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Seventeen-year-old percussionist, Fang Zhang, was crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year in May with an astonishing performance of Prism Rhapsody on the marimba. He is only the second percussionist to win the prestigious competition, and the first from China. A recent student at Manchester’s prestigious Chetham’s School of Music, which he joined in September 2018, Zhang is a member of the China Youth Percussion Orchestra and has been performing around the world since he was 11. Despite his young age, he has already won prizes at international percussion competitions around the world, including USA, Japan, and his native China. Here he describes what it was like to cross cultures and how studying in the UK was a transformational experience.

How has winning BBC Young Musician of the Year hanged your plans?

It hasn’t really, but it has given me stronger motivation. Since I was a kid I always wanted to be a professional performer, a soloist, so joining the competition was a necessary part of the learning process. A musician needs motivation to improve and learn new skills. There’s huge variety in the percussion family – Latin percussion, jazz percussion and orchestral percussion. They’re all very different and there’s a lot of things I still haven't tried so keeping on learning is important, and humbly asking advice from others. My tutor, Le Yu [Deputy Director of Percussion at the Royal Northern College of Music and Marimba/Solo Percussion tutor at Chetham’s School of Music] is my role model and I want to thank Mark Wigglesworth [Olivier Award-winning conductor] for his kind help. Winning strengthened my determination and moved me a little further along my path. It marked a new beginning and allowed me to face the future with more confidence and determination.

In the next few years I hope to participate a lot high quality performances. Not long ago the Young Classical Artists Trust [which provides support for BBC Young Musician finalists] contacted me about an orchestral tour for 2023-2024 with the English Chamber Orchestra to perform Prism Rhapsody. My English-language skills are also important, so that’s another area I need to keep improving.


Did you have any expectations of living and studying in the UK? Did anything surprise you?

When I first arrived England I was in a bit of panic. It was a new environment, new classmates, new teachers and a new kind of system. Not knowing what it would be like was scary. Many of my teachers in China had lived and trained oversees and they shared their experiences with me, especially Yu Le. He said the same as my father told me: be accepting and take things gradually – like the food and the weather, which I gradually got used to. A few things surprised me, like how local students used the washing machine. My mother always taught me to separate dark and light colors, but they washed everything together, including sneakers!


What kind of support was available for international students at Chetham’s School of Music?

The school granted me a fully funded bursary, which allowed me to study in UK. English lessons are tailor-made for each students’ level and that’s very helpful for international students whose first language is not English. The programme included science and maths as well as music training. I got a lot of help from my classmates and teachers. They were always really patient, especially when I struggled with English. For example, during training sessions the tutors carefully explained everything until I was comfortable. I was very lucky to have such support. It made my time at Chetham’s very happy.


How does music education in China and the UK compare?

Let me put it this way, if I’d only studied in China for ten years and then joined the competition I wouldn’t have won. I doubt I could have even got into the third or fourth round. I built the foundations in China, the skills and technique. Study in the UK helped me to understand new ways of expression and allowed me to make it my own thing. It’s this that got me onto the BBC podium.

Another benefit of studying in the UK was the chance to play in a symphony orchestra. In China I didn’t go to any formal music school and didn’t participate in any symphony orchestra rehearsals. When I got to the UK I didn’t even know how to play some of the instruments. The students next to me had to show me. The experience was very precious for me.

Music education in the West is very mature and there’s a lot of room for development in China. At Chetham’s there was symphony orchestra class on Mondays, solo class on Tuesdays, ensemble class on Wednesdays, Latin on Thursdays and jazz and jazz ensemble on Fridays. It was all very well structured and very comprehensive. This is why so many people go abroad to study.

The learning atmosphere is also very good and I felt very relaxed. By contrast, in China the pressure is quite high because everyone is fighting to be number one. In the UK people play because they love their instruments. This is one of the biggest differences I noticed.

But music education and teaching methods have greatly improved in China.  Many teachers have studied overseas in Germany, America and the UK and they’ve brought their experiences home and combined them with local teaching methods to make a sort of cross-over of East and West. In terms of percussion, the level is now much higher. This in turn encourages more people to learn, so I think the prospects for percussion in China is bright. Introducing a big competition like BBC Young Musician of the Year would also be beneficial, but I think more international music competitions will be held in the future.

What could UK students gain from study in China?

This would be a very important breakthrough but foreign friends would find teaching in China very different. The emphasis is different. China has a very long cultural and artistic history as well as a great variety of traditional instruments, so there’s a lot to absorb. In the 2008 Summer Olympics one thousand people played Chinese traditional percussion in the opening ceremony. I’d like to see traditional Chinese percussion played and promoted more overseas.


If you could go back in time what advice would you give yourself just before leaving for the UK?

First, be brave. Bravely face everything and travel as much as you can. I had hoped to see much more of the UK, especially London and maybe see a Manchester United game. In the end I was too busy practicing and never got the chance, which I really regret. Second, work hard to accept new things and learn as much as possible.


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