The first time I came to Vietnam, I went to go see the traditional water puppet show in Hanoi and though I did fall asleep (much to the chagrin of my wife), I fell in love with the dàn bầu. The dàn bầu has such an amazing character to it. The sound is bendy and wobbly, but extremely soulful and deep. You can really sing on the instrument.
After hearing that I loved the dàn bầu, master instrument maker and my frequent collaborator, Duyệt Thị Trang, offered to make one for me. I was stunned and flattered. The next time he was in Hanoi he gave me this handmade dàn bầu that had my name on it. I was very excited.
After a bit of messing around on the instrument I decided to take some actual lessons. It was nice to finally be the student again and have someone show me the ropes.
One thing I’ve noticed now that I have returned to being a student is that it has definitely made me a better cello teacher. Learning something for the first time, you are well acquainted with how frustrating it can be. There are times where I definitely want to pick up the dàn bầu and chuck it out the window. I’ve felt this SO MANY times with the cello (even to this day). Luckily, my students can’t hear me practicing…they might hear some interesting language when I screw something up.
But with that frustration comes the realization and understanding of what it’s like for your students. I’ve been playing cello for over 20 years now, so a lot of playing is second nature to me. Sometimes you forget what it was like at the very beginning of your journey and lose the perspective of someone who is trying to learn the instrument for the first time. It’s funny because I think the dàn bầu must be extremely hard to learn if you have no musical background at all. There are no frets (only harmonics) and you can bend the notes however much you want, so there’s no fixed intonation like on a piano or guitar. I kept thinking, man how does anyone learn this instrument? I mean I’m a professional cellist, so I have a really good ear and know music quite well, but still it’s not easy.
Then I realized, it’s almost the exact same thing for most of my cello students. Most of them have never played an instrument before and are learning the cello, an instrument with no fixed intonation, a bow, and endless challenges. My students must feel the same way.
So it’s good to be humbled and to reconnect with what it feels like to be a beginner. That being said, another thing I like to instill in my students is the creative spirit. Look, I didn’t plan on learning dàn bầu to become a master of traditional Vietnamese music. I certainly would love to learn some and understand its roots and history, but my goal for learning the instrument was to make it my own. To use it for composing, performing, and pushing the boundaries of what it was originally intended for.
I decided to start writing cello and dàn bầu duets to challenge myself not only on the instrument, but compositionally as well. Now, I am NOT good at dàn bầu just yet, but thanks to my years of musical experience and handy studio editing techniques, I can make it seem halfway passable. This is honestly totally fine with me. It’s not about it being perfect, it’s more about the process of learning, experimenting, and creating something new. If there’s anything that I can teach my students that will benefit them for the rest of their lives, it’s this.
The classical music world often gets caught up with perfection and by doing so misses out on trying something different and possibly enjoying it. I hope you like the first cello and dàn bầu duet, I plan on writing more and continuing to be a student of the instrument.