Cover Yang Xue Fei. Photo by Neil Muir.

Xuefei Yang, the first guitarist in China to enter a music school, will perform Chinese folk-inspired guitar music to ring in the new year in Hong Kong.

Internationally celebrated Chinese classical guitarists like Xuefei Yang are rare, as western music was banned during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. “The guitar was associated with pop music, the Beatles, the image of having long hair and hooligans, and jeans were seen as a symbol of capitalism,” Yang says. “For a communist country, it’s not a very nice image.” But born in Beijing after the Cultural Revolution, Yang had the opportunity to take up the instrument as a hobby. When she was ten, her open-minded parents took her to the first Guitar Festival in Zhuhai, where she was the only junior contestant.

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Yang went on to study at the Central Conservatory of Music and become the first guitar student to graduate in the mainland. She has since performed in more than 50 countries, collaborated with top music talents such as Irish flute player Sir James Galway, and appeared at the BBC Proms, Britain’s annual summer season of daily classical music concert. Gramophone magazine has praised her as one of the “leading innovators of her generation for continuing to build the guitar repertoire”.

She recently stepped in for Miloš Karadaglić when the Montenegro superstar guitarist could not make it to Hong Kong due to travel restrictions, and will perform in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year Celebration concert on December 29 and 30.

Here, Yang shares what a day in her life is like when she’s preparing for a concert.

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Life on the road as a guitarist can be quite busy, so I make sure that I get some practice done in the morning after a simple breakfast of bread, a boiled egg and some coffee. That way, I can separate my hours of practice to make sure I don’t strain my hands and fingers.

Guitarists are similar to athletes in the sense that is it very important to warm up our muscles before practising. I design warm-up exercises for myself: sometimes I play parts of different pieces of music; sometimes I run through a combination of technical skills that help me memorise the long pieces that I perform; and sometimes I listen to renditions played by other musicians as a reference for my own interpretation.

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How much I practise depends on the programme I’m performing; for the upcoming New Year Celebration, I’m playing three pieces: one Chinese piece and two western pieces, Romance No. 3 and No. 4 by John Brunning. When I was a child, I would practise for more than four hours. But nowadays, four is my maximum. The Chinese piece, Fantasy on a Lovely Rose in Xinjiang, was written by Chinese composer Fu Renchang particularly for me; since he doesn’t play the guitar, he asked me to contribute the cadenza, which is the solo part. To prepare for it, I listen to Xinjiang music or similar folk tunes to get inspiration.

I think the guitar is well suited to Chinese music. There are a lot of plucked instruments in China, such as guzheng and pipa, and the tembor lute from Xinjiang. A lot of plucked instruments, including the guitar, can be traced back 3,000 years to the Middle East. When I was at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, I was exposed to both the western and Chinese instruments, so I feel that I am the perfect person to play Chinese music on the guitar.

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In the afternoon, I like going for a walk, jogging or cycling, but when I’m travelling, maintaining a routine is a challenge because my schedule changes every day. I try to sleep at least seven to nine hours a night and eat healthily by cutting down on carbs and red meat; I also do this for environmental reasons.

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The evening is when I’m at my best, and in the mood for playing music. Sometimes if I don’t have events or interviews to attend, I rehearse with the orchestra.

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Before my performance, I tune my guitar. Guitars are like human beings; each one can be very different and you have to look after them by changing the strings and tuning them. I have about ten models, including a 19th-century guitar for playing Romantic music or an acoustic-electric guitar into which I can plug in an amplifier. But when I’m travelling, it’s hard to bring more than one. I brought the Australian Greg Smallman guitar with me to Hong Kong. It produces richest sounds and biggest volume, so it’s perfect for live performances. I nicknamed it the “Bigger Man”; it has been my main performance guitar since 2000.

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After a performance or rehearsal, I like putting my hands under warm running water. It’s like showering my hands, and it relaxes my tired muscles; sometimes lifting things or unscrewing a bottle can be difficult after the long hours. I rarely massage my hands since it can be dangerous, so if I go for a massage, I’ll tell the masseur to avoid my hands. I like ending the day by curling up on the sofa and watching movies with my partner.

‘A Day In The Life’ is a Tatler weekly cultural series, which delves into the lives of tastemakers in Hong Kong’s arts scene.


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