~ The Violin Village: Then in Bắc Giang Province
Our dear friend Hongky called one day.
“Pam, I have an idea,” she began. Hongky’s ideas are usually intriguing and well-thought-out, so I was immediately all ears.
“Do you know the Violin Village?” she asked.
Well. Larry and I had been hearing about the Violin Village for years, since our very first visit to Vietnam in 2006. Many people knew about it, but no one could tell us where it was, which seemed very strange. I explained this now to Hongky, who was beginning to acquire a real Western sensibility about this kind of thing.
“I know where it is, Pam, and I will take you there. I will send the youtube link to their concert.”
There’s a youtube link? No one had ever mentioned that!
“My idea is that we will do a news program on you visiting the violin village. I have arranged it.”
There will be no stopping this woman; someday, she will rule the world.
I viewed the video. Sure enough, there they were, the violin village orchestra (the village name is Then, in Bắc Giang province) playing in venues around Vietnam. Large venues. Where hundreds of people were in the audience. And they were pretty good! I mean, they weren’t on the level of professional European and U.S. groups, but number one, they weren’t professionals, and number two, they were in Vietnam, where things like a violin and its accoutrements (strings, a bow, rosin, music, etc.) were typically hard to come by. And yet, there they were, up there performing, from memory, the songs in their repertoire. Impressive.
The video went on to interview some of the players, who said that it was an all-male affair; women were too busy taking care of children and keeping the home going to participate, even though many females learned to play when they were growing up. So, Hongky’s proposal to take me there was pretty gutsy in this way too; an American woman coming in and sizing them up could present some issues. But then, Vietnamese can be surprisingly open-minded. Larry and I decided to just go and see.
We set the date for a couple of days following our discussion. The plan was to ride out to the village, about an hour Northeast of Hanoi, film all day, then stay overnight and film anything that got missed in the morning.
We arrived in the village at around 9:30 a.m. The television crew had several shots that they wanted to get of me playing in the streets, me walking with Hongky, and getting a feel for the surroundings. The village itself was quite typical of Vietnamese villages; dirt roads, thatched roofs, wild stock everywhere, surrounded by farmland.
The weather was pretty iffy: as we were waiting in the street for me to play something, it started to drizzle. I looked at Larry and shook my head. My $20,000 modern Italian violin could not get soaked in a downpour, and I was relatively certain the television guys would not get this. I put the violin under the raincoat Hongky had lent me (among other things, they had forgotten to tell me how to dress, and I had chosen black and white, which wouldn’t show up well for the cameras in the gloom. So the aqua blue coat I’m wearing was hers).
Fortunately, the weather never got worse than a little misting and spitting that day, so I didn’t have to get too stressed and demanding about my instrument.
Eventually, we got around to approaching what amounted to the Civic Center, and we could hear the sound of violinists warming up. I was filmed approaching it with Hongky at my side. We entered the space, and there was the orchestra, fervently practicing one of their pieces. There were about ten or eleven violinists, a cellist, and Mr. Nguyen Quang Khoa, their conductor. They seemed happy to see us, if a little nervous.
The T.V. guys told me to get up on the stage and play something, which was somewhat unexpected, but I quickly complied with some Massenet. The orchestra members whipped out their cell phones to record the momentous event, and I did the best I could under these unusual circumstances. Then, I was asked to play in the orchestra!
So, we did some collaborating for another half hour, all without much in the way of speaking to each other; no one in the village spoke English, and the television crew knew only rudimentary words. (The camera guy, when he wanted something from me, would shout, “YOU!”, which always made me jump. Then he would point energetically at the spot he needed me to move to.)
Next, we needed a one-on-one with Mr. Khoa, the conductor and mild-mannered leader of this remarkable ensemble. It turned out he was in insurance, not a typical farmer, and had a nice house at the entrance to the village. We started to converse with Hongky translating, and among other things, I asked him the question, why are there no women in the orchestra?
Of course, he gave me the pat answer, babies, cooking, etc., but I could see, coming from me, an actual woman, that this gave the question a different, slightly uncomfortable slant. To be fair, the orchestra has recently started a music school, where there is an equal number of boys and girls. Their star pupil, who I would soon meet, was Tram (“chum”), a delightful and determined little girl.
The thing they needed most, it seemed, was music. They had been playing the same, tired old pieces for decades. They needed to freshen up the act! That was something I was more than willing to help with, and sent them many excellent, fun arrangements post-visit. (One thing I did recommend was that they train some violists for their group; they only had violins and a cellist. With a couple of violists, they’d have what amounted to a string quartet, which would open up my ability to send them hundreds of arrangements. However, this was a radical idea given how they had been operating for over seventy years, and the odds of even acquiring an instrument could be insurmountable.)
From the Civic Center, we walked to the home of Mr. Khoa’s partner in crime, and the son of the founder of the group, for tea. We chatted about how the group started (Mr. Khoa’s friend’s father, from the village, went away and learned to play, then came back and taught everyone else), if the urge to play had spread to nearby villages (it hadn’t), and what was in store in the future. To be truthful, I felt as if they were a little stuck on this last point, and my being there had made this more obvious. But that could be my imagination.
Next up was lunch at a village restaurant, where we also had the local sake. So there were many toasts to each other as we dined on delicious, yet unrecognizable dishes. (In the countryside, every part of the animal is used for food.)
We went back to the Civic Center after lunch, where the children had gathered for music school. Their teacher Ha Van Chinh, who I hadn’t yet met, was helping them take note dictation on a blank piece of staff paper that each of them had in front of them.
For those who aren’t familiar with teaching music, this is a fundamental, yet often overlooked, method of helping students understand how music is put together. To say I was impressed is an understatement; these children were fortunate enough to have teachers who understood the importance of comprehending the basic structure of composition, not just how to play the notes. It would be similar to learning how to pound in nails, but not know how the building is put together from a design perspective.
Then the children got up to play for us, all from memory. Again, this is an impressive aspect of learning music, to have it in your ear, not on the page. As they played, it became clear that one student was their passionate leader, a determined little girl named Tram (“chum”). She told Hongky that she started practicing when she got up in the morning and didn’t stop until she went to bed. I believed her: she had only been playing for six months, and she was unstoppable. (She is featured in the .mp4.)
I was then asked to play and interact with the children, so I chose a simple jig from my Irish playbook, the Devil’s Dream. It was one of the first things I learned to play and love, and sure enough, soon everyone was trying it. There was suddenly a flurry of kids desperately trying to figure out the fingerings and bow crossings, and Tram was leading the way. I promised to send over the music so they could keep going with this fun little tune.
The television guys were still getting shots of the village, but they had pretty much finished with us. So rather than stay overnight, we opted to get a taxi back to Hanoi. I promised Mr. Khoa that I would start scanning and sending music right away, and we parted with smiles and nods.