An instrument with more than 3000 years of history, the sheng is a Chinese mouth organ that utilises free reeds in order to create sound. As these reeds are independent of each other, multiple notes can be played simultaneously on the sheng. Both blowing and drawing air through the instrument sounds the same pitch.
Today, there are multiple variants of the sheng in use. The traditional sheng is a diatonic instrument, commonly in the key of D, that is held up to the musician’s face and played by blowing into a short mouthpiece, which leads to a metal windchest. The reeds of the traditional sheng, which are affixed to bamboo columns, are inserted into this windchest, allowing for air to pass through them. Fingerholes are present, allowing for finger-related techniques to be employed.
Reformed shengs were created in the 20th century to cater to the needs of the modern Chinese orchestra. Fully chromatic, typically spanning around three octaves, and equipped with resonators (metal tubes attached to the bamboo reeds of the instrument), these instruments were designed to provide a harmonic backbone to early Chinese orchestral works. Instead of fingerholes, keys are used. Air is blown into a windchest with the aid of a long mouthpiece. Ranging from soprano to bass, these instruments are much larger than the traditional sheng and are either placed on the thigh of the musician (soprano, and certain variants of alto and tenor) or on a stand (certain types of alto and tenor, and bass). The lower the range, the larger the instrument and the more air required to play.
Sound is produced through vibration of the copper reeds, causing vibration in the air within the columns of the bamboo pipes. Each bamboo pipe has a gap carved out, and is affixed with the aforementioned free beating reed. The gap determines the amount of space that air can vibrate within the air columns, thus creating a pitch range for the pipe. The accuracy of the pitch is then fine-tuned, based on the quantity of red wax which is dotted on the reed. The more wax the heavier the reed, causing lower vibrations and a resultant lower pitch. Similarly, the lighter the wax dot, the higher the pitch. Tuning for the instrument is thus rather inconvenient.
Unlike other instruments, the sheng’s tonal colour is very much dependent on the instrument itself. The quality of materials and craftsmanship will determine how the instrument will sound. The higher register of the instrument is bright and penetrative, the middle register is well-rounded and strong, while the lower register is mellow and rich.
Figure 1. Copper reeds of soprano sheng, usually located within the windchest and hidden from view.
Range of instruments
The traditional (21-reed) sheng, in the key of D, has a range of d1 – f3.
The soprano (36-reed) sheng, has a range of g – f#3.
The alto (36-reed) sheng has a range of c – b2.
The bass (32-reed) sheng has a range of C – g1.
Sheng musicians first learn how to read scores using cipher notation. The most commonly used keys are C, D and G major. Each type of sheng (i.e. traditional, soprano, alto, tenor, bass) uses a different fingering system. Beyond the amateur level, a sheng musician usually knows how to play more than one type of sheng. If a musician were to stick with reading only cipher notation at this stage, they would have to memorize solfege in various keys across different instruments. Hence, most move on to reading standard western notation, the knowledge of which is commonplace amongst musicians who play the sheng outside of a school setting.
Figure 2. Fingering chart for the soprano sheng produced by Singapore Chinese Orchestra sheng musician Ong Yi Horng. The box in the top left corner indicates where each key is located using western letter names, while the other boxes indicate the corresponding solfege, in accordance with the conventions of cipher notation.
Figure 3. Fingering chart for the alto/bass sheng produced by Singapore Chinese Orchestra sheng musician Ong Yi Horng. As in the figure above, the box in the top left corner indicates where each key is located using western letter names, while the other boxes indicate the corresponding solfege in accordance with the conventions of cipher notation.
Figure 4. Fingering chart for the 21-reed traditional sheng (in the key of D) produced by Singapore Chinese Orchestra sheng musician Ong Yi Horng.
Ideally, each of the reeds on a sheng should behave with consistent sensitivity, sounding with the same volume when air passes through them regardless of direction. However, realistically, this is almost never the case. Due to its construction, the sheng’s volume is imbalanced, with the volume of middle to lower register notes usually sounding louder than those of the higher register. Hence, the higher the note, the greater the amount of force required to play. Furthermore, each individual sheng, like each human, possesses its own idiosyncrasies.
One common problem sheng musicians face is that individual notes sometimes get 'stuck' during performance. This usually happens after a period of prolonged playing, where it is hypothesized that the build-up of moisture in the windchest along with temperature changes lead to the reeds of a sheng becoming less flexible. In such situations, playing softly becomes an issue, and a musician has to play the affected notes loudly to get them ‘unstuck’.
Another common problem is the rattling of a soprano sheng’s resonators at certain temperatures. The metal resonator of a note may vibrate against its neighbour when played, creating an unwanted buzzing sound. This is often rectified by placing a small piece of tissue paper, or any material of similar cushioning effect, between the affected resonators. While mostly effective, this is not a perfectly foolproof solution.
As is the case with all other instruments, good sheng musicians know how to deal with such problems. Nevertheless, problems can sometimes occur unexpectedly during performance. What does that mean for a composer, looking to write for the sheng?
It helps to be sympathetic to the fact that some techniques, while seemingly possible on paper, may not be possible to execute in practice for various reasons. Some compensatory techniques might require a moment’s preparation (such as blowing in advance, adjusting a resonator, etc), which sheng musicians are unlikely to go to great lengths to justify, but which will make executing the work far harder than the composer might imagine. Hence, constant communication between both composer and musician is key in composing an effective piece for the sheng.
Existing Techniques and Approaches
Dayin (Grace Note/Acciaccatura)
Figure 5. An example of dayin in a sheng score notated using cipher notation.
Similar to the acciaccatura in the European music tradition, the dayin is usually quickly performed before, or on, the beat, with an emphasis on the main note it is attached to.
In traditional repertoire, the dayin may not be notated. Performers are expected to know which notes are to be embellished and to play them accordingly. The notes used in such instances would be those that lie within the typical harmonic framework, and are easy for the performer to reach in terms of fingering.
In modern Chinese orchestral repertoire, it is common to see the acciaccatura and appoggiatura used interchangeably in scores presented using Western notation. These markings are universally actualised by sheng performers as grace notes. This practice is a by-product of traditional cipher notation conventions, in which such notes are usually indicated as a number in smaller font attached to a main note by virtue of an underscore and an arrow-like stroke. There is no slash made across a note in such scoring. It is thus advisable for modern composers wishing to use an appoggiatura to specifically notate what they wish to hear.
Standard notation for the chanzhi is the same as that for the trill, with the ‘tr’ symbol above the note in question.
According to the European music tradition, the trill involves the quick alternation between two notes, or two sets of notes, to create a fluttering sound.
However, since the sheng is an instrument that is propped upright in a playing position only by virtue of the supporting hands of the performer, executing an overly-enthusiastic trill can sometimes lead to precarious balancing situations. Hence, it is common practice for sheng musicians to hold on to one note, or one set of notes, and quickly tap on the other instead of alternating. The result is something more along the lines of a trill-tremolo hybrid (it is worth noting that there are different types of tremolo; here, we are addressing one particular type).
Figure 6. An example of Huayin notated using cipher notation.
(Traditional Sheng Only)
Achieved by gradually opening or closing a fingerhole of the traditional sheng, this technique is usually applied to certain notes of the traditional sheng, most often the higher notes on the outer row of the sheng.
Usually played in passing within a melody, the huayin can alternatively be played in a slow and deliberate manner. However, it is hard to aspire towards an approximate pitch at any particular moment when executing this technique due to the small size of the fingerholes.
In the European music tradition, vibrato is used as a tool of expression, and involves periodic variations of the pitch, or frequency, of a note. Realistically though, the amplitude, or volume, is often affected as well. Thus for most woodwind instruments, vibrato causes a change in pitch and volume.
Vibrato on the sheng, as is the case with many western woodwind instruments, is produced by changes in air pressure. However, as the sheng’s reeds vibrate at a fixed set of frequencies, there is no pitch bend (at least, not intentionally). One could easily argue that there is a correlation between volume and frequency, and that a change in frequency occurs when dynamic contrasts are made, but for the purpose of this discussion this issue will not be addressed. Hence it can be fairly said that on the sheng, vibrato is more a fluctuation in volume than pitch.
While the vibrato is usually not notated, a wavy line can be used to approximately indicate the contour of the vibrato if wished.
Using the Palm on Resonator Tubes (Soprano Sheng Only)
Using the palm to cover and uncover the resonator tubes of the sheng creates a sound similar to that of a wah-wah pedal applied to a guitar.
A combination of a hand symbol with wavy lines may be used to indicate this technique, but this is by no means the definitive standard of notation. Given that there are few references for a sheng musician to draw inspiration from in this regard, care should be taken by the composer to clarify their desired interpretation when this technique is used.
It is also worth noting that preparation time is needed for a musician to visually check their hand positioning in order to execute this technique.
Figure 7. Methods of notating huashe in cipher and stave notation.
Huashe is a common technique produced by the rolling of the tongue. The standard way of notating this flutter-tongue technique for sheng involves the use of a symbol similar to an asterisk.
Composers should note that the standard western convention of using 3-stroke slashes on note stems is not accepted by sheng players as an indication for this technique since this symbol is usually viewed as an indication of hushe which is discussed below.
In literature, huashe can be further subdivided into two generic variants: bao huashe, an ‘explosive’ flutter-tonguing, and xi huashe, a ‘thin’ flutter-tonguing. As their names suggest, these variants are meant to indicate the strength with which flutter-tonguing is executed. In reality though, it is not common practice for a composer to specify which kind of huashe is required in writing. Understanding of these variants is generally conceptual, and sheng players adjust accordingly based on the musical context, relative sensitivity of a particular note’s reed, etc. Hence, what a composer requests may not manifest itself as expected.
As previously mentioned, the hushe is indicated with a 3-stroke slash on the note stems.
Parallels can be drawn between the hushe and the type of tremolo that involves the rapid reiteration (roll) of a note. The hushe involves the rapid alternation in air flow direction, using the tongue and jaw to push air out and draw breath in. This is a technique used in soft passages, and is unsustainable at louder dynamic levels. Composers should also note that it is also a tiring technique. The physicality of hushe might also factor into a performer’s interpretation of a passage.
Figure 8. Methods of notating huashe in both cipher and stave notation.
Suitu (Fragmented Tonguing)
Described as rapid and irregular double-tonguing, suitu is intuitively used by musicians to replace the hushe at points where use of the hushe proves unrealistic. This could be when a passage employing hushe has to be played loudly, sustained for a long time, or for notes in a high register where reeds have a tendency to get ‘stuck’. It is thus meant to mimic the effect of hushe, and should ideally be undistinguishable to most listeners.
There is no known notation for this technique. It is almost never specifically requested by composers, given its unpredictability and lack of refinement as a technique itself.
New Techniques Discovered During the AYE 2020 Workshop Process
‘Ghost’ Notes (Traditional Sheng Only)
This refers to the production of soft, "unwanted" notes of indefinite pitch, when blowing into the instrument while not covering any fingerholes/pressing any keys. Generally, no sound should be made in such an instance. The sounding of such notes is a result of an instrument problem, and is often an indicator of the need for tuning and servicing. The exact pitch of these ‘ghost’ notes cannot be predetermined.
Though unreliable as a technique (it does not always manifest itself when desired, and vice-versa), the sounds produced are ethereal and can add a new dimension to playing.
Finger Vibrato (Traditional Sheng Only)
This refers to the partial covering of fingerholes in the traditional sheng, and applying alternating pressure so as to minutely adjust the amount of covering and thus produce a variation in pitch.
Given the angle from which the fingerholes of the traditional sheng are approached, and the fact that they are rather small, not all notes allow for finger vibrato to be performed. As is the case with using the palm on resonators, it is worth noting that preparation time is needed for a musician to visually check their hand positioning in order to execute a finger vibrato.
Playing Disengaged From the Mouthpiece
This refers to the player playing the sheng by blowing into the mouthpiece from a short distance away. This results in a weakened production of regular sound from the sheng, but with the addition of some percussive air noise.
In order to produce sound from the sheng itself using this technique, a small, focused embouchure is needed. Syllables such as ‘hoo’ are effective, whereas others, such as ‘ha’, fail to create the required size of air channel. This technique is not effective while inhaling.
Playing and Singing Simultaneously
Akin to playing multiphonics, this technique involves the player vocalizing while playing. Different from other woodwind instruments, the sheng itself is able to play two or more notes simultaneously; this means that a performer can play chords while voicing a separate melody.
As opposed to some other wind instruments, the sheng does not need a specific embouchure to be played given that the lips are firmly encasing the mouthpiece, so that air does not escape. This makes vocalisations relatively easy while playing.
Similar to the way preparations may be made for other instruments such as the piano, the sound of the sheng can be altered by placing objects over the top of its resonator tubes.
The difference in timbre may not be audible from a distance, and so amplification is needed.
The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra, by Chenwei Wang, Junyi Chow and Samuel Wong (The TENG Company, Singapore).
Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra Youtube channel. Sheng demonstration videos