For Gloria Yifeng Hu, starting violin lessons in elementary school made sense—early on she could sing in tune, had a good sense of rhythm, and could hum any tune she heard on the radio.
As Hu, an associate professor of communication studies at The College of New Jersey, got more serious about music, even as a youngster in southeastern China, she had many opportunities to perform, and eventually to compete for prizes. But more recently, in her experience with her 8-year-old son, also a violinist, she saw a dearth of performance opportunities for young musicians compared to her own childhood experience and started thinking about initiating a local kids’ ensemble.
So she has brought together motivated children in several ensembles, loosely formed to prepare for upcoming concerts. Her musicians, together with some Central Jersey Chinese instrument ensembles, are preparing for a Lunar New Year concert to be held on Saturday, Feb. 11, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Hopewell Branch Library, 245 Pennington-Titusville Road, in Pennington.
The Lunar New Year for 2017 began on Jan. 28, but the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, Feb. 11 this year, is the traditional date of the annual Lantern Festival. The library will be decorated for the occasion and will include a Lunar New Year show displaying artwork of area students.
The Lunar New Year is a major time of celebration and family togetherness in China, Hu says. Though many in China do not take annual vacations, they make time for the Lunar New Year.
“During that holiday, they don’t want to earn money, and feel, ‘I have to go home,’” she says.
She adds, though, that today, younger people sometimes choose to travel instead of visiting relatives.
The Lunar New Year festival has many celebratory customs. People follow the old tradition of cleaning house but not necessarily that of buying new clothes, since clothes are available at any time and people can afford them, Hu says. Families often make traditional New Year’s foods together, like dumplings (jiaozi) in northern China and sweet dumplings or glut-puddings (tang-yuan) and rice cakes (nian-gao) in Hu’s region.
Because traditional foods are now widely available, their importance has lessened. However, Hu adds, “the meaning that people give to the food is more important: family making something together.”
Children receive “lucky money” in red envelopes from family elders that they put under their pillows on New Year’s Eve. “You sleep on the pillow, and it will bring good luck, and the money is yours,” Hu says. “My parents have already prepared envelopes for my two kids.”
During the festival, people also wear traditional clothing, and they decorate their homes with paper cuts, red lanterns, and spring festival couplets. Outdoor celebrations feature parades, dragon or lion dances, firecrackers, and fireworks.
The Lunar New Year, which is not religious but rather a time to plant seeds, looking toward spring and a good harvest year, is celebrated in many Asian countries. Hu selected to call her festival the “Lunar New Year” rather than “Chinese New Year” to be more inclusive.
“I’m not just doing it for the Chinese community,” she says. “I wanted to enrich the whole community, and in the composition of the band, I have included as many different kids as possible.”
The mother of a Korean viola player thanked Hu for changing the name, and an originally Korean song will be done in Korean as well as in the version translated into Chinese. “I want them to feel their holiday is also celebrated at this event,” she says. “It shows the interplay between Asian cultures.”
Even though Stonybrook Elementary School in Pennington, where her son goes, has exposed many students to string instruments, Hu has observed that few had performance opportunities beyond private recitals if they had private teachers. She has also seen that Chinese-American boys and girls “haven’t been given any chance to be exposed to Chinese folk music, and they are not exposed to different ethnic music.”
Chinese music, she explains, includes “any works that have Chinese folk music characteristics played by any instruments.” It falls into three categories based on content: music for festivals as well as weddings and funerals; music for special occasions and events, for example, dragon boat racing; and music that “express[es] emotions and affections based on different natural scenes.”
In March 2016 Hu started the Flowers and the Youth Ensemble, named after a Chinese folk song based on the metaphor that “young people are like flowers—they have hope … they are our future.” The ensemble, which originally included mostly Chinese-American youngsters, appeared for the first time at Pennington Day on May 21, 2016.
In a second concert on Dec. 10, 2016, an ensemble performed at Millhill Child and Family Development Center in Trenton, where Hu saw another of her goals coming to fruition, getting young musicians to think about community engagement. “My kids and the Millhill kids interacted, had fun, laughed—and we brought a digital piano that their kids played. Our kids found their music can bring joy to other people,” Hu says.
At a concert on December 17, her ensemble performed winter holiday songs from different traditions, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas, at the Hopewell Branch Library.
By design, Hu’s ensembles include kids different levels musically, which she says can be very challenging when teaching students with fewer skills, yet she affirms how proud she is of including everyone interested in participating. “It’s not like an orchestra that needs auditions,” she says. “In my group, I say ‘I welcome you guys as long as you are motivated and the parents are supportive.’”
Hu notes that another benefit of more opportunities to practice and perform in groups is increased confidence. “Kids can be shy and stage anxiety is huge—and nothing else can change it except for more opportunities [to play],” she says.
Hu was born in Ningbo, close to Shanghai; her father is a businessman and her mother an accountant. Toward the end of high school, she won first prize among instrument players at Tsinghua University’s National Performing Arts Competition in Beijing and was the only violinist to play at the final recital.
For Tsinghua University, which Hu described as the MIT of China, the goal of the competition was to bring in talented students to join its orchestra. Although Tsinghua offered her admission, with excellent incentives, in the audience were also representatives of Renmin University, which focuses on the liberal arts, and they were also looking for musicians.
Renmin offered her admission without sitting for the national examination, contingent only on checking her high school record (this was no problem since Hu was first in her grade in the liberal arts part of her school). More interested in writing, she accepted Renmin’s offer, because it had the best journalism program in China, and at the university she served as concert master for almost all four years.
A veteran of internships at both China Central Television in Beijing and Tsinghua News Agency, Hu says, “Even though I loved reporting, I liked to dig down to why things happened, beyond what happened, and I’m also good at research.” So, largely leaving her music aside, she moved to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she earned a master of communication studies.
Encouraged by her professors, she applied to doctoral programs in the United States and five years later had in hand her Ph.D. in mass communications from Penn State. Her dissertation focused on health communication and new media, particular people’s perceptions of how credible information is from different online health sources and whether they take action based on them.
At TCNJ Hu has developed a popular course on the new media and health, and she has been on a task force for a new major in public health at TCNJ, and her course is one of the cores for a post-baccalaureate, post-master’s Public Health Certificate Program now in development.
‘I was thinking how can I combine what I am good at and what I am passionate about, and what I wanted to do—more community service.’
Hu met her husband, Quinn Kun Zhao, shortly before her graduation from Penn State. It turned out they had gone to the same elementary school, in the same grade, but were in different classes. He recognized her name because she was a star student, and she recognized his because he was a star athlete who led the school’s morning calisthenics.
In 2007, a couple weeks after Hu started teaching at TCNJ, the couple got married next to Lake Sylvia on the campus. A business and trademark attorney, Zhao worked first in New York and is now a partner at Hill Wallack in Princeton. In 2009 the couple had their first son and in 2016 their second son.
It was at TCNJ that Hu started to make her way back into music—first she accepted a request from the conductor of the student orchestra who was looking for a violinist, seeing it as “an opportunity to force me to practice.” Next, she played Chinese folk music with two students in TCNJ’s yearly Mystique of the East, an Asian cultural gala.
Noticing that she always tells her students she is a violinist, she came to understand that she is not just an academic. “When I look at my identity, I am a professor, an educator, a mom, but I’m a violinist in my heart and wanted to let my students know that,” she says.
So when she decided she wanted to engage more with her community, her deep commitment to music came into play. Hu says, “I was thinking how can I combine what I am good at and what I am passionate about, and what I wanted to do—more community service.”