Cool and Composed

By Catherine Wang

s the lights of the Beijing Opera House dim, the audience can make out the back of a dark silhouette at center stage. As the stage lights up, the Beijing Orchestra and its conductor become visible. With a single flick of the conductor’s hand, all of the musicians take up their instruments and begin to play, creating the music and melodies of the night. Tonight is not just any other night, though—it is National Day, China’s own 4th of July. The orchestra is not only playing in front of the packed theatre, but on national television.

Song after song the musicians play, until their performance comes ends and they set down their instruments, letting out a sigh of triumph. As thunderous applause echoes through the theatre, the beaming musicians stand up to bow.

In the midst of this frenzy, the conductor turns around to face the audience. His smile shines brighter than even the most vibrant stage lights. At the tender age of 25, Qinru Zhou had conducted his country’s most prestigious orchestra at the country’s most important celebration, poised to become one of the top figures in China’s musical world.

A smile crosses Zhou’s face as memories of this unforgettable night nearly 40 years ago resurface. Dr. Zhou, as his students fondly call him, is now the head Chinese teacher. He teaches Chinese III, Chinese III Honors, Chinese IV Honors, and Advanced Placement Chinese.

Sitting in his classroom, Seaver 101, Zhou is almost hidden behind a pile of papers on his desk, using a free period to catch up on grading. Pushing aside the papers, he offers his time to tell his story. He leans back in his chair and his brow furrows slightly, as if he is trying to remember specific details. He sighs, and then tells his story.

Zhou’s love for music began in elementary school. He sang in the choir and dabbled with various instruments in the school’s orchestra.

When he was 9, Zhou taught himself to playy piano, since children at the time had no access to lessons. Zhou found old copies of Beyer’s piano books. Whenever he had time, he snuck into his school’s music room, transforming the notes on the pages into harmonic melodies on the piano.

For the next few years, Zhou kindled his musical interest by composing pieces of his own. The first sign of Zhou’s future music career was when he published a composition at age 11.

Zhou graduated from high school during China’s Cultural Revolution, a time when all colleges and universities were closed. He became a conductor and composer-in-residence at the Beijing Opera. Zhou credits much of his musical learning and development to nine years there.

“I was only 19 when I entered,” Zhou said. “I worked with the best musicians in China. I really miss them.”

While there, Zhou conducted the Beijing Orchestra on National Day and also composed many pieces that have been played worldwide.

Zhou returned to school the first year colleges re-opened after the Cultural Revolution ended, becoming a college freshman at the Beijing Music Conservatory when he was nearly 30. After five years of strict training, Zhou became a music theory and composition professor there.

Though Zhou’s fulfilling musical career had established him as a prominent musician, he longed for more: Zhou wanted to see the world.

“China was isolated at the time. We could only see Western world through the media. I wanted to see it for myself,” he said. “I wanted to learn about Western music, but I also wanted to learn about Western culture.”

Zhou was offered a scholarship to study music at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Leaving his young family behind, Zhou arrived in Los Angeles during summer 1986 with $30 in his pocket. UCLA was very welcoming to him, but he still felt like a stranger in a new land.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas were hard,” Zhou said. “Everyone went home, but I stayed at school.”

Zhou liked California’s sunny weather, but he missed Beijing’s snow and rain.

“I was always happy when it rained,” he said.

Zhou’s son and wife joined him one year later, and he began adjusting to the American culture and developed a deep appreciation for it.

Zhou became a TA for Asian Studies Professor Perry Link, and developed his first inclination for teaching. During his time at UCLA, Zhou developed a close relationship with Elaine Caris, an elderly handicapped woman, through a UCLA sponsored program that matched foreign students with volunteer families.

Caris helped Zhou learn English and invited him to parties. She introduced him to her friends, many of whom were intellectuals and musicians. Zhou helped Caris by driving her to doctor’s appointments.

“I always had Hanukah with them and went to their kids’ birthday parties,” Zhou said.

Zhou graduated from UCLA with an M.B.A. and Ph.D in Music Composition and Etymology. After graduating, Zhou received a phone call from Head of the Upper School Harry Salamandra regarding a job opening at Harvard-Westlake.

“I didn’t know what Harvard-Westlake was,” Zhou said, “but my son told me: ‘That high school is better than college!’”

Zhou accepted the teaching offer at Harvard-Westlake rather than return to China after studying, which he had originally planned to do.

“My family was here, so I couldn’t leave,” he said. Zhou travels to China every year, so he does not miss it too much, he said.

Zhou says he decided to switch from his musical career to a teaching career because he wanted to help break down the “cultural barriers” between the East and West.

“Easterners and Westerners can’t really understand each other because of the cultural, language and political barriers,” Zhou said.

Zhou has been at Harvard-Westlake for 12 years. Under Zhou’s guidance, the Chinese program has expanded from a single class of 12 students to classes offered in every grade.

Teaching has not completely halted Zhou’s musical endeavors, as he still lectures and writes on music theory and recently founded the music journal “Music in China. Zhou plans on resuming composing after retiring from teaching. Before then, he will continue intertwining his musical training with his teaching profession.

“Dr. Zhou always relates Chinese to music by drawing similarities between sentence structure and musical phrase structure,” Chinese student Nicole Hung ’10 said.

As Zhou took his bow after he conducted the Beijing Orchestra on National Day looking out into his future, the future he envisioned for himself then no doubt contrasts sharply with his current life, but Zhou does not regret leaving his music career for teaching.

“I love Harvard-Westlake,” he said with a smile, just as his tenth grade Chinese III class filed into his classroom. Zhou stood to greet his students, signaling that his story has finished.