tonguing. Fierce. I don’t care much for her poofy red dress, but at places like 2:48-2:57, the way she digs into the phrase, throws a few sultry glances at the audience, raises her eyebrows along with the notes,  I can’t help but believe that’s she really enjoying the music.)

“It just has to be beautiful.” Certainly that’s easier said than done. But perhaps that’s the point- music need only to be savored, to be enjoyed, to be experienced and wrought by the musician. For a long time, practicing the Western flute had me focus too much on the audience, the judge, the resulting sounds… when all along, the real beauty of music was in how I enjoy playing and creating– what the music could stir within myself. At least for me, Chinese dizi has reminded me why I play music in the first place. And it’s taught me to appreciate it like nothing else.


One Comment

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  1. dmonopoly / Jun 15 2014 8:42 pm

    This is really cool! I hope you get one of these flutes when you return home?

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