Sophomore brings Chinese music to the valley

Music was just a hobby for Bingyao Liu ’19. Then she came to Mount Holyoke, founded the area’s first Chinese music ensemble and discovered klezmer music.

By Sasha Nyary

Growing up in southern China, Bingyao Liu ’19 had studied yangqin, the Chinese dulcimer, for a decade before she came to study at Mount Holyoke College.

She had even traveled to the United States in the seventh grade to perform, but her primary focus was always on her schoolwork. Music was an extracurricular activity. She never planned to be a musician.

But then last fall, she founded a college Chinese music ensemble, one of the few in existence, and brought Chinese music to the Pioneer Valley.

The turn of events began in her very first semester at Mount Holyoke, when Liu took a course in ethnomusicology and rediscovered her culture and the music of her childhood. She came to college expecting to study anthropology. Now a music major, she’s also pursuing a Five College certificate in ethnomusicology and a Nexus concentration in educational policy and practice.

“My goal is to get Chinese music and Chinese instruments onto the stage to show everyone what we have,” she said. “We have something beautiful here and I want to share it with everyone.”

Being able to study her own music in an academic setting has inspired and empowered Liu, said Professor of Music Adrianne Greenbaum, who leads the College’s klezmer band. Liu plays in this ensemble as well.

“Bingyao does not sit around waiting for opportunity to knock,” Greenbaum said. “She grabs on and goes at the onset. She learned and explored and that's what her education here taught her.”

The course Liu took was with Olabode Festus Omojola, Five College Professor of Music - Ethnomusicology, African Music, in Mount Holyoke’s Department of Music.

“Ethnomusicology is about how music is part of the culture and how culture shapes music,” Liu said. “In the class, we talked about music from different parts of the world — Indian, African, Japanese, Indonesian — but no one talked about Chinese music.”

Searching the course listings for the Five College Consortium, the alliance of local colleges in the area that Mount Holyoke belongs to, Liu couldn’t find any classes in Chinese music.

“I thought, I should do something to bring this music to this area,” she said. “No one seems to know about it and it’s just a shame. I think I could start a Chinese ensemble here at Mount Holyoke.”

She turned to Omojola for assistance. 

“She said she was thinking about setting up a Chinese ensemble, and did I think that would be possible,” the professor said. “I said I’d speak with the department. She was already contacting students on campus and encouraging them to bring their instruments to campus in the fall.”

Although the ensemble is not for credit, the music department was able to hire a master musician to serve as the ensemble’s director and it found storage space for the instruments. The department recognized Liu’s enthusiasm and wanted to support it, Omojola said.

Of the ensemble’s 14 members, six play the guzheng, or Chinese zither. Other students play the pipa, or Chinese lute, and three kinds of Chinese flutes: bamboo, vertical and cucurbit, an instrument traditionally made from a gourd. Liu plays the only yangquin. The ensemble has begun performing at events on campus.

Still focused on world music, Liu wanted to expand her musical experience beyond Chinese music to, in particular, European music. The opportunity arose when she learned about the cimbalom, the Hungarian dulcimer. Greenbaum had invited a cimbalom musician to campus and Liu heard him perform.

“When I realized I can join the klezmer ensemble and get some experience in European dulcimer music,” she said, “I thought, wow, everything’s possible here!”

This is another example of how Liu has explored the diversity of the College community, Omojola noted.

“This is an environment that encourages intercultural sharing,” he said. “She read that correctly and decided to contribute to it. She does the more unusual things. Who would expect a student to take it upon herself to create a Chinese music ensemble?”

In addition to playing with her ensembles, Liu performs the yangquin at events, including at the Mount Holyoke Art Museum’s 140th anniversary bash in November. She sings in the College’s choirs, studies piano and is a concert manager for the music department.

She also volunteers at the nearby Berkshire Hills Music Academy, assisting students with intellectual disabilities in two ensembles and leading another. The experience has led her to explore a career in music therapy after she graduates.

What connects all of her pursuits is community, Liu said. That’s why she started the Chinese Music Ensemble and why she loves the klezmer group so much: They both foster what she calls “the bonding force of the community.” Perhaps paradoxically, her experience at Mount Holyoke has helped her grow closer to her home community.

“Coming to Mount Holyoke, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to the culture I grew up with,” Liu said. “Before I came here, I took it for granted. But now I have a different perspective. I can see how precious the environment I grew up with is, how unique. Here, I really immerse in music. That instrument is how I’m special, it’s me.”

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