By Brandyn Chan
Cheryl Wang carefully picks up the pear-shaped instrument and places it in her lap. The “pear” sits upright, with the “stem” situated near her ear, stretching nearly a foot out above her head. Four strings vibrate as Wang plucks them, testing their tune.
The pipa is held upright, similar to how one would hold a cello. The presence of strings and a fingerboard is reminiscent of a guitar, but the unique tuning pegs suggest otherwise. The tuning pegs—like four small stakes stuck into the top of the “stem”—are built in a staggered pattern like those of a viola. A disc the size of an apple sits at the peak of the “stem.” This other-worldly device seems to have been designed by a crazy craftsman because it combines aspects of so many different instruments.
However, if shown a picture of a pipa, few would recognize the instrument. This may be because the pipa is an ancient instrument; mentions of pipas date so far back that historians are undecided over the true origin of the “Chinese lute.” According to some Chinese texts, there are mentions of the pipa as early as the Qin Dynasty, giving it a possible origin time of 221-206 BC. However, the most popular myth pushes this date forward to 206 BC-220 AD.
The myth says that the pipa was created for the Han Dynasty princess Liu Xijun who was sent to marry a barbarian king. The princess would play music to calm her on the journey to her new husband’s kingdom. Although the pipa was originally created to soothe hardships, the instrument is ironically very difficult to learn which reveals exactly why Wang chose to learn it. She wistfully mused, “I remember when I had to choose a traditional Chinese instrument to learn, and I asked my mom which one was hardest. She pointed at the pipa, so that’s what I picked.”
Learning the pipa takes a lot of time, and not just because it’s difficult. “It takes about 15 minutes just to tune it,” Wang explained. “The type of wood and the method of building it hasn’t changed since Ancient China. You know how with violins, the pegs have changed? The pipa hasn’t, and it’s super sensitive.” One tiny movement in the intricate design, caused by setting the instrument down the wrong way or by the shifting moisture of the air, will alter the sound enough that it must be re-tuned.
But Wang doesn’t mind the strenuous tasks associated with learning the pipa. “I enjoy it,” she said before admitting, “unless it’s right before the Celebration. Then things get very hectic.”
Through her mother’s connections to the Chinese community, as well as the uniqueness of her skill, Wang has performed for the Great Neck Chinese Association’s Lunar New Year Festival every year. Additionally, Wang performs in the “Friday in the Front” series at South Middle. Handling all these responsibilities is very challenging, but clearly, a challenge does not dissuade Wang who says, ”Honestly, it’s not that bad. If things get too hard, I jump onto my bed and take a 5-minute nap, then I’m good to go.”