Learner Writing: My Journey into Singing

By Wanda Wang

My singing journey was both lucky and tortuous. When I was 16 years old, I had a dream to be a singer. I wanted to sing about beautiful mountains, seas, lakes and all the beautiful things in our lives.

One day, I told my mother that I wanted to learn to sing. I had hoped she would find a voice teacher for me, but she immediately said," No! This is not a good time to learn singing." At that time, China was in the cultural revolution, and there was chaos everywhere. I was so disappointed, but I can't blame my mother.

Becoming a singer remained a vigorous pursuit in my heart. I decided to practice by myself. I learned songs from very few music programs at that time. I got up early in the morning and practiced singing where no one was. This lasted about half a year. Maybe my persistence practice moved my mother; one night, she said to me with tears in her eyes, "You like singing so much, I shouldn't refuse you. I will find a voice teacher for you." I was moved and cried in my mother's arms.

Soon my mother asked her colleague to find a very famous singer in China to be my teacher. Her name is Kun Wang. I started my regular vocal training. I worked very hard to practice every day. Still, it didn't last long. While I had enjoyed my vocal music study, the government had a new policy that sent all city students to work in the countryside as part of the cultural revolution, and I was no exception. My classmates and I were assigned to rural Shanxi, an impoverished place, and it was very depressing. But to my surprise, when I came to the beautiful, natural, and remote village, I was utterly attracted by the beautiful scenery. Its natural beauty motivated me to sing in its beautiful mountains.

The village was hard for kids at a young age coming from the big cities. However, the farmers were very friendly. When we went to work in the mountains, they always sang their folk songs. Their optimism affected and inspired me. I had started my singing practice again in the hills and fields, on the road, with just a little bit of vocal music I had learned. A hard life didn't make me lose confidence in my passion.

Learning vocal skills is unlike learning other musical skills. An instrument is visible and touchable, but the voice is not. Its understanding depends entirely on one's feelings and emotions because the instrument for singing is your throat. It wasn't easy to practice without a teacher to correct me. With the consistent singing practice, my throat was inflamed for a long time due to incorrect use. I was very nervous and ran to the mountains and cried my heart out! I will never forget that moment.

When I was confused about the future, the kind-hearted and straightforward farmers' optimism about life lifted me out of the rut. Although their lives were tough, they were delighted every day, and their songs always accompanied their lives. I was determined to stick to my dream. After my voice recovered, I started practicing singing again with a new attitude.

In 1976, China ended the ten years of the cultural revolution and the universities resumed the examination system; they began to recruit students. My classmates and I were very excited; we all had a wish to be admitted to our dream university.

God seems to have seen my efforts. In 1976 I was admitted to the Vocal Music Department of the Conservatory of Music of Shanxi University. I cherished this opportunity.

Studying in the conservatory of music was challenging and enjoyable. We learned all kinds of musical knowledge and participated in various forms of performance activities. Learning vocal music made me understand that singing is not just about the throat; it is a whole-body work. The deep breathing could make the songs louder and more beautiful. This theory was easy to say but was not easy to do. It needs to be understood through practice.    

Time passed so quickly, and I graduated from the conservatory in a flash. Then I was assigned to teach vocal music in Shanxi Arts College. I changed from student to teacher, another turning point. Making my students understand my teaching requirements was another test I had to face. I had tried my best to help my students avoid going through the detours I had taken in my studies. I told them, “Singing is not just about vocal skills. We have to understand the meaning of the lyrics, and our emotions should be integrated into the song.”  I gave them demonstration exercises.

Thankfully, in 1983, my tenor student Wenqing Zhang won the Excellence Award in the singing competition in Beijing. I was so happy for him. I also had a strong desire to study vocal music again. There was no end to learning. In 1984, I was admitted to the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing to improve my vocal skills.. Under the guidance of my vocal teacher, Wei Zhong, I watched all kinds of vocal concerts. I got a new understanding of the vocal music mystery. I learned all types of folk songs, and my singing skills continuously improved.

The most exciting thing happened next.  Because of China's reform and opening-up policy, my husband got the postgraduate qualification of the University of South Carolina Music Department with a scholarship in the United States. In 1987 my husband and I went to the conservatory of music in South Carolina. Our excitement could not be expressed in words. It was also an excellent opportunity for me to study vocal music again. I registered for a vocal class at my husband's music department. My vocal teacher was a superb baritone; his name is Dr. Rodney Miller. He is an excellent teacher, but I encountered a huge challenge; it was not just about the language problem. I even lost my voice when I did not grasp the right feeling and technique. Dr. Miller always had patience and guidance; I tried to understand the teacher's explanations. I finally understood and felt the similarities and differences of vocal methods between the Bel Canto and Chinese Folk Style singing with long, hard practice.

In Bel Canto vocal techniques, the voice's position should be at the back of the head cavity, but in Chinese Folk Style Singing should be at the front of the head cavity. I had learned to sing many western songs. After studying for two years, I could combine the advantages of the Bel Canto and Chinese Folk Style. I had improved my vocal skills again.

In 1991, my husband got two postgraduate music diplomas. In the same year, we moved to California and started our music teaching work. I have taught vocal music in two music training schools. One was Yingling music school; another one was Alex's Music School. In 2003, my husband and I started our music training center. I enjoyed the process of teaching music. It brings a lot of happiness to my life. I also participated in various singing performances in many different settings in the Bay area. In my spare time, I participated in the music group at Bridges Community Church.

I was teaching students singing skills and encouraging them to use their talent to contribute to society. We took students to perform in the different senior homes. Every time after our performance, I saw seniors clinging to us in farewell; I had deepened my determination to take students to serve society.

In 2014 -2015 our student's charity-concerts donated over $10,000 to the Fremont Unified School District and an orphanage in Tian-Jing, China. What makes me proud in music teaching is that some of my students won awards in singing competitions; they also participated in various benefit performances.

Time passes so quickly; I am reaching retirement age. Looking back at how I had been studying, singing and teaching, I feel very thankful to my teachers and students. But the most important thing is to thank God for giving me so many opportunities to learn and teach. He is guiding me and helping me all the way, whether it is hard or smooth.

Along the way of music, I realized that as long as you have a dream in your heart, no matter if the environment is good or bad, work hard, don't lose your confidence, your dreams will come true because God is always with you.

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