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  • Writer's pictureGip Chan

“Getting Comfortable with Leaving Your Comfort Zone”: An American in Shanghai

David Lu

Among musicians, percussionists have particularly been known to have a rather narrow perspective of musical affairs worldwide. In the West, especially, players tend to live and perform in the comfort zone of their own “school of thought”. In the United States, it means studying with players who are musically from Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York, or Boston. In Europe, it means studying in Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, or London. And what typically happens is the player stays in their own “city”, meaning even if they geographically move to a new location, the next teacher they study with still comes from the same system of playing percussion as the student. In other words, it is very similar concepts and ideas, just in a different building and a different city. They are still in their own comfort zone.

I grew up in the Philadelphia area, listening to the world-famous orchestra often enough in my high school years that I would run into my future teacher on the train commuting to and from the city. As such, I had (and still have) extraordinarily strong pride for the sound concepts and techniques cultivated in my hometown. However, for graduate school, I decided I needed a change. I wanted to learn and experience a whole new way of playing that could reveal something new about playing percussion, and perhaps something new about myself. So I went to Washington DC to study with players in the National Symphony Orchestra, who were trained in Cleveland, a city with an entirely opposite way of playing percussion from what I grew up learning. This was my first foray outside of my musical comfort zone.

Downtown Shanghai from my window!

Fast forward a year and a half, when I had reached a point in my development where I had just won the audition for my job with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, and one of my teachers was really diving into the repertoire for my first few weeks with the orchestra. After all, a first impression is always extremely important for setting the tone of your tenure. Often, I would perform a passage and he could tell me two or three possible ways that the music would go and how to approach those passages, but sometimes his answer was simply, “You just have to go and experience it for yourself.” On the surface, I was glad I did all that I could and could breathe a sigh of relief. But, deep down, I hated that answer because I did not understand what he meant. The notes were simple enough, and we had worked together to put a lot of time and thought into making each and every note the most musically appropriate and tasteful note possible. But somehow, that still was not enough, and it was not a problem I could solve until I was in China.

With Sun Xiao (Principal Timpani, SPO) onstage at the NCPA rehearsing Mahler 1 – one of my personal favorite performances from work! Playing double timpani parts is my absolute favorite thing!

Twelve days after graduation, I moved my life over to Shanghai, feeling as prepared as I could possibly be, not entirely sure of what I was to get out of the experience. I had every part for every piece in the rest of the subscription season learned, had an apartment locked down, a basic knowledge of the city layout, and even began learning Shanghainese from my dad. However, I soon came to realize that my musical knowledge and prowess was only a fragment of what was to come. Unlike the West, where orchestra music was born and cultivated, the East really has few original concepts to tackling Western Percussion performance. A lot of the top musicians in China, Korea, and Japan have all studied abroad all over the world, bringing those concepts back and paying it forward to their own students. Suddenly, I was hearing so many different sounds and colors not just from my percussion colleagues, but from the entire orchestra. It turned out that our orchestra’s players musically come from all over the world, having studied in Strasbourg, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, London, Melbourne, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, LA, Seoul, and of course, the world-renowned Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Our orchestra, rather than having one common musical lineage, was, instead, a sonic cornucopia of the entire world in one ensemble. My ears were overloaded by varying mindsets that prioritized aspects of my playing that I was not always intuitively thinking about. I was now well beyond my comfort zone.

Robinson “Septimbre” Snare Drum. One of the first snare drums ever produced to have independent snare throwoffs to change and control the timbre of the drum. There are only a handful of these drums in the entire world!
Original, vintage “Hinger” aluminum snare drum sticks – great for very loud playing. Fred Hinger was the former Principal Timpanist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

I slowly began to open my ears up, take in what I was hearing from others in their playing and explanations, and adjusting. Sometimes, the styles I cultivated in the US ended up being the perfect solution to solve a problem, and other times, I just had to deal with entirely foreign concepts. Smaller sticks for loud snare drumming, softer mallets on marimba, particular timpani mallets and stroke types to help with note placement and blend – it was all a long, rigorous learning process that I undertook with great zeal and passion. Instead of throwing out what I had previously learned, these new ideas and concepts became “extra tools in my toolbox”. Everything eventually felt so natural and routine. By the time I came back home and played for former teachers and my friends, they were really captivated by my playing. I no longer felt like a percussionist who was pigeonholed into playing like a typical “Phildelphian” or “Clevelander”, but that I was playing in a way that uniquely my own, forged from my various adaptations to new situations in Shanghai. To them, I just sounded like David, and even though it was not always what they were used to or what they preferred, they were convinced by my sound and decisions that this was something that also worked. I had hit my stride – I was back in a newly-expanded comfort zone.

The Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra timpani & percussion section. Very proud to be a part of the team.

Shanghai is a dynamic, cosmopolitan metropolis, and, like our orchestra, is full of life in every corner, constantly evolving at breakneck speeds. People often ask me about living there and express their admiration for me, or their own fears of moving their life to a new city. It is never easy for anyone to transplant themselves into a whole different country, a whole different way of life, a whole different way of making music. Often, moving to a new country feels like a fresh start to life and learning how to function in society. For anyone who asks, I can tell you that it takes a lot of grit, flexibility, and understanding. But I have always said that working and living abroad is worth it, for if you can handle working abroad, working at home becomes a piece of cake. So if the opportunity comes, whether you are working in China, the United States, or anywhere else, do not be afraid. Enjoy the ride while it lasts! Go full force, shift your paradigm, and expand the borders of your own comfort zone.

This article is dedicated to the memory of legendary percussionist Alan Abel, who was a consummate servant of music and education, of family and life.

“The greatest teacher is the perpetual student.” – Alan Abel

If you or any of your friends have been working or studying percussion related subjects in the Asia Pacific area, please do not hesitate to contact us! APPS will arrange interviews to share more unique percussive life stories.

Tap on Pacific hearts,​ Strike up Asia.​

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