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The Carletonian

From Cultural Revolution to Carleton professor: Gao Hong and her life in music

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Carleton is full of hidden things, from the infamous bust of Schiller to the reasoning behind Burton’s coconut tomato soup. However, the school’s biggest hidden treasure is not in fact hidden at all, merely tucked away in a corner office of the Music Hall.

Gao Hong, senior lecturer in Chinese musical instruments and director of the Carleton Chinese Music Ensemble, is not only one of the most positive, radiant people on campus, she is also the best pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument, player in the world.

Gao Hong first learned to play to pipa at eight years old. It was 1972 and the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Most children growing in China at this time were eventually sent to the countryside to work.

Musicians, however, were an exception.

Knowing this, Gao’s mother, a music teacher herself, forced her daughter to learn the pipa in order to give her a better path in life. At age twelve, Gao became a professional musician, leaving her family and home for the first time to travel around the country performing for months on end.

When she was older, Gao graduated with honors from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China’s premier music school.

After leaving the conservatory at age twenty-one, she briefly worked as a pipa instructor before coming to the United States for her first solo tour. For years after that, Gao travelled all around the world performing for a variety of audiences.

In 2000, Gao had her daughter and decided to settle in Minnesota, taking up the Performance Activities Coordinator post here at Carleton.

Since then, in addition to her role as Performance Activities Coordinator, Gao has performed at convocations, co-taught courses, given private lessons, directed various musical ensembles, and even composed a piece for the Carleton Choral Department. Last year marked Gao’s final year as the Music Department’s Activities Coordinator. Nowadays, Gao is 100% focused on teaching, both privately and in ensemble settings. She is currently the director for the Chinese Music Ensemble and the World Music Ensemble. The latter, just established this year, combines two of Gao’s main passions: teaching and musical collaborations.

Over her lifetime, Gao has participated in numerous cross-cultural musical exchanges, collaborating with musicians from all over the world, including the Middle East, Japan, Ireland, India, America, and Argentina. When asked about these collaborations, Gao cites a performance she did with Anthony Cox and his jazz trio at the Walker Art Center as one of her most significant. At the time, she states that she did not even know what jazz music was until she met the trio at sound check. Years later, this performance is still remembered as one of the highlights of the Walker Center’s Performing Art Series.

One might find it hard to imagine what it would sound like to hear jazz music being played on a traditional Chinese instrument. However, for Gao, when it comes to playing and teaching, the instrument does not matter. Since much of Chinese music is based on a five note, or pentatonic, scale, it can be played on virtually any instrument. Indeed, Gao has taught students on the piano, violin, and even the saxophone. Many of her students come to her with no prior experience with Chinese music. This is Gao Hong’s favorite thing about teaching at Carleton: watching her students work their way from a beginner level to very skillful musicians. She is very invested in her students; she loves them, thinks of them her own children. When asked what she considers her proudest accomplishment, Gao Hong laughs and says she loves everything, especially the time spent with her students. To Gao, she does not care whether she’s playing on the stage of Carnegie Hall or simply in Music Hall 215. “It’s not about the venue,” she states, “but about the fact that my music inspires others. It’s about how you touch their heart.”

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