Before Bei Bei He can play her guzheng, she has to put on her picks. Patiently, the 32-year-old Hacienda Heights resident attaches all eight of them to her fingertips, using cloth medical tape. Each pick is tortoiseshell and quite expensive.
“One time I lost one and my mom was so angry,” she says, recalling when she first began studying guzheng in her native Szechuan province in China. “She made me look a long time to find that pick.”
The guzheng is a type of zither, a stringed instrument with a movable bridge that allows the player to pluck out notes with one hand and bend the strings with the other, creating vibrato and other effects. It's widely used in traditional and classical Chinese music but rarely heard in Western music.
Bei Bei — professionally she goes by her first name only — hopes to change that. “I definitely believe the instrument has a lot of potential outside of its classical settings.”
Watching her play an original composition called “Tiger's Heart,” written in collaboration with hip-hop/R&B producer John “Fingazz” Stary, is enough to make anyone a believer. Even without the song's original hip-hop backing track, her performance is full of swagger and drama. She strikes the strings to create a percussive effect, then finishes with an almost athletic flourish, sweeping her fingers up and down the strings in a shower of notes.
In China, Bei Bei was a child prodigy, sent off to a music conservatory in Beijing to study guzheng at the age of 12. But by her early twenties, she had given up the instrument.
“I was really good at playing but I had a problem with performing onstage,” she says. “I would get nervous and be really distracted, and I would not be able to play correctly.” After failing at a conservatory competition in 2002, she decided to quit. “That competition really crushed my confidence.”
Instead, Bei Bei decided to study sound design and engineering, moving by herself to the San Gabriel Valley to attend Azusa Pacific University. “But I did bring my guzheng … just in case.”
Her boyfriend — now her husband and manager, Marcus De La Cruz — encouraged her to play again. Busking outside the Barnes & Noble in Old Town Pasadena helped her rediscover her confidence. “Playing on the street, there's so many people looking at you, you have to have a really thick skin.”
Soon she was getting job offers from her street performances and her MySpace page, including accompanying a Chinese opera company in Orange County, recording a jazz/funk fusion album with London-based producer Shawn Lee and even playing on the soundtrack of Battlestar Galactica.
Bei Bei began teaching the guzheng, and in 2011 opened Hacienda Music in a retail space. Most of her roughly 45 students are Chinese or Vietnamese, but they are increasingly non-Asian. And she's beginning to see more professional musicians — pianists, guitarist, singer-songwriters — of all races. Which is exactly what she was hoping for.
“I'm really glad to see” such diversity in her students, she says, “because that will bring the guzheng more to the mainstream. People can see the possibilities.”
[Correction: The print version of this article describes Bei Bei as giving up the guzheng in her late teens. She was actually in her early twenties at the time.]