Kong Qingshan

Playing took me to another dimension where I became the principal listener. But first I
needed a teacher.

The first time I met Kong Qingshan (孔庆山) I could barely communicate my strong passion for the instrument. I really had no idea how I could come near to producing a beautiful tone on the dizi (笛子). The only weapon I had in my arsenal was practice. Many years later I was reminded of what Henry Moore had said to the poet Donald Hall about his sheer persistence and commitment to his craft: ‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is-it must be something you cannot possibly do!’

Let me describe a typical lesson with Kong in the early days. I went to see him once a week in his apartment on the grounds of the Shenyang Conservatory. I’d arrive around 2:00 pm, after cycling halfway cross the city from Liaoning University, sit down, and we’d start talking. He’d ask me how I was enjoying living in Shenyang as a foreign student, how I liked the food, whether I had visited the Zhaoling tombs, the burial grounds of Hong Taiji and his empress. He would ask me all kinds of questions about Australia—history, the aborigines, the food, the climate—and in the back of my mind I was wondering when we would start the lesson. The conversation would continue until I ask a question and when that finally happened, the dam burst open and we got talking about problems of embouchure, controlling the breath, keeping up momentum, dynamics, and so on. And then I realized that’s how it worked, I would come loaded with questions and problems and we would then get to work.

When Kong demonstrated a musical phrase he would ask me to come closer and observe his embouchure and then imitate that I was 'blowing' too hard or my chest was too tight. In the beginning, I was asked to do nothing more than play long notes within the range of an octave. I played and Kong interrupted, adjusting, reminding me to be fully attentive when practicing. We then played together, 'Do you loose momentum before you come to the end of the long note or are you already anxious to move on to the next?' 'You have to build a relationship with your instrument and befriend each note. As you climb up and down the scale, what does do re, and mi sound like?'

I jotted down notes during our weekly sessions, but also took notes during my own practice. I had two separate notebooks. Kong used all kinds of metaphors and visualizations to help and encourage his students. He once described a rising cumulus cloud to encourage me to elevate and broaden my chest. He compared the control of the exhalation to a horse deftly making its way down a steep descent on a mountain pass.

Kong was a great teacher and I felt inspired in his presence, but as I developed a consistent practice and improved dramatically over a short period of time, I realized the true insights, the real discoveries were the ones that came to me when I was practising by myself. I am reminded of a ‘yoga poem’ by Sandra Sabatini:

it’s lovely to be in a group
with a teacher
someone who indicates the way in
so that the listening, the attention
becomes more alive, more vital.

but the discoveries, the real miracles
happen when you are on your own

it’s not a lonely journey
but one full of interactions and gifts.

Practice was never lonely or boring, though at times there was lots of resistance and impatience on my part to master one piece and then move onto the next. Some days, I was mired with doubts, unworthiness, self-loathing and fear. Whoever said the road to mastery is the path of least resistance? In the beginning, learning to adjust the membrane (笛膜) across the hole between the mouth hole and six finger holes—which gives the instrument its unique tone quality—drove me insane. By the time I started to learn pieces from the dizi repertoire I had established a daily practice and would play for hours.

When I started to learn the repertoire—I started with a piece from Jiangnan sizhu—Kong would often sing a phrase so I could hear the embellishments and nuances absent in the notated score. Kong would sing the phrase and I would attempt to sing it with him. Then I tried it by myself to see if I had imitated the style that was required for the piece or at least how Kong had vocalized it. This became a very important part of my practice and a great way to internalize a piece. It was also a great technique for practising the longer passages and helped me build momentum before I started to play.

By the time I had mastered a piece by heart I felt it had become part of me. The process reminded me of something the shakuhachi master Riley Lee wrote about honkyoku. ‘To learn a honkyoku is to make a piece your own.’ A piece was not really yours until it was given away, an idea that had its origins in Japanese mendicant monks who played a piece called ‘Hachi Gaeshi’ during pilgrimages. ‘Donors would give the monks offerings’, writes Lee, ‘usually vegetables or uncooked rice in a bowl. The monks would gratefully receive the offering, usually by emptying the bowl of food into their pouch, return the bowl to the donor, and then play “Returning the Bowl.” In other words, playing Hachi Gaeshi is expressing gratitude.’

Kong was not just all about practice, but a conscious, attentive practice that combined theory with practice. In other words, theory informed the practice. He read articles and books on the anatomy of the body, the science of the breath and psychology. He was always interested in techniques or tricks that would allow for greater freedom—or lesser restriction—in playing. Kong would allow me to sit in and observe his students during practice and it was always marvelous to see him talk and provide detailed insights into how to practice and play better. And of course his gift of coming up with wonderful ways to describe how a piece or phrase should be played.

One of the most important things I learnt from Kong was to listen to the wisdom of my own body, not to see the teacher as the ‘master,’ but how to learn from my own practice and ultimately be my own teacher. With Kong it wasn’t just music that was being transmitted. It was so much more.

Once I came to see Kong in his practice room. As I climbed the stairs I could hear the strains of a shorter dizi called bangdi from the third floor. It was unmistakably Kong. He opened the door and then continued to play. I sat down and listened. When he had finished there was a long silence. I wanted to tell him how beautifully he played. At this point, the student-teacher relationship was one of complete surrender. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Looking up into Kong's face, my eyes filling with tears, I saw pure love radiating from his eyes:

at first, the mind tumbles
like a waterfall.
in mid-course, it becomes calm
like a river flowing slowly.
in the end, it is an ocean
where two halves merge into one.

--from the song of mahamudra

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