The art of Chinese drumming
Chinese drum instructor Ian Tan playing the Chinese drum on stage. (Photo: Martial House)

The art of Chinese drumming

Chinese drum instructor Ian Tan, 29, found his passion in traditional Chinese percussion by accident. His first loves, in fact, were the guzheng and pipa.

He started learning the guzheng when he was 7, and he picked up the pipa at age 13. It was only when he joined Chinese Orchestra at Nanyang Polytechnic that he was exposed to Chinese drums and fell in love with the instrument.

He says: “I was very fascinated by how simple drumming gestures could produce complex rhythms and sounds. Drumming also gives individuals an outlet to let loose, to express themselves and let their creativity flow.”

Soon, he switched from playing the pipa to drums in the orchestra, picking up drumming skills through lessons with the orchestra and by learning from his peers. The more he learnt about the art form, the more his eyes were opened to the fascinating world of Chinese drums; he realised that different drums were suitable for various occasions, and each drum required a change in technique.  

Another charm of Chinese drums is that they are highly narrative, he says. Drums have the power to conjure dramatic scenes in the listener’s mind – different sounds and beats can mimic rain or thunder, or evoke images of farmers ploughing the land.

Practising the art form, however, is physically demanding. To coax nuanced sounds from the drums, one needs to play with both strength and control. Setting the heavy drums up for a performance can also be tiring. But for Tan, the music of the drums makes the exhaustion worthwhile.

Since 2017, he has been playing Chinese drums part-time with a Chinese martial arts academy. He says: “Being in a drums group and being in an orchestra are unique experiences to me. Orchestras are very diverse in the range of instruments and music selections, while at the martial arts academy, we focus solely on the jie ling gu.”

Today, he continues to pursue his love for Chinese drums and also shares his love for the instrument by holding workshops, which take place at the academy and at events such as the Wan Qing Festival of Spring.

He says:  “Tradition offers us a sense of comfort and belonging and we shouldn’t forget our culture and heritage. I am proud to be able to pass on the art of Chinese drumming to future generations of Singaporeans.”

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