Teaching Foreigners to Play Guzheng

Teaching Foreigners Guzheng Cover.jpg

Teaching Foreigners to Play Guzheng

ISBN: 978-7539649269 - may or may not come with the DVD advertised.

Domestic Price: ¥28. International Price: ~$10-20 USD

170 Pages, 8.5”x11”.

2014 Printing. Reviewed January 2019.


Teaching Foreigners to Play Guzheng is an English-only book written by Yao Ningxin when she was an Associate Professor of Guzheng at Beijing Opera Art’s College. It is an earnest and heartfelt effort to teach people who already know some music but who are unfamiliar with Chinese characters or cypher notation to play the Guzheng. All of the music is written in western Flag and Staff notation. It sets a fast pace for learning new techniques and contains fantastic information. It unfortunately suffers from frequent grammatical errors and odd word choices. While it’s generally low price tag of about $10 before shipping makes it an affordable choice, it is not well suited for the absolute beginner.

Teaching Foreigners to Play Guzheng expects the reader to be fluent in reading western music and to either have musical instrument experience or at the very least, excellent fine motor skills. This book does not take the time to develop the fine motor skills needed to play. Instead, it tells you how to apply those skills. Existing harp and perhaps zither players should be able to transfer their skills without too much problem but the rest of us, even those skilled with stringed instruments, probably have not developed the muscles and coordination needed for guzheng techniques. This means that we will struggle while we use the book. This can lead to frustration as you spend a long time staring at the same etude and the same 20 measures day after day.

If you are an absolute beginner, I recommend either playing through this book with a real life teacher or using this book in conjunction with a Chinese-language set of practice pieces. That way you can use Teaching Foreigners to provide English-language guidance and the Chinese book to develop your techniques.

All that said I am impressed by the inclusion of full-length tuning diagrams for each key, the key change diagrams, and the paragraph-long explanations for each technique and each etude. I just wish it took things a little slower. Read on for more details and my very biased final note.


1 Page each (about)

  • Historical summary

  • Parts of the instrument

  • Tape and nail introduction

  • String changing

  • Basic instrument care

  • Solfege tuning diagram

  • Key diagrams for d, g, c, a, e, b flat, and f.

  • Key switching table

Several Pages Each:

  • Posture overview

  • Technique summary table.

And the music:

  • 36 explanations of techniques ranging from one to two paragraphs in length with some pictures.

  • 30 Etudes or practice pieces for different techniques.

  • Instructions for each etude adding context and guidance, typically 1-2 paragraphs in length.

  • 17 Songs ranging from 50 to over 100 measures in length. One even clocks in at 250.

  • Instructions and context for each song, a few of which are as long as two pages.

Review of Content

Technique Explanations

The explanations get very technical very quickly, with references to the metacarpal joint acting as an axis and the unification of dynamics and tone color. Add to that the odd word choices and grammatical issues and the text can be hard to follow. The information is good but it takes time to understand. Readers could get a lot out of reading these explanations alongside a teacher so that you can connect the technical terms with the real world actions. Photos are provided but at least in the printing I received, are dark and details are hard to distinguish. IF your copy comes with a DVD you can watch the videos for additional help. My copy did not.


The etudes feel more like a checklist summary of every technique in the book rather than an instructional course. Every etude introduces at least one technique, with the goal of fitting ~36 techniques within 30 etudes. The instructions with each etude are fantastic, but that pace leads to a problem - you can’t tell if you’ve learned a technique well or just memorized the particular etude. One philosophy of education holds that you should give a student different patterns of exercises that all rely on the same technique. In that way the student learns both the technique and how to apply it in different circumstances. This book does not do so.

The introduction of a new technique in every etude sets a very fast pace. Etude 1 alternates thumb and middle finger, Etude 2 and 3 plays thumb and middle finger at the same time. Etude 4 uses index and thumb. Etude 5 through 8 use different combinations of thumb, index, and middle. Compare that to an absolute beginner book from China that I have where the first 8 “etudes” use only thumb and middle finger.


As I am not fond of reading western music notation I can only give my overall impressions. At first the pieces appeared incredibly complex. As I read through them though I realized that they are relatively simplified versions of more complex songs, increasing the chance that someone learning off of this book could actually play them. See my final note for some issues I have more generally.

The Song explanations or “introductions” as they are called (even though they are placed after the songs) add a welcome flavor to the text and may help you better capture the feel or intent of the music.

My Opinion

This is a very useful book for a musically educated western audience. I am not part of that intended audience and therefore don’t get as much as I otherwise could. That does not diminish the book’s value, nor the great respect I have for the author for creating this resource. It only means that it is not the best fit for me, personally. Some reading this may find it to be exactly what they are looking for.

What prevents me from getting the full value is two fold. The book uses western music notation instead of cypher notation, and there are no Chinese characters anywhere inside.

That I have a problem with the first fact is my own fault. I do not read western music very well. It’s a struggle I would rather separate from my guzheng studies. What’s kind of funny is that the opposite may well be true for you - if you already read western sheet music, having a book like this could be wonderful. I can already say that my inability to read western sheet music meant I had to turn down the purchase of an incredible song book of 300 guzheng pieces from all around China - because it was written entirely in staves.

My second barrier is again my own perspective. For western readers, Chinese characters are intimidating at worst and very hard to keep track of at best. Leaving them out is the right call here; this book is intended to spread guzheng to people while removing the need to understand Chinese. For me though, characters are crucial for cross referencing information and sorting out strange translations. Songs and technique names, especially, would be wonderful to have. But then, that need of mine is rather particular to the running of this site; most people would be just fine without Chinese.

So again, the book is a valuable resource for people who are comfortable with Western music notation and are not familiar with Chinese characters.

All that said, the descriptions and coverage of the musical pieces inside the book are wonderful. They add so much context. The practice etudes contain extra information on the sequences and techniques you will be practicing and the full songs include some cultural background and guidance on the feel of the music.

Final Note

I would be remiss if I did not mention some issues I had with the physical characteristics of the book itself. One, the printing I received was of low quality. The paper was more newsprint than glossy magazine, the back cover tore easily, and it looks like the printer had technical problems. Black smudges and speckles are smeared throughout the book. Two, I did not receive a DVD so I cannot speak to the quality of the information that may be on it. This was purchased for me as a gift, but the buyer was under the impression they were purchasing the DVD as well, as have other online reviewers who were upset to be without the DVD. Three, the grammar and word choice is strange enough to be confusing. This will vary based on your personal comfort with non-standard English. I mention these issues at the end because the information in the book holds its value regardless, and since there are so few professionally written resources in English I don’t want to be too harsh. I would love to see this reprinted on high-quality stock with copy updated by a native-English speaker.

One last thing: It is my opinion, not a fact, not a formal statement, just one person’s opinion, that the guzheng should not be taught in western staff notation. I am heavily biased; I learned cypher notation first. But be that as it may, you MUST have excellent musical score reading ability to make progress through these songs. If you do not it will be very hard. Not impossible, but difficult. There is extensive mental effort that has to take place to go from diatonic staff music to a pentatonic instrument. Adjacent notes on a staff are not adjacent on the instrument. Further, the technique symbols clutter the notes, leading to some very busy, often confusing diagrams that make the songs harder to understand. Piano players will have an extra struggle in that the bass clef is not the left hand. Both hands play anywhere on the instrument.

Anyways, that’s my opinion. If you find value in this, go for it! But if you are an absolute beginner with no musical experience, I highly recommend picking a book that sets a slower pace and teaches in cypher notation.

ReviewJ BMusic BookComment