Since 1995, music teacher and performer Sherlyn Chew has been bringing young people together to learn and play traditional Chinese music. Spark gets to know Chew and her Great Wall Youth Orchestra as they perform at the San Francisco Performing Arts Museum and Library and at Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church.
The Great Wall Youth Orchestra plays Chinese musical instruments and performs a variety of music. One of their specialties is Chinese opera, an art form that combines storytelling, acting, singing, dancing and martial arts and dates as far back as the 12th century. Many of the students are recent immigrants or first-generation Americans, and the orchestra offers a special connection between their origins and heritage and their life in the United States.
For Tyler Thompson, however, the orchestra provides something different. An African American and star singer in the orchestra, Thompson has gained an international reputation for his performances with Great Wall Youth. Though he cannot speak the language, Thompson can sing perfect Mandarin Chinese opera, and he became an international symbol of cross-cultural exchange when Great Wall Youth’s 2005 performance for Chinese New Year was televised in China.
During rehearsals, Chew teaches the orchestra to play a range of styles from throughout the world, including African and European music as well as American ragtime. For Chew, it is about preserving traditions as well as promoting exchange between cultures. Spark was there for Great Wall Youth’s Allen Temple Baptist Church performance, which brought traditional Chinese music to a whole new audience.
Great Wall Youth Orchestra is one of the programs offered by the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation. Founded by Sherlyn Chew, the foundation’s purpose is to teach Chinese music to K-12 students in Oakland. The foundation’s other programs include the Purple Bamboo Orchestra and the Purple Bamboo Chorus.