The erhu is one of the most important Chinese instruments, with a history of over 4,000 years. Though it has only two strings, it can convey a wide range of emotions.
While the erhu has been called the “Chinese violin,” it differs from the western instrument in many ways. First, it is played vertically, often resting on the musician's lap. It has no fingerboard, so the player's fingers must hold and vibrate the strings by pressing only against the strings themselves. The erhu bow is already fixed between the two strings, and the bow hair is either pushed forward or backward to catch a string. The music resonates from the instrument’s wooden drum, which acts as a natural amplifier. Intonation is one of the instrument’s greatest challenges, as different positions and degrees of pressure can dramatically change the free-floating strings’ pitch.
The erhu is incredibly expressive, capable of imitating sounds from chirping birds to neighing horses. An alto instrument with a middle-high musical range, its melodies can be tender or sonorous. In its lowest and middle range, the erhu is especially stirring and somber, a quality eminently suitable for conveying the grand pageant of China’s history and the emotions of its people.
The thick, burnt scent of roasted coffee tickled the tip of my nose just seconds before the old, faithful alarm blared a distorted top-forty through its tiny top speaker. Wiping away the grit of last night's sleep, the starch white sunlight blinded me momentarily as I slung my arm like an elephant trunk along the top of the alarm, searching for the snooze button. While stretching hands and feet to the four posts of my bed, my eyes opened after several watery blinks. I crawled out of the comforter, edging awkwardly like a butterfly from a cocoon, swinging my legs over the side of the bed. The dusty pebbles on the chilled, wood floor sent ripples spiraling from my ankles to the nape of my neck when my feet hit the floor. Grabbing the apricot, terri-cloth robe, recently bathed in fabric softener and October wind, I knotted it tightly at my waist like a prestigious coat of armor and headed downstairs to battle the morning.
Billy Ray's Pawn Shop and Lawn Mower Repair looked like a burial ground for country auction rejects. The blazing, red, diesel fuel tanks beamed in front of the station, looking like cheap lipstick against the pallid, wrinkled texture of the parking lot sand. The yard, not much larger than the end zone at General G. Patton High School on the north end of town, was framed with a rusted metallic hedge of lawn mowers, banana seat bicycles, and corroded oil drums. It wasn't a calico frame of rusted parts, but rather an orchestra of unwanted machinery that Billy Ray had arranged into sections. The yellow-tanked mowers rested silently at the right of the diesel fuel. Once red, now faded orange, mowers stood at attention to the left. The oil barrels, jaded and pierced with holes, bellared like chimes when the wind was right. The bikes rested sporadically throughout the lot. In the middle of it all was the office, a faded, steel roof supported by cheap two-by-fours and zebra paneling. Billy Ray was at home, usually, five blocks east of town on Kennel Road.