How quiet it is here on a Saturday morning, just laying in bed and reveling in nothing but the absence of noise. We’ve been in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China since April of 2019, at least for this most recent adventure. In total I have lived nearly 12 years in China so far.
On COVID-19, there are only a few cases in China now, mostly brought in from overseas. All people are tested upon arrival and must quarantine. Just as of yesterday or so, new restrictions were placed on eight countries, banning entry to everyone coming from them. There have been a few outbreaks which were quickly contained, some of which are of unknown origin. Minks, perhaps? Most recently was one in Xinjiang, with something like 150 asymptomatic cases and 3 with symptoms. In this province, nobody has died from the virus, at least officially. Actually, there was another outbreak last month in Qingdao too. But officially there haven’t been any deaths of it in months.
Countries do, however, have different methods of pronouncing “cause of death” so numbers can vary widely. China and Germany, for instance, would not count COVID-19 as a cause of death if there were underlying conditions.
That being said, people are still a bit jittery and we still wear masks in many situations. As for where I teach, we taught online for about two months last spring, and were back in the school to teach in person in April, though there were restrictions. Students had to stay on campus for 11 days at a stretch, for example, and went home for 3 days every two weeks. As for teachers, we had alternating weekends of one day off and 3 days off. Now we are all back in the regular routine of 5-day weeks.
Concerts and theatres tentatively have reopened in the past few months, first at 50% capacity; now concerts are allowed to hold 75% capacity. Masks are required. There is no oversight for smaller venues and so we have had several performances.
We have attended an English Toastmasters Club since last year and decided to join it to work on our leadership and public speaking skills. These meetings are now held as OMO, or “online-meets-offline”. This means that while the live meeting is being held, we stream it over Zoom to attendees who are either across town, in another province or overseas who also participate. We have even had main speakers give their talk from overseas a few times.
Last weekend we attended the Music China musical instrument expo in Shanghai, where we saw all sorts of instruments from Europe and China, local and international. Our neighbor Samuel Shen also had his display, as he was one of the original vendors 20 years ago when it was getting started. I enjoyed meeting Niyu Lin of W.E. Hill and Sons, who came all the way from London and did the quarantine which is a requirement when coming here from abroad.
We could not resist these tiny violin and bass miniatures.
Watch out for value and VSOs as always. In a shop we saw away from the event, what looked to us like a VSO was shamelessly priced at around $4000, pure greed and rather disgusting. The reason I believe it was a fake was you could see that the pegs and tailpiece were obviously not ebony, not even sanded down to look smooth. It was yet another reminder that not all shops sell great student instruments, even though at least in person one can get a sense of the sound and quality by doing a personal inspection. Students, and families of students, please consult your teacher before splashing out a lot of money on an unknown instrument.
As for travel in China, it is open for domestic travel, though at least as of a few months ago certain areas required a COVID-19 test before you could visit. Because of this, we decided to travel in Yunnan Province, where we made our way from Kunming-Dali-Lijiang-Shangrila. We definitely could feel the effect of the high altitude. I felt it the first night in Kunming, a bit light-headed and dreamy, over a delicious dinner at a Bai nationality restaurant. I didn’t feel it again until we arrived in Shangrila. We loved our visit enormously, though we would have liked to have been able to stay longer to enjoy it even more after a few more days of acclimatization.
The video above is from inside the Potatso National Park, a very tranquil place to breathe clean, albeit thin, air, view yaks up close and enjoy yourself in nature. The one below is in Shangrila, in front of Songzalin Monastery. If you travel there it is worth getting out a half mile or so early so you can walk along a walkway built into a marsh and around this pond, where you can have such a stunning view of it (which is impossible when you are standing right in front of it.)
In case you are not familiar with this province, it lies in the southwest, bordering Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar internationally, and Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces domestically. There are at least 25 ethnic minorities in Yunnan and an extremely varied topography, so it is a wonderful place to lose yourself on an adventure. It was mushroom season when we visited, so we had a lot of different mushroom dishes. It would be hard to pick a top moment or destination, but we really enjoyed riding bikes along Erhai Lake in Dali, and making Chinese pizza in an ancient town nearby. From tropical areas in the south to staggering mountains and Tibetan areas in the north, this province shows a wide variety of people, cultures and lifestyles.
Suzhou: culture, education & garden capital
We have a number of interesting places nearby (in Suzhou) to explore, with hills and lakes, water towns, parks and gardens to explore. A few weekends ago, for example, we found an area to hike just behind Tianpingshan, with beautiful stone formations and many trails. And if this isn’t enough, we can be in downtown Shanghai faster than someone taking the ordinary metro from somewhere in Shanghai, as we live about a ten minute bike ride from a high-speed railway station.
Musically speaking, my husband Bernd and I have been playing duos and chamber music for fun at some parties and small public gatherings, notably at Suzhou Arts Collective near LiGongDi, which doubles as a dance studio. A first for me was last month, playing Vivaldi’s Concerto in F “Autumn” with Claude Lepetit, cello. It was the first time I have ever played a concerto before an audience, which I really enjoyed and hope it won’t be the last. The children really seemed to love it, which is what was most important to me. I won’t forget one girl, about four years old I would say, laying on the floor close to my feet looking up at me while I would glance down at her through my playing. Really that was the best vantage point a person could have with the cozy, resonant wood dance floor creating amazing acoustics. I remember a similar experience at the Concerts in the Barn of the Olympic Music Festival, where as a student I attended their string quartet institute, and that summer Robert Merfeld let me lay under the grand piano while he practised Bartok Night Music from Out of Doors.
Musical interludes aside, a couple of momentous accomplishments for laying groundwork in SuperStrings Studio and the (future) Royal String Teacher Association have been an interview with Francesca Raimondi in Italy, who specialises in teaching very young children, many of whom are special needs children, to successfully play the violin. Watch the interview here >>SuperStrings Studio Vlog 6 Interview with Francesca Raimondi.
The other important thing was helping another budding young foreign string teacher to secure her first substantial, full-time teaching position at a prominent international school in Shanghai.
If you would like to take the first ever worldwide String Teacher Census, be counted as someone standing up for the future of music by pressing >>here now.