Special Music: Sabrina Hu plays the guzheng

Laney Chang and Video Staff

This piece was originally published in the Jan. 16, 2018 issue of the Review. 

Like many of her peers, junior Sabrina Hu practices and tunes her instrument daily and performs in concerts and recitals. But rather than piano, violin or guitar, Hu plays the guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument.

The guzheng is a 2500-year-old instrument with 21 strings and a wooden frame. Strings can produce different sounds depending on how they are plucked with the musician’s tortoise shell finger picks.

Hu is part of the North American Youth Chinese Orchestra, which is composed of students who play traditional Chinese instruments. The orchestra performs a wide variety of music at libraries, nursing homes and hospitals around Houston.

“I wasn’t as nervous when I played in a group,” Hu said. “There was more camaraderie, and I felt more supported.”

English teacher Michael Seckman, who taught Hu in eighth grade, has been a longtime fan of guzheng music.

“My wife is Chinese, and when I first started dating her, she was taking guzheng lessons,” Seckman said. “The music has a different sound to it than the western instruments, so it sounded unique.”

After watching one of Hu’s performances with the orchestra when she was a freshman, Seckman and his wife invited Hu to play at their wedding.

“Because I’m a teacher, we thought it would be special to involve a student in our celebration,” Seckman said. “We were trying to do little things in our wedding to bridge our cultures, and Sabrina fit that bill perfectly.”

Hu started learning the guzheng at her mother’s request in sixth grade, switching over from piano. She has been taking regular lessons ever since. Hu says the guzheng is harder to play than the piano because of the unconventional technique required to master the instrument.

Since enrolling at St. John’s in the Middle School, Hu has performed on campus four times.

“Playing for people that you know creates a different kind of pressure,” Hu said.

Last year, the East Asian Affinity Group hosted an assembly in which Hu provided the special music on the guzheng. History teacher Joseph Soliman, the faculty sponsor for EAAG, was awed by Hu’s performance.

“Anyone who commits that much energy and time to mastering an instrument, given the academic workload at St. John’s, is very impressive,” Soliman said. “She performed beautifully.”

While volunteering this past summer at MD Anderson, Hu played the guzheng in the lobby. Hu met and became friends with people from around the world who had come to Houston’s medical center. Hu considers playing the guzheng at MD Anderson to be one of the best experiences of her life.

“One guy told me he was the trombonist for the Chicago Symphony, and he stopped to look at my sheet music to see how it differed from his,” Hu said.

Hu also met a man from Pakistan and a couple from Shanghai. While working on the Diagnostic Floor of MD Anderson, the couple asked Hu for directions and help with translating. Hu had taken AP Chinese as a sophomore, so she was able to show the couple to their appointment. The couple paid Hu another visit at her guzheng in the lobby later that day.

“They came to say hi and tell me how my distinctly Asian music made them feel more at home here when they were halfway across the world,” Hu said. “I felt really good to help them in such a big way and be a part of their experience in Houston.”

Hu will be volunteering and playing guzheng again at MD Anderson this summer. She also plans to continue her lessons with the hope of eventually reaching Level 10, the highest achievement for a guzheng player in the guzheng testing system.