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Young Musician Shares the Unique History and Music of the Erhu

17-year-old Muhan Zhang didn’t start his musical career with the erhu, but he’s mastering this ancient Chinese instrument and being a role model for kids of all ages.

Born in America to a mother who emigrated from China, Muhan started his musical career at age 7 on the violin, after watching his sister play for years. But when his neighbor offered to give him lessons on the erhu, he decided he wanted “to keep an open mind about it” and switched instruments.

“I didn’t expect the erhu to become such a part of my life, it was a perfect storm.”

The erhu is a two stringed instrument that can be traced back through Chinese history for nearly one thousand years. The story is that it was created from the carcass of a horse and it’s famous for making sounds that mimic a horse’s neighing.

Despite the erhu’s steep learning curve and no first place prizes in musical competitions, Muhan was determined to not give up playing. In 2010 he won Boston’s Fidelity FutureStage competition and as a result got to perform with the Boston Pops. He was also invited to give a talk on the history of the erhu for TEDxBoston.

Muhan continues his commitment to this sometimes-difficult instrument as a way of pushing his comfort zones and growing as a musician. As an Arts Leader, he likes to spread knowledge about the erhu’s Chinese culture and interesting history, and its applications in today’s musical world. As he notes in his TEDxBoston talk, the erhu has made mainstream appearances in a cover of Coldplay’s “Clocks,” and was used by the Cirque du Soleil show “O.”

“[The erhu] is trying to find as many ways as it can to become a staple so it doesn’t fade away.”

Muhan proclaims, “I have tons of faith in kids…and I love working with [them].” He uses the erhu and other musical memories to connect with them about hurdles each musician must overcome, such as nerve-wracking auditions.

Muhan studies the erhu with Chi-Sun Chan of the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association and continues to look for new ways to share the music of this unique instrument with new audiences. He appeared on From the Top with Christopher O'Riley at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall on October 24, 2010.