Music Bio - Bree Zhang
How it all began...
When I was five years old, one day in art class, I heard beautiful plucking sounds coming from a classroom next door. I later discovered that the instrument that produced the wonderful tunes was called the guzheng 古筝, and I begged my mother to let me learn it. Unfortunately, I was too young at the time to be accepted by the guzheng teacher, YangYi, so I eagerly waited for three years, and the anticipated moment came when I was eight and a half years old. Little did I know that the guzheng would become one of the most formative parts of my life.
I practiced, practiced, and practiced, absorbing the valuable knowledge my teacher imparted me every lesson. As my clumsy plucking slowly strung into more melodic tunes, as my performances locations gradually improved from cramped local churches to concert halls, I gradually learned about the history of each song, the culture that it belonged to, and the messages, symbols, and emotions supporting each piece. Most of all, I learned how to express myself. My guzheng became a safe space where I had control and agency over each note, where I could de-stress, channel my emotions, and relax my mind by falling into the stories crafted within each tune.
Local Church 2011
Young Musician's Showcase Grand Prize Showcase Carnegie Hall 2015
Music From China Youth Orchestra
In seventh grade, I joined Music From China Youth Orchestra (MCFYO), a Chinese orchestra conducted by Wang Guowei. I remember being terrified the first day I joined, but a girl Winona (now a close friend) immediately approached me and made me feel at home. My time at the orchestra was marked by a series of firsts. It was my first time playing under a conductor, It was my first time being exposed to so many different types of Chinese instruments, such as the Erhu, Yangqin, Liuqin, Zhongruan, Dizi, and Hulusi, all with their own quirks and sound qualities. (Erhu is like a two stringed fiddle, Yangqin is a hammered dulcimer, Hulusi is like a recorder made from a gourd). Best of all, it was my first time meeting a community who were all passionate about Chinese music and their culture. It made me realize I wanted to do more for the Chinese community as well.
MFCYO Carnegie Hall 2014
Teaching the Guzheng
In 2014 of my freshman year in high school, I co-founded a guzheng class at Huaxia Bridgewater Chinese School with Joyce Lu. Although the beginning of my teaching career had rough waters (students not listening, parents not trusting me), I gradually learned from my mistakes, improved my teaching, developed greater confidence, and fell in love with my bright, energetic, unique, and passionate students. Through the years of making lesson plans, recording demonstration videos, and communicating with the parents through WeChat, I eventually led my students to perform in places such as the Somerville Heritage Festival and the Bridgewater Rehabilitation Center to spread my culture to the wider community.
Even though I do not teach anymore (my mother has taken over the class), I still stay in contact with my students. Each year, we have an annual New Years Potluck event where all my old students (and their parents) gather at my house to eat, celebrate, and catch up. We also hold a performance in which everyone plays a guzheng song they have been learning so we can see each other's improvement over the years. I always tend to premiere my new compositions on this day :)
Bridgewater Rehabilitation Center 2015
6th Annual Potluck Gathering 2020
How I Started Composing
In 2016 of my sophomore year in high-school, I took AP Music Theory. This class, combined with my experience in Music from China Youth Orchestra, jump-started my interest in music composition. Exposed to different time signatures, chord progressions, scales, music styles, and instrument capabilities of both eastern and western music, I decided to try composing my own song for MFCYO.
My first song was called "Journey" (click here to access the composition) and the whole composing process was a long journey requiring me to deeply understand the limitations of each instrument, balance the sounds and dynamics in the orchestra, maximize the capabilities of the members, and convert western score to Chinese numerical notation. Although it was a lot of work, I am thankful for my conductor (Wang Guowei) who gave me the opportunity to allow the orchestra play "Journey," which debuted in Drew University June 3rd, 2017. The next year, I composed another orchestral song "Dancing in Snowflakes" which debuted in Drew University during my final concert on June 2nd, 2018. Both songs mix western elements with traditional ethnic elements, combining not only two different styles but also two cultures.
The summer of 2017, I was also inspired to compose a guzheng solo piece, "Returning Home" in dedication to my grandmother. I competed with the song in Central China Television’s National Talent Competition in Beijing and won 4th place, and I also used my piece to win Gold Prize in the Sinovision Television (Cable Channel 73) Competition: the first time since the competition started in 2010 that a non-western instrument was able to obtain Gold in the Teen’s 14-18 age group.
In 2018, I decided to try combining vocals with guzheng (which functions almost like a guitar), culminating in a project called “In Ten Years” about college rejection (ironic, yes, I know, but it was composed before I discovered I got into Brown). I also began to cover modern pop songs such as “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” with guzheng.
Drew University 2017
Sinovision Television Teen Talent Competition 2017
"I Don't Wanna Live Forever" Cover 2018
Recently, while in college, I composed two new guzheng songs, "Metamorphosis" (2019) and "Growing Up" (2020), both of which reflect on my growth as an individual over the years. I also have been looking to integrate more western classical elements and contemporary jazz and blues elements into my music, which led me to take "Theory of Tonal Music" and "Jazz and Pop Harmony" at Brown. This past Spring semester 2020, I started an independent study with Professor Wang Lu to work on my compositions, incorporating the jazz chords I learned in class, altering the tonality of the instrument via pressing and tuning, exploring different sounds that can be made on the guzheng such as scratching or hitting or swiping.
Currently, aside from my projects with Professor Wang, I have been working on another song combining vocals with guzheng, "Daydreams." I am also continuing to cover Western pop songs, trying different techniques I can use to convey a repetitive melody without words (my next project will be Senorita by Shawn Mendes and Camilla Cabello). In the coming years, I hope to continue exploring new forms of music and ways to connect eastern and western music together, creating a greater awareness of Chinese music in America. Through composing, performing, and teaching, I know I will spread my love for my Chinese culture and heritage to a wider audience.
Huaxia Bridgewater Chinese School 2020 Performance
More Guzheng Pictures
(2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
(2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Rutgers Nicholas Center
Westminster Choir College
Awards and Honors
Gold Prize, Sinovision Television Teen's Talent Competition (2017)
Self-composition "Journey" and "Dancing in Snowflakes" performed by MFCYO Orchestra at Drew University (2017-2018)
4th Place, Central China TV Talent Competition (2017)
Grand Prize, National League of Performing Arts Young Musician's Showcase Competition (2015)
1st Place, Princeton International Chinese Music Competition Award (2014)
1st Place, New Jersey Music Teacher's Association Young Musician's Competition (2014-2016)
What is Guzheng?
Guzheng is an ancient Chinese instrument with more than 2,500 years of history. It has twenty-one strings and movable bridges that enable the musician to change scales. The melody is played on the right side of the bridge; the left side is normally reserved for vibratos, slides, and other ornamentations to the music. Playing requires finger picks that are wrapped with tape around the tips of the fingers. Some techniques include tremolo, arpeggios, glissandos, vibratos, and harmonics. The music is read in simplified numerical notation.
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