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On learning the qin (琴)



Congratulations and happy new year.

It was about 3 years ago that I started learning the qin, or guqin. I thought I'd share my thoughts in case it helps anyone considering learning it.

Musical background

I'm primarily a pianist. I started as a kid, and I'd like to think I'm pretty proficient. I was a finalist in a national competition in high school, but took a break from piano shortly after to study Chinese. At that time, my reasoning was that I wasn't going to be a professional pianist, and I can already play anything I would ever want to play, and so continuing lessons only wastes money and give me unnecessary stress. Despite my hiatus, I undoubtedly got better. Where before I would have vague ideas of what my teacher wanted through her instruction of how things should be played, I later developed more concrete ideas about piano playing, developing principles that I can call my own. Perhaps the lack of regular lessons contributed to this. (I would later resume lessons to complete a music minor.)

I'm also a violinist, but a crappy one. I started as a teenager because I wanted to play in a school orchestra, and also because I wanted to diversify into non-keyboard instruments. Despite learning quickly, I didn't get very far. It took me maybe 3 years to get to Bach's second partita, and that's about where I stayed after I stopped taking lessons. My repertoire is mostly Bach, and once in a while I practice a sonata or partita. Paganini is unapproachable at this point.

First impressions

It was during the piano hiatus, when I was studying Chinese, that I first touched a qin. It was a factory-made qin I ordered from Yangzhou, for about 3000RMB. It came unstrung and so I had to search around and string it myself. There are "sound posts" but there is no risk of them falling. As for quality, I had nothing to compare it to, but I have a feeling it was a decent value, except one part of the nut was too low, causing one string to buzz too easily when plucking near the nut. Later I might raise it with something. Wood filler or lacquer maybe?

Anyway, checking it out reminded me of a guitar (Oh yeah, I played the guitar. I only practiced for 2 weeks and then my friend whose guitar I was borrowing left for Taiwan.) in that the intervals between strings are unequal. I remembered I was having trouble with that. Also, it's quiet. Just drawing from my experience with bowed strings, I think if it were closer to the size of a cello, we could hear more of the strings' energy, but then again, this is traditionally a solo instrument for small audiences. Up close in person, I thought the lacquer finish was quite nice, with particulates embedded in it (maybe this is what was called 鹿角霜.)

First notes

The qin came with a thin textbook, which served as an OK reference. There were a few notable issues. First, playing the qin usually entails having somewhat long nails. Plectra are not used. Because I still regularly play the piano, and because I did not find the difference in timbre between flexing plucks and extending plucks to be a problem, I did not grow my nails out. Also, like the guitar, playing the qin forms calluses on some body parts. Some techniques, such as 跪 (stopping strings with knuckles), are painful and can't be done easily without calluses.

I followed the textbook's introductory lessons up to some point. Checking with online texts and videos, I was able to learn the basics within a few days:

  • Instrument preparation and tuning
  • Posture
  • Basic right hand technique
  • Basic left hand technique
  • Common qin notations.

With this information in place, I was confident that I could start learning music. Part of this confidence came from experiencing exponential decreases in learning time per instrument that I learn. I knew my technique was not as solid as the authors of the book would like it to be, but I also knew from playing other instruments that highly refined technique is usually developed through playing real music.

And here is something I'd like to point out. It shouldn't be a surprise that learning a subsequent musical instrument should be faster than learning previous instruments. When you learn another instrument, you are only learning to control it; you are not relearning how to be a musician. When I started the qin, many concepts about music, psychomotor development, learning strategies, and cognition were already in place. This information allowed me to developed informed strategies as to how to start learning a new instrument.

Certain characteristics from the other instruments transferred though. Perception of intonation was never a problem, and was only a matter of getting used to the distance between one note to the next. I also had the idea of positions and "keys" from playing the violin and guitar. Plucking technique was aided by my attention to hand anatomy from playing the piano.

Jumped in the deep end

Anyway, I knew I was not a typical qin learner, and so after playing some exercises provided in the textbook, I started my first piece, 《梅花三弄》. It was also around this time that I got an opportunity to perform, in three weeks. Because this piece wasn't exactly beginner material, I had to make some compromises. I couldn't take the time to build a solid foundation such that I could learn it the "right" way. I couldn't read qin notation fast enough, and I didn't feel like I could control the instrument naturally. Therefore, I got a score with both Western notation and qin notation (I think it was this one) and added my own color-coded notations to it based on my slow decoding the qin notation. My notations included violin notations to indicate the string, the guitar notations p, i, m, a above or below the staff, and piano fingerings for both hands. I also cut out the stuff after the "三弄" and jumped straight to the end. (Blasphemy, I know.) It took me a week to come up with this strategy.

Then it was just a matter of cramming until the performance date. This would have been impossible had I not had experience learning long, technically demanding pieces. Every decent pianist knows how to do this, but I have a hard time imagining typical guqin players doing this. You know, stuff like...

  • memorizing a small section, memorizing another small section, playing them consecutively.
  • using a metronome to gradually increase tempo
  • automatiziation of motor memory through repetition

I barely made it. My goal was to have it memorized, and I did, but not solidly, and so I had to play with the music in front of me. Furthermore, I had no time to develop it musically, but was able to BS a decent performance from my existing musical intuition.

Current events

Nothing is happening right now, and that's OK. The qin now holds a similar status as the violin in my arsenal. That is, my skills are not as good as they were before, but I'm not worried because I could learn something if I really wanted/needed to. I think of it like putting a system in sleep mode.

P.S. John Thompson's site is a good starting resource for prospective learners. I didn't look at it much, but probably should have.


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Very interesting. How about posting a video or mp3 of you playing the guqin and other instruments?

At the very least a picture of your instruments...

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Quite impressive :clap

But then I know nothing about guqin or Chinese music in general hehe.


Do you find it easy to modulate volume (piano/forte) on the guqin?

Is rubato allowed/encouraged?

Do you think it would be possible to play some guqin music on the (classical) guitar?


Also I didn't quite understand in your article, do you pluck the strings with your fingertips or with some kind of artificial nails?

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Dynamics are as easy as on any plucked string instrument. Combinations of dynamics depends on how much you practice.


I don't know about how fashionable rubato is, but I don't care. I do what I feel like doing because rhythm isn't written down and aural tradition is unreliable.


It should be possible to play most qin music, transposed up, on a guitar, but you'll have to deal with one less string and frets.


Pluck the strings with your fingertips. Most qin players have long nails. I don't because I'm primarily a pianist.

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