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UPDATED: September 13, 2013 Web Exclusive
Audio: Life-Changing Symphony
By Chen Ran

For more photos please click here

The student orchestra at the Xidi Elementary School of Duancun Township in north China's Hebei Province, was rehearsing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the last day of the summer vacation.

The children, aged between 7 and 11, will perform at the inauguration ceremony of the new campus on September 28.

Covering an area of 20,000 square meters, the new campus will converge three local elementary schools into one, and in the process it will benefit some 1,000 pupils.

Li Feng, the founder of the Beijing-based Hefeng Art Foundation, has been working on the new campus since 2011. Li Feng says he has loved the arts since he was a child, and he believes strongly in their power. When he created the Hefeng Art Foundation, it was the country's first private foundation aiming to provide arts education and promotion.

One of Li's projects offers free arts classes – including classes in ballet, musical instruments, drama, choir singing and painting – to local students in Duancun Township every weekend as a complement to the school curriculum. Before March this year, no arts classes were available for around 600 local pupils due to the lack of teachers.

The Hefeng Art Foundation finished its recruitment for the children's choir and orchestra in Duancun by the end of last year, with the help of the China National Opera House, the China Philharmonic Orchestra and National Ballet of China's in-house orchestra.

Li's memories on the recruitment remain fresh. "It's hard for you to imagine their facial expressions on recruitment day: they look at the instruments as if they were alien artifacts, impossible to master, when they see them in person for the first time," he said.

"The kids were surprised and curious about the instruments, because the instruments had nothing to do with their usual routine. For the kids, the instruments were irrelevant and unobtainable. That scene had so much contrast; it represented two completely different walks of life. The kids were all from rural backgrounds and they were looking at these symbols of refinement and class. But I can see the sense of accomplishment and pride in their eyes as soon as they could play. They were all eager to share their joy with others." Li added.

The choir and orchestra classes opened this spring in parallel with the ballet, painting and drama classes. Several artists from well respected national-level arts institutions in Beijing were invited as volunteer teachers. They come to the township every weekend to offer free arts classes.

Xidi Elementary School pupil Yang Boxiang is in the fifth grade and he tops the percussion class. His mother Feng Yuehong listens to every class and makes notes to guide his practice back home.

"My son has such a wonderful teacher and the chance to learn music thanks to the foundation," Feng said. "Before learning music, he either watched TV or played video games after school. It is great to see him finally learning something useful."

Learning to follow the beat without an instrument in front of them was focus for the students during the first two or three classes. Six of the eight students dropped out because of boredom. Yang was one of the only two that continued learning.

His mother recalled her son's practicing: "He found the bruise on his thigh one day after the shower because he had been clapping the beats on his legs during class. He loves drumming. His father was working in Beijing so we decided to bring him a real drum and a metronome."

His mother has been very pleased to see the change in her son. "He looks smarter and more easy-going than before after learning percussion. He looks happy. He really loves it. He has more confidence than before and you can see it. Before, he was a shy boy and he kept silent in public. Now he looks great."

"Some parents complained that learning music affects their children's studies. But I don't think so. My son is more positive in his studies after learning drumming. He has higher scores than the last semester," Feng said.

Yang's teacher named Zhang Yujin who came from the Central Conservatory of Music. The 19-year-old is the youngest volunteer teacher in the program.

"I think they have changed a lot. They are more active and energetic after drumming. It helps enhance their sense of music. Their performance is better. I'm proud of their progress," Zhang said.

"I think the program is very meaningful. I took part in it from the very first day. It helps the local kids and the whole community to know about music. They are eager to know it. This is a good thing. I think we should keep going. I will keep on coming here if it is possible and support the program," Zhang added.

Currently, there are some problems in promoting arts education in rural areas, such as the lack of funds and teachers, but the program founder Li Feng still believes in the power of arts.

"Art provides endless spiritual nutrition to kids," Li said. "In fact, the arts education can bring self-confidence and a sense of pride to them that they didn't have in the past. They will stand taller after learning arts. They will have a better angle to consider their future from. A lot of arts activities take place in a group, so they have better performance in coordination and team work."

"It seems that the arts education puts a gap between parents and children in rural areas, but isn't it the starting point for the children's journey to civilization and arts?" he added.

"What we hope for is that more time can be spent passing on the arts from students to parent, from school to home, and from household to community. As far as the time concerned, it might take at least 100 years or three generations to achieve this goal," Li said.

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