Gu Ya and students enjoy singing together in a field.
In 1965, the world came alive to The Sound of Music, an American musical by Robert Wise, featuring the unforgettable governess Maria, who brought love and hope to seven children through music.
This magical musical was repeated at Haiga Primary School in Liupanshui, southwest China’s Guizhou Province, where Gu Ya, a young teacher, helps children in mountainous areas learn to read music, play instruments, and form bands, opening up new horizons for the young future stars.
An Old Guitar, a New Life
Located at a soaring 2,600 meters above sea level in Haiga village, the school is the highest place of learning in Guizhou. In September 2016, Gu Ya, a then 27-year-old rock singer, arrived there after obtaining certification as a teacher.
“When I got there, I was overwhelmed. The school was shabby and there were only a dozen students. The kids were too shy to look at me in the eyes, and were more introverted than those in the city,” he said.
Gu gradually realized that these children led a solitary existence and were unsociable, as their parents mostly worked in other regions. “The day I arrived, Zheng Long, the principal of the school, told me that we had to pay close attention to not only the children’s studies and lives, but also their mental state, helping them learn to dream and be more confident,” he said. The principal hoped that new teachers would inject new enthusiasm into the school.
One day, Gu was playing guitar during lunch break in the dormitory. Looking up, he noticed that the children, hiding behind the door, were watching him wide-eyed with their gaze fixed on his guitar. At that moment, Gu felt like he was making a connection with his young students, so the idea came to him to teach them guitar and music. “I specialize in music education and I know the power of music. I don’t know children very well, but music can build mutual understanding and trust,” he said.
The school’s principal and teachers borrowed guitars wherever they could so that the children could learn music. “The children learn very quickly. Their parents and grandparents didn’t understand at first, but their attitudes soon changed. Now they accompany the little ones to school after finishing their homework to play their instruments,” he said, adding, “It was the old guitar that brought new life to Haiga Primary School.”
Students of Haiga Primary School practicing guitar during their lunch break.
Sowing the Seeds of Music
Soon the few guitars borrowed no longer met the growing demand of the children. Gu posted videos showing children learning to play the guitar, and asked for help on social media. Many of his online followers were touched by what they saw and the school began to receive drums, acoustic and electric guitars, as well as ukuleles. There are currently more than 200 instruments at the school. Among the donors, Zheng Chuanjiu, a deputy to the National People’s Congress and the general manager of Zunyi Shenqu Musical Instruments Manufacturing, donated nearly 100 guitars to the school.
“I worked to earn a living when I was very young due to poverty, and seeing that the teachers and children had such high hopes and needs, I sent them guitars as quickly as I could,” said Zheng Chuanjiu. Echoing Gu’s sentiments, he hopes to plant the seeds of music and dreams so the children can become the best versions of themselves.
Gu adapts his teaching to the age of the children. Students in grade one and two learn ukulele and guitar, and students in grade three and four learn drums or bass guitar. During school recess or at noon, beautiful melodies can often be heard at the school. Gu also often visits children’s homes after classes or during the weekend, to give instrument or music theory lessons. The children’s love for music has left a deep impression on him.
In 2018, the school formed its first rock band called Yu (Meeting), a name that changes each year as the senior students leave and new ones join in. This year, the school has its fourth rock band, Haiga Shaonian (Youth of Haiga), with students of grade five and six who have a good understanding of music and play their instruments well as its members. They are very proud to be selected.
To Zheng Long’s surprise, many children who learn to play music scored better in exams. “Music brings them a part of their dream. To achieve this, they are redoubling their efforts,” he said, adding that the school has seen the student number swell in recent years, currently accommodating more than 80 students.
Gu Ya is teaching a student how to play drums.
Flying on Musical Wings
Gu also teaches Chinese, English, and sports, and has become the children’s confidant.
“Thanks to Mr. Gu, I was able to learn bass and become a member of the rock band. I left the mountain and traveled on a plane and in a high-speed train for the first time. I saw the sea and met a lot of people. I will make more effort to achieve my dream and wish to become a person like Mr. Gu and bring change and joy to others,” one child wrote in a school essay. Gu said he was very moved after reading these words, saying that he wanted to help more children step out the mountains.
By the end of 2020, Haiga, like other villages in the country, had lifted itself out of poverty. Gu and the children composed a song called Haiga Song to commemorate this historic turning point. This song became popular among the children of the village. Very quickly, everyone learned to sing it.
On August 19, 2020, the short video platform Douyin organized a concert for Gu and Haiga’s schoolchildren. More than 1.42 million people saw this concert online. “Thanks to the concert, more people know these children and help them. Today, they have a rehearsal room and a room for their instruments,” he said.
On August 18, 2022, Gu and the rock band Haiga Shaonian participated in a Hunan TV show. They told their story and received thunderous applause. “In the future, we will pursue our dreams on the wings of music,” said Gu.