Meng Wu, Music Research Assistant and Musician

My mother’s father was a military official, but he was also a conductor, pianist, and violinist. For my mother’s pregnancy, he gave her some tapes of western classical music. These were imported and extremely rare in western China in the 1980s. So according to my mom, I’ve been listening to Mozart ever since I was in her belly. And that’s perhaps why I have always been interested in listening to music.

My name is Meng Wu. I was born and raised in the very western part of China, near the city of Urumqi, which is (according to the Guinness Book of Records) the most remote city to any sea in the world.

I was always top of my class in primary school and middle school – I went to one of the best universities in China, Tongji University, leaving my parents at 19 for Shanghai. I studied mechanical engineering and worked for several years in Shanghai as a sales engineer, before I decided to take a detour in my life and came to Germany to achieve a music dream. After learning German, teaching myself piano, and going to university (along with some unsuccessful but worthy attempts to become a choral conductor student in Weimar and Berlin), I finally graduated in Audio Communication and Technology, specialized in hearing and music psychology. Now, I’m working as a research assistant at the German Federal Institute for Music Research in Berlin.

Me playing piano in my dorm in Berlin, 2011

My job doesn’t really involve piano playing, so I really love to play the piano outside of my job. I’m not a professional pianist, but I do enjoy the interaction with the keys and the sounds I make. In China, there are a huge number of parents who force their children to learn the piano or other musical instruments. In my family, it was the opposite: I begged my father to buy me a piano. But our family couldn’t afford it, and he got me an accordion at last.

During my 19 years of life in Xinjiang, I only learned and played the accordion. My first contact with a piano was in Shanghai, during the rehearsal of our students’ chorus. My friend Lee was a music education student in Shanghai, and he became my first piano teacher. In Berlin, I came to know a bass recorder teacher, who also wanted to learn Chinese (so we had some exchange courses).

Graduate performance of the Students’ Choir of Tongji University, when I was the president and moderator.

I play mostly baroque, classics and romantics. I seldom play modern pieces or jazz pieces simply because of my poor technique! When it allows, I love to play any genre or style, as soon as it communicates emotions.

I think there are many people who are like me – they like to press buttons that make noises. Maybe this manoeuvre fulfills a need to feel in control: if you press the correct button, the correct note will definitely come out. It feels so safe and satisfying to play the piano, especially when you can play it well. It’s just like the joy cooking can bring you – if you have the correct ingredients (and, of course, the correct procedure), you will definitely have the correct product. In life today, not many things are so predictable.

I fell in love with the wind instrument, as it is more like singing. When you play a high and loud note, you feel that you are soaring; and playing a low and quiet note, it’s just like sighing. The air in the recorder resonates with the air in my throat – that makes my throat, my lungs and my whole body a part of the instrument, and hence part of the music. Again, it feels like I’m in control of the music.

Discussing music with my successor, Nancy, as the next president of the students’ chorus back in university.

I have many great experiences with my music, especially at a party or when the atmosphere becomes quite musical – it feels like my techniques have taken flight. I’m not a professional pianist, as I only started learning to play the piano after aged 20 (so I suck at playing from the sheet). But at parties, when friends are gathered and singing together, I play perfectly from the sheet and my hands don’t really feel like mine. It felt like someone is using my hands, and it’s always a very memorable experience.

I met one of my singing inspirations Celine Dion in July 2007 – I received an email from the website TeamCeline, saying that I won a signed photo of Celine. To claim that prize, I had to send my own picture and address, so I did. Another friend of mine in China, who was also a member of TeamCeline, ignored that email as he thought it was spam. Two weeks later, the same address sent me a second email, telling me that I won a second prize draw and would be able to fly to Las Vegas to see Celine Dion in her live show A New Day.

The Team sent me further instructions to film my everyday life in Shanghai and my love for Celine. I took the tapes with me to Las Vegas, and right before the show, they interviewed me. Surprisingly, Celine came into the room. She just came in without making any notice, and it was such a nice surprise. Her photographer took a picture of us, we talked a little bit, and I asked her to sign the program booklet. Then I went to see her concert and it was amazing. It still feels so unreal today!

Las Vegas Photo with Celine Dion

I think each music lover has been asked the same question: why do I listen to music? In my studies, the answer is clear: to receive emotions. Music communicates emotions; without emotions, music loses its meaning immediately. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, the Overlords were invited to earth’s concerts and they, as aliens who don’t have too many emotions, couldn’t understand this unproductive activity at all.

Nowadays, researchers try to measure emotions while a person listens to music. We realise that not only the sound itself can affect how we feel musical emotions, but also the brightness of the hall, the colour of lights, the look of the loudspeaker, etc. Our research at the Federal Institute for Music Research aims to better understand the human audiovisual perception modus when listening to music.

My love for music is crucial for my career. Acoustical and music technology serve the music, and music made by these technologies must communicate emotions – however they are. If one doesn’t understand the meaning of this, this career would be boring and disorientating for them. As today, sounds have become so spectacular that this could be the only difference between music and noise.

Singing in a choral concert in 2005

My advice for anyone interested in playing a new instrument is that you really need some soul-searching. Ask yourself “why do I want to play this instrument?”. You can then realize the true size of your motivation, because learning a new instrument requires a huge motivation!

In the beginning, you will only make indescribable noises, no matter how hard you try. Your fingers and your breath will certainly go out of control. They will feel like they have their own ideas. This is already frustrating enough for many beginners. Learning an instrument is not a game, but really serious – it’s like going down a funnel; only the strongest can last to the end. Playing an instrument will only begin to feel relaxing once you have thousands of hours of exercise behind you.

There is always more than tech, and it’s so important to share the creative passions of technologists. Nowadays, we can see some people are possessed with tech itself. They are keen to solve the technological details and solutions, and they falsely believe that everyone else has the same understandings. If I find it difficult to communicate with an ATM, it shouldn’t be my fault. Because tech serves life. When you understand life and people better, your tech products will be accepted by more people.

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