Sunday, September 30, 2007

All About Bows Part II: When to Change Your Bow

One of my customers asked me when she should change her Erhu bow. She's been playing her Erhu 5 times a week, 30-60 minutes a day for 10 months already and she was wondering if its time to change the bow already.

Well, I say it depends on each individual actually. Someone who bows with a vengence will wear out the bow faster than someone who's always trying to mimic whisperings. Someone who carefully moves the bow from the pegs to the playing position would do better than one who removes it with a flourish, pulling out a few loose strands of hair in the process.

But here are a few tell tale signs that your bow is due for a change:

1) The Erhu bow is balding.
Unless you are very careful, there are a 101 ways for you to accidentally catch some of your bow hairs. In between the strings near the qianjing area, the corners of the soundbox, the scales on the snakeskin, the strings wound around the pegs and the number 1 bow hair killing machine - fine adjustors. A bow with thinning hair gives a thinning tone and you should change it as soon as possible.

2) Compounds of rosin and sweat are accumulating on your Erhu bow hair.
Especially at the area near the ferrule where you place your right fingers. When the rosin reacts with the sweat on your fingers, it forms a sticky gluey substance on the hairs that is difficult to get rid of. You can try to wash it with non oily dish washing detergent though.

3) You get cackling harmonics when you play your open strings.
Once a customer came to my shop, complaining of a cackling noise when she bows that was not there before. I see nothing wrong with the Erhu bow, thus I changed the bridge and dampener and changed the strings but the noise still persists. Finally I changed the bow and the
noise is gone. Sometimes the rosin reacts with the moisture in the air and forms bigger particles among the bow hairs which you can't see. Again you can try washing your Erhu bow or live with this minor irritation. Somehow the cackling noise is more apparent when you play open strings.

4) Something ain't right but you can't put a finger to it
Sometimes you can't find anything wrong with the bow, but you just feel that its not the same as it was. Go with your instincts.

Don't wait until your bow becomes like this before you change:



Oh, and don't bother about rehairing your Erhu bow unless it has sentimental value. Getting a new Erhu bow is much cheaper than getting it rehaired.

And did I mention that we ship our Erhu bows in custom made postubes that absolutely prevents the bow from damage during shipping? Unless an elephant steps on it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

All About Bows Part 1: Beijing Styled Bows vs Shanghai Style Bows

A lot of people have asked me how to choose a Erhu bow and I've been procrastinating for a while to write about this.

Well, because I sell Erhu bows and I'm afraid my customers might equate an imperfect bow that they receive, with a lousy bow. The workmanship and quality control of China Erhu bow makers still have a long way to go to match western bow makers, hence the great disparity in the price.

But as long as your new bow feels better than your old bow, its a good bow!

There is basically 2 distinct Erhu bow types:


1) The Beijing bow is a few centimeters longer than the Shanghai bow. (Used to be, now some Shanghai bows are as long as Beijing bows)

2) The Beijing bow has a soft ferrule compared to a hard plasticly ferrule of a Shanghai bow. The ferrule is the point where the bow hairs join to the frog of the bow, or where your left hand middle and fourth finger rests on. Some players who have a very tense right hand feels uncomfortable using the Shanghai bow. By right it should not hurt if you hold the bow correctly, with pressure points on the bow rod rather than grabbing the whole bow.

3) The Beijing bow's ferrule is detachable from the frog of the bow, so you don't need to remove the whole frog from the rod when you need to remove the bow from the Erhu or put the bow back on the Erhu. The Shanghai bow's ferrule is attached to frog of the bow. To remove the bow from the Erhu, you need to unscrew the endpin to detach the frog from the bow rod. But many a times, for a Beijing bow I find that I still need to detach the frog from the bow rod because there is just not enough slack to detach the ferrule from the frog.

4) I find that the Shanghai bow in general feels lighter and more flexible than the Beijing bow.

5) The Beijing bow usually has more bow hair than the Shanghai bow thus it produces a fuller tone. However, more bow hair means you might brush the outer string when you are playing the inner string and vice versa if the distance between the 2 strings is not big enough. You might want to choose another bridge that spaces out the strings more, but then you would need to get use to the increased distance when moving from one string to the other.

Not exhaustive, but all I can think of at the moment.

More on the rod and hair later.

Click here for a list of bows that we stock.

Our bows are shipped in custom-made postubes to ensure that they are not subjected to stress during shipping.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Protect your bow and strings

I had a previous entry titled 'Help! I can't get my Erhu in tune!' about the different types of fine adjustors and one reader commented that the fine adjustors are not very bow friendly. Your bow hairs get stuck in the fine adjustors if you are not careful when storing or taking out.

More recently I had an entry titled 'Sticky Sticky Erhu Strings' about using a piece of paper to protect your strings from the rosin powder on your bow.

The same reader decided to take a bigger piece of paper (A3 size) and fold it into half (instead of into a W) to cover both the strings as well as the fine adjustors. This way your strings are protected from the bow rosin and the bow hairs are protected from the fine adjustors.



Killing 2 birds with 1 stone.

Thank you Sam for your suggestion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Instrument Behind 'Er Quan Ying Yue' (or 'Moon Reflected on Second Spring')

'Er Quan Ying Yue' or 'Moon Reflected on Second Spring' as it is commonly known to non-Chinese, is a beautiful and moving piece of Erhu music.

It is written by a man called Hua Yan Jun (or blind man Ah Bing) in the 1950s. At the time when he wrote this piece of music, he was already blind. According to relatives and neighbours, Ah Bing barely earned enough everyday to feed himself by performing in the streets. Everyday when he goes back to his home in a small alley, he will play this moving but sorrowful and pitiful tune.

I'm sure a lot of people are familiar with the story of Ah Bing already. But it seems not everyone knows that 'Er Quan Ying Yue' is played using a special type of Hu called Er Quan Hu or Er Quan Qin.

My new stocks of Er Quan Hu by Wan Qi Xing just came in so I thought I'll take this opportunity to talk a little bit more about Er Quan Hu.

Er Quan Hu is actually an in between of the Erhu and Zhonghu. It has a slightly larger and longer resonator than the Erhu and the snakeskin used is also thicker than the Erhu. I've read somewhere that the height of the Er Quan Hu is slightly longer than the Erhu but the ones I have seem to have the same height as the Erhu.

Here is a picture of a Erhu, Er Quan Hu, Small Zhonghu and Big Zhonghu lined together.




The Er Quan Hu is strung with special strings called Er Quan strings and are tuned to G D (sometimes A E). They are slightly thicker than Erhu strings.

It is quite a lovely instrument actually, at least the ones that I have. It plays like a Erhu and sounds like a Zhonghu. The bass is not as deep and booming as the Zhonghu, but the notes are rounder and the higher registers are clearer. Click here for a video clip.

Well, some asked if they could achieve the same effect playing 'Er Quan Ying Yue' with a Zhonghu rather than Er Quan Hu. I made a recording playing the same thing using the small Zhonghu and the big Zhonghu. Listen for yourself here: small Zhonghu, big Zhonghu.

They sound like, well, Zhonghus playing 'Er Quan Ying Yue'.

Here is the Er Quan Hu by Wan Qi Xing that we just stocked:


Click here to purchase the Er Quan Erhu.

Oh, and here are the links to the tune 'Er Quan Ying Yue' if you haven't heard it before:
- Youtube video by Song Fei
- Audio recording by unknown artist

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sticky Sticky Erhu Strings

I'm sure everyone has problems with sticky strings.

When you store your bow on your Erhu, the rosin on your bow inadvertently touches your strings and cause your strings to be sticky. It's a pain to do slides and finger position changing if your strings are sticky.

To prevent the strings from getting sticky, you can put a cloth over your strings when you store your bow.

The cloth can also be used to wipe the dirt and grime off the strings and your Erhu resonator after use.

An alternative is to cover the strings with a piece of paper. This is something that I did when I was young.

Take an A4 size paper and fold it like this:

Slip the middle part of what you just created between the strings and your strings are protected against pesky rosin residue.



(If your qianjing is too low you need to cut the A4 size paper smaller)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Zi Zu Diao

I've been very busy these few days and have no time to update the blog.

So I'll leave you with a video clip of yet another Mooncake festival performance by four talented young musicians that took place yesterday at OUB centre.

Incidentally, the pipa and erhu player are holding their own solo recitals sometime next month.



Here's them doing "Zi Zu Diao":

video

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Greatest Invention for Erhu Yet!

I think this product warrants an entry by itself. Firstly, because it is such a fabulous product. Secondly, because we just restocked them.

I'm talking about the black butterfly mute for the Erhu.



It is a nifty little device that mutes 90% of the volume of your Erhu. Listen to the difference in volume here!

It works by stopping the vibrations the strings send to the snakeskin through the bridge. Usually people put a pencil or dongle above the bridge to mute the sound of the Erhu. But the problem is that the pencil or dongle changes your left hand finger positions because it 'shortens' the string. Also, it is barely audible from the 2nd position onwards, unless you bow very hard.

With the mute you can play your Erhu normally, without compromising on your bowing or fingerings.

This is especially useful when you feel like practicing the Erhu at night. Not everyone lives in places where you have to drive to reach your neighbours. And you still have your family members and pets to contend with.

So on your way to playing like Min Huifen, get one of these and put a smile on the face of the people around you.

(Although you should play without the mute whenever you can, to hear how you really sound like)

*I read somewhere that the mute actually improves the volume and tone of your bowing, especially for those self conscious people. When you are conscious of your playing, you usually try to play softer or try to control your bowing. Overtime, your tone will become thin and soft. With the mute, you will try to play as loud as possible to be heard, unconsciously training your right hand......

Friday, September 7, 2007

Food, Glorious Food

I realized that there are quite a lot of Singaporeans reading my blog. Singaporeans love good food, especially when they are cheap, so I thought here's my chance to be a Rochor Centre(where my shop is located) food critic, in case anyone decides to drop by for some supplies.

But first, some directions on how to get to my shop. A lot of people who came to my shop for the first time complained that they took quite a while to find out where we are. Click here for a map of our location. Rochor Centre is a poorly designed big complex with little navigation signs. Just look out for the Church of Lady Lourdes and we are located right opposite the church.

Below our shop is a coffeeshop named Coffeetown. (For non-Singaporean readers, a coffeeshop is a place where you have different food operators selling different kinds of cuisine) In that small little coffeeshop are 4 stalls worth mentioning. The first is a stall that sells very good roast duck, roast pork and charsiew rice. The rice is served with a bowl of soup that is very tasty. The soup usually runs out by afternoon. That is the most popular stall in the coffeeshop. Ask for some of their dark soya sauce to go with the rice. Its sweet and fragrant and they don't give to their customers unless they ask.

The second stall is one selling homemade Bao and Dim Sum. The Baos are freshly made in their stall everyday. They have interesting creations like coffee Bao and '3 in 1' Bao that is filled with Tau Sar, Lian Rong and salted duck yolk! Its a little too sweet for my taste though, but the Big Bao is fabulous. (Baos are steamed buns with different kind of fillings) The stall was featured in the newspapers and had very long queues for subsequent weeks. The euphoria has since died down and you can buy the Baos without queuing now.

The third stall is the Malay stall. Their fried chicken rice is very popular. The chicken is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The chilli paste that comes with it is very hot and spicy and goes very well with the rice!

The last stall is the mixed vegetable stall. Their dishes are actually quite tasty with a home cook feel. You get the feeling that their raw meat and vegetables are cleaned thoroughly before cooking.

Just around the corner is another coffeeshop named Kopitiam. Here you can find the famous Song Fa Bah Kut Teh that used to be opposite Bugis MRT station. Another stall worth mentioning is the braised duck rice stall. The soup that comes with it is savoury and full of chinese herbs. Check out their mutton soup as well.

Bon Appetit!

Rubber to Eradicate Erhu Wolf Tones

Read this trick somewhere about reducing wolf tones and noise from your Erhu.

Cut a 6mm cube from a piece of rubber eraser.



Place the cube below the bridge in between the strings above the felt dampener. You may want to experiment it with varying positions and varying thickness of the dampener. (Or even remove the dampener completely)

I tried it and yes it does reduce wolf tones and noise of the Erhu. But like the Rubber band trick, I felt that it removes the edge in the tone. And someone who tried it commented that the timbre of the tone is flattened.

Apparently "All good cellos have wolf tones" so they say. There was a discussion on the net about a Stradivarius cello with a terrible wolf tone as well.

I don't know if the same applies to the Erhu. But that is sure a good way of consoling yourself if you got a Erhu that howls.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Surgical Plaster on Erhu

A lady who plays Erhu came to my shop this afternoon. She told me she reads my blog and views my youtube videos as well. She said that she appreciates what I have done and have learned a couple of things from them too.

Well, I appreciate her for letting me know that too. Its good to know that people are reading your stuff and they actually benefit from it as well. It makes what you do more meaningful and makes you want to do more. So thank you Ms Sorry-I-didn't-get-your-name for dropping by.

One of the things that we talked about this afternoon is putting a strip of surgical elastic plaster on the snakeskin protector of the Erhu. I remembered this was one of the first things my Erhu teacher asked me to do when I started playing the Erhu. There are 2 purposes for doing this:

The first is to reduce the 'cluck cluck' sound when the bow rod hits against the snakeskin protector when you are bowing. I think it is a non issue if you are bowing correctly. You press the bow rod against the sloping side of the snakeskin protector when you are bowing the outer string so theoretically the bow rod should not be bouncing around. My youtube videos on how to hold the bow and how to bow might help a little. But for some people who can't seem to get rid of that another noise, this is one way of reducing it.

The second purpose is rather good though. It creates a little more friction and gives you more bow control. This especially useful when you are playing a long note softly(Try the first note of Air on the G string by Bach). Without the plaster and with less friction, your bow seems to reach its ends faster.

This is how it looks like:



It would be better if you can find wider strip of surgical plaster. One that is big enough to cover the snakeskin protector such that both sides taper down. This way you will have less possibility of getting 'dog ears' as your bow rubs against the plaster.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Changing Bridge on the Erhu

Someone asked me if you should loosen the strings when changing the bridge on your Erhu. Well, you just need to loosen the tension the string exerts on the bridge by pulling up the strings with your fingers like this:

video

So that you do not scrape off the scales on the snakeskin accidentally with the bridge.

On the topic of bridges, well, there are so many things to talk about. But someone asked me today why some bridges (of the same type) are significantly taller than others. If your Erhu snakeskin is a little sagging and sounding like its humming rather than singing, a taller bridge might bring back some clarity and brightness. Otherwise, a shorter bridge might be better.

Be sure to adjust the thickness of your felt if you change your bridge.

Erhu Fingering Markers

For those just starting out on their Erhu, this is quite a useful thing for you:


Its an adhesive transparent strip with markings to show where you place your left hand fingers for different notes. The fingerings are in the key of G.

You have to move your qianjing up first before sticking the strip on the neck of your Erhu. Afterwhich, you move the qianjing down to the position just above the 5/2 markings.

You should remove it(or avoid looking at it) once you get the feel of the finger positions so that you do not become too dependent on the markings.

It'll be dreadful if you perform a whole song with your eyes glued to neck of the Erhu.

I'm giving them away free. Just pay for the postage and handling fees (~ US$2 ). Interested parties please email me at tansungwah@eason.com.sg with the subject title "Erhu finger labels". If you're in Singapore, just drop by our shop and pick it up.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Clip on Chromatic Digital Tuner

This is a handy little digital tuner I thought you all might be interested in.

The tuner is fixed onto a clip. The display is can be flipped up and down and rotatable 360 degrees. Thus you can adjust the angle of the display so that it can be read easily when you clip on to your instrument.

Tuner on Erhu


Tuner on Liuqin

You also have an option of tuning using the built in microphone. Tunes chromatically so theoretically you can use it to tune any instrument.

Interested parties can purchase it here.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The one that got away...

As you all know, Eason Enterprises is a family business set up in 1978. We import and sell a lot of Chinese music instruments every year and once in a while, we will lose track of our own inventory.

The other day when I was going through my store, I came across this Aged Rosewood Suzhou Erhu that apparently has been forgotten. I suspect it is one of the earlier works by Wan Qi Xing, a Erhu maker from Suzhou. It didn't have any engravings on it.

I cleaned it up and spent a bit of time setting up the Erhu by giving it new strings, bow and bridge. To my surprise, the Erhu sounds very good. It produces a full bodied tone that is sweet and clear. The high notes come out nice and clean as well. The wood grains look wonderful too.

Here is it:



Anyone interested in this Erhu please email me at tansungwah@eason.com.sg. Comes with accessories like case, extra strings, extra bridges, rosin and fine adjustors. The price is US$325.