by Truong Phong
|Rural rhythm: Nguyen Thi Thanh Vien's female music group won second prize at the Music Festival in Thai Binh Province in 2012. — Photo tuoitre.vn
(VNS) Thai Binh Province has been known for centuries as the homeland of abundant rice fields and the sedge mat weaving craft. But not many people know that it is also home to amateur but talented groups of women who play the clarinet and saxophone in local orchestras whenever they have free time.
If you go to Thai Binh, don't hesitate to ask local people about these groups. They will tell you where they live and how the amateur artists entertain the community with their music. Each district in the province has at least one group, and Quynh Phu District is home to four. According to unofficial statistics, there are 30 female groups operating in the province.
"Wherever you see a church, you can be sure there's a group of female musicians stationed nearby," says a local inhabitant.
Why is the group often related to a church? The reason is simple: They often play during church ceremonies alongside male groups. And in Thai Binh, a parish can be found in every two or three villages. The groups are also invited to play at weddings, funerals, festivals and other special occasions.
Bui Thi Nhan has been a member of the Quynh Nang group for four years. No one thinks that this forty-two-year-old is a musician because she looks like a true farmer. Her face is traced with wrinkles, making her look older than she is.
Even though she's busy caring for her three children whilst trying to run the farm, she takes advantage of her free time to join the orchestra.
"There are days when I am very busy: Early in the morning, I leave for the paddy fields and don't return until mid-day to cook lunch. After that, I have no time for music practice," she explains.
Nhan is not an exception. Twenty other women who play in her group also have daily responsibilities to take care of.
Luan is the 38-year-old conductor of Nhan's band. Luan sells clothes at the market and has a big clothes shop. It doesn't prevent her from nurturing a great passion for clarinets and saxophones. She often finishes early at her shop and rushes to local festivals to play with her friends.
"A few months after I gave birth to my third child, I missed the orchestra so much that I even brought my baby to practice," says Luan.
In Hung Ha District, the My Dinh female group (in Van Cam Commune) has become quite famous after winning second prize at the 2012 Thai Binh Wind Instruments festival.
Conductor Nguyen Thi Thanh Vien says that her group was only founded a year ago. Despite a busy daily life, she and other members are passionate artists. Vien herself cultivates 1,000sq.m of rice all year around while raising a herd of pigs.
"As soon as we finish our work on the field, we are eager to continue with our passion for music. It makes us happy."
Climbing the elevator and getting the grey suitcase down from the mezzanine, Nhan opens the suitcase and takes her saxophone out to clean. In order to buy this instrument, she had to sell hundreds of tonnes of rice.
"Caring for the saxophone is like looking after a small child. If you drop its, it's difficult to fix! "
For these women, the instruments are precious due to their high price. Once they've finished playing, the instruments are cleaned carefully before being returned to the safety of their cases, away from prying young hands.
Her saxophone is the cheapest in the group, but still cost VND2 million (US$100). According to Nhan, an expensive saxophone can cost up to ten million dong.
Members of Nhan's group spent VND140 million to buy saxophones and clarinets, while members of Vien's group paid up to VND190 million. The costumes are also expensive, according to Vien.
"Each costume can be worth VND1 million," said Vien."This music ‘career' requires large investment in more ways than one."
However, the costs are not limited to the purchase of instruments and costumes. In order to master the techniques needed to play melodies in the church orchestra, members of the group have to follow lessons teachers from the National Academy of Music. According to Luyen, her group has to pay a teacher VND1 million for a lesson.
"Once someone starts to learn an instrument, they fall in love with it. I've seen many pregnant women or women who've just had babies continue with classes and performances," says Luyen.
"We never accept unmarried women in our group because we are afraid that they will give up once they get married," she said.
Female groups have been invited to perform in other provinces including Quang Ninh, Hai Phong, Hung Yen, and Hai Duong. They also compete with male groups at local music festivals.
Female groups are often invited to perform ahead of male groups because many people find their music purer and sweeter.
"When we visited Nam Dinh, local women spoke scornfully of us, saying that women who blow out their checks to play the saxophone lose their femininity and grace. But when they saw us in our costumes and heard our beautiful melodies, they changed their minds, praised us," Vien adds. — VNS