While the Music Continues

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| This is the 510th story of Our Life Logs |


Well, let me start my story with a parable:

“There once was a very small girl whose mother asked her to fill up a barren valley with water. Each day, the small girl carried her small bucket from the creek near their home to the valley. Nothing seemed to happen at first. There was nothing but a shy puddle that mocked   her efforts. But she did as her mother said.  Years later, a strong woman poured out the last bucket of water into the once-barren valley, and together, the woman and her mother, now ripe with age, swam in the sea they created.”

Now, what about my journey? Let’s go back to the beginning.

1 | I Loved the Sound

In the narrow river valley city of Lanzhou, China, I was born an only child in the 1980s. My mother was a music teacher and my father a ballet dancer; music was a foundational cornerstone in our family. I should clarify that my father was a ballet dancer until I was born, and then he obtained a high executive government job. Dad loved ballet, but it simply wasn’t going to pay the bills. My parents raised me to love and cherish music all the same.

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When I was a little girl.

I started learning the piano and later dancing when I was four years old. My mother had access to an assortment of instruments thanks to her job, so she suggested I learn the guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument, when I turned five. As I inspected this new instrument, my young mind was mesmerized by the melody that escaped its plucked strings. I loved the sound; it was like a calming waterfall running down or the waves breaking at the seashore. How a simple pluck of a sequence of strings could create a melody so beautiful!

As I began to learn, my mother kept an eye on my progress, making sure I practiced every single day. She wanted me to develop a habit for playing, thinking that would help me grow as a musician. But you know how it is with parents; many don’t realize that if you force a kid to do something, they’re going to wind up hating it. Although I was in love with guzheng, playing soon became a chore.

I didn’t want to practice for hours on end, but I was a shy girl and never fought back against my mother. I just kept playing, even when I didn’t want to. I still remember the days of my mother cooking in the kitchen, the sharp smell of spices wafting through the house as I practiced in the next room. I couldn’t get away with slacking off. Mom would know if the music had stopped! I wasn’t confident at all in my abilities, but I kept at it anyway because life was easier when you did as you were told.

2 | Something Switched Inside Me

For the next 10 years, I continued practicing, day after day, until I realized playing the guzheng had become part of my life. But it would be another decade before I would truly understand the importance of that realization. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me come back to the year when I was 15.

That year, I was graduating middle school and like my peers, I was looking into options of high school to pave my way to college. I knew I was never the brightest student in the class when it came to academics. I was extremely shy and didn’t have much confidence. But somehow, at age 15, something switched inside me and suddenly, I wanted to be the best version of myself. I told my parents I wanted to go to the best high school so I could work toward getting into the best music college in the country.

My parents blessed my decision, and I started working hard towards my goal. Eventually, thanks to my music abilities and those extra tutoring sessions after class, I was able to fulfill my wish. I got admitted to the best high school in the area.

Joining a whole new environment, I took this as a perfect opportunity to reinvent myself. I took all the chances I had to make a change. Instead of keeping to myself like usual, I started talking to everyone. I became devoted to keeping up with my classmates. Our classroom was huge, and my seat was in the back from where I couldn’t see well. I asked to sit in the aisle in the front row so I could see better during class. My books were balanced in my lap, but I didn’t care. I had this hunger for education that I kept at the focal point of my thoughts all through high school.

Somewhere along the way, my distaste for practicing the guzheng went away, and I learned to love it. It was my ticket to success—well, success in my own definition.

3 | What Was I to Do?

My efforts paid off. In 2000, I was accepted into my dream music school in Beijing—The China Conservatory of Music. Of course, I was thrilled to get in, but I also felt like I only got in because I worked hard, not because of my talent. I felt inadequate, like I wasn’t meant to be there. I saw many students who were much more talented than me. I struggled through lessons they easily completed. My confidence dimmed.

So, what was I to do?

If there was one thing I learned from my years of  guzheng practice, it was that time and effort did make a difference. So, I decided to use hard work to make up for the gift I was missing. I was determined to be the top student, no matter what it took. I would record all the class lectures, then listen and take detailed notes. I never wanted to lose the ground I had gained. I studied hard, kept to a strict regimen, and most importantly, I practiced, practiced, practiced!

Each day, from 6:30am to 10:30pm, I was totally booked. Between meals, classes, and a nap (because when you’re moving nonstop for 16 hours, you have to take a nap), I practiced about six hours a day. I shared a practice room with two other students, and they probably hated me, because I always used up all the free hours they could practice.

For four straight years, I stuck to this crazy schedule. I stuck to it so much that I didn’t even have a problem with not being allowed to go out during the SARS outbreak in 2003. It’s fair to say I pushed myself hard, perhaps a little too hard. After all, practice didn’t bring much joy. It was more like a means of survival. I don’t regret it at all though, because that hard work helped me graduate as a distinguished student and kept me focused as I went out into the world.

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With my guzheng, in my 20s.

4 | An Epiphany

After graduation, my teachers encouraged me to go for my Master’s. I took the advice and participated in the test. Unfortunately, I failed the English portion and was unable to get in. My confidence again started to shake. I was so frustrated, because why did I need English if I was just going to play music for the rest of my life?

I was not ready to give up. Determined to pass the next time, I joined the New Oriental English School to improve my language. In the meantime, I began teaching music to make a living. Then, as I sharpened my English skills, I had an epiphany. Why was I going for a Master’s when I already had the tools I needed to share my music with the world? I wanted to go abroad. I wanted the whole world to hear the beautiful sound from this traditional Chinese instrument. That would be my new mission.

I decided then if I was going to fulfill that dream, I needed to focus even more on improving my English. In 2007, I went to Shanghai to continue my English studies, away from distractions like friends and social events back in Beijing.

When I came back the next year, I was ready to work toward my dream. I started by forming an all-female band. For two years, we practiced, built our brand, created albums, sent our info out to cultural organizations overseas, and waited for someone to bite. It was a lot of work, but I was no stranger to working hard.

In 2010, we finally got a response from an American organization. They invited us to come play for their event. Sadly, out of the five in our band, only two were granted visas (thankfully, I was one of the two). Without a group, the other girl bowed out, leaving just me to go. Yes, a girl who used to be so shy that she didn’t want to talk to others was now flying across the world alone. Even crazier, I wasn’t even nervous. I was ecstatic to finally get my chance to share my incredible Chinese instrument with the world!

5 | Nevertheless, I Persisted

I arrived in North Carolina in September 2010 to perform at the organization’s event. The audience showed so much passion, I saw my dream come true. At that moment, I knew this was exactly what I was meant to do—share Chinese music and culture with the world.

After the event, I got to explore the rest of the country. As I traveled from  coast-to-coast, my heart flew high. I would soon know that this was the country I would come back to again and again to attend events, to perform, to organize summer camps, to teach, to promote our culture…and even, to meet my Mr. Right.

I met my husband in Cincinnati during one of the summer camps. He was American Chinese, a born New Yorker who didn’t speak much Chinese, which in a way was perfect, as it forced me to practice my English. After we got married in 2013, I moved to Cincinnati to be with him and to start our life together. I found my destination.

With my permanent base in the United States, a sea of opportunities opened up. Aside from performances, I was invited to be on the panel of judges for the Guzheng Level Testing at The China Conservatory of Music and to be on the committee of the Macao International Guzheng Music Festival. I was also offered a chance to teach Chinese music at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory College of Music every other semester. And just two years ago, I set up my own company, which brought me opportunities to help more people learn the guzheng and appreciate its beauty. Through my teaching, I help those who lack confidence like I once did to learn music with tips and tricks I’ve gathered over the years. My journey has not been easy; nevertheless, I persisted.

From a shy little girl with absolutely no confidence to a musician playing shows across the world, there is no doubt that my life has changed. I was proud to see my face on the Nasdaq billboard at Times Square over the New Year as a Chinese Cultural Ambassador saying hello to the world. My family felt proud as they knew I’d made my way out.  In my heart, I knew it was nothing more than good habits and years of hard work. If I can make it, you can too.

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Me (upper left) on the Nasdaq billboard at Times Square, 2020.

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This is the story of Shou Feng

Shuo, a well-known Chinese guzheng player and Cultural Ambassador, resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and their three-year-old daughter. From a musically-inclined family, Shuo started to learn the guzheng at the age of five. Over the years, she grew out of her shyness and lack of confidence through hard work and self-discipline. After college, she formed a band and fought for a  chance to perform at an event in the US which eventually opened up many doors for her career and most importantly, led her to meet her husband in 2013. 

Shuo has been teaching guzheng for 19 years. She and her students are often invited to perform at various cultural events throughout the US. She was Art Director of the American Chinese Association in 2010, and is currently President of the Chinese-American Cultural Exchange Academy. She is on the panel of judges for Guzheng Level Testing at The China Conservatory of Music, and on the committee of the Macao International Guzheng Music Festival. She has also been invited to attend the Multicultural Film Festival in Los Angeles. In her spare time, Shuo loves to spend time with her family. Her daughter is learning to swim now, and to help her stay motivated, Shuo has been practicing with her.

Shuo Feng
Shuo Feng.

 Want to hear her play? Start the video below!

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This story first touched our hearts on March 32020. 

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: MJ |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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