Our parks are alive with the sound of music
Performances in the park are common summer fare in cities across the world, but not all of them are necessarily professional productions.
In Shanghai parks, both pocket-size and expansive, local people are out displaying grassroots talent.
Musical bands formed of retirees play in Lu Xun Park, much to the delight of area residents for whom parks are often social outings.
“I come for walks every day, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group of friends,” says Qian Changbao, 71. “Old people usually have few places to go. Here is great because the air is fresh and there is space for us.”
Qian is part of a crowd of onlookers who have stopped to listen to a retirees’ band. Every weekend, locals bring stools and cameras to the park and listen to two-hour amateur concerts.
“Last week, a different band performed,” says Qian.
The conductor, himself a senior citizen, sets the tempo with an improvised baton. The musicians in front of him sit in an ersatz orchestra formation with their trombones, trumpets, saxophones, flutes, drums and other instruments.
The players may not always be in perfect harmony, but what they lack in precision they make up for in enthusiasm.
“Everyone sings out together!” a band member says as he announces the next piece.
The onlookers are only too happy to comply. The songs are often pieces of nostalgia from bygone days. Qian stands next to a tree, mouthing the lyrics inaudibly and tapping his feet silently.
“Old songs keep my spirits up,” he says. “I know some of those performers. They are very dedicated.”
It’s all music to the ears of local authorities. The Shanghai Greenery and Sanitation Bureau is trying to promote more entertainment and social activities in city parks. Chess benches, pavilions and children’s funfairs are among the attractions in various parks.
Guangchangwu, or line dancing, is popular with park-goers. At Heping Park, residents are busy doing the jiamusi, a low-impact workout line dance that takes about 30 minutes.
At 4:15pm sharp, seniors of all ages gather in a line. At the front, women wearing pink-and-white workout gear lead the group in a series of moves carried to the rhythm of a march. The participants keep the formation precise, giving the appearance of a military ensemble.
“Many who don’t dance at all are willing to join in,” says a woman in her 50s, who coordinates a session every day.
Her group is good enough to participate in district-run line dancing competitions.
On weekends, bands and singalongs dominate the atmosphere of many city parks.
“They allow microphones only on weekends,” a retiree surnamed Li explains. “We have a conductor to lead us.”
Accompanied by a small ensemble of instruments, audience members become the performers. A mighty chorus of voices fills the air for two hours.
“One of the best and largest choirs is in the Lu Xun Park because it started here,” says Li, who travels to the park every week from Baoshan District. “The conductor today isn’t so good. Earlier, we had one who was more professional.”
Amateur flutist Yang, who doesn't want to be named, sings in an opera style in the band. He retired in May.
“I am an invited guest performer today,” he explains.
Yang is a member of the Beiyulanguan community band in Hongkou District and part of an amateur band in the Hudong Workers’ Cultural Palace in Yangpu District. He says he has been playing the Western flute for about 10 years.
“It’s more adaptable to most musical genres, unlike the bamboo flute, which is restricted to playing mostly melodies,” he says.
Yang first studied the clarinet and later took up the flute.
“I always struggled with my crooked teeth and it was painful for me,” he says. “Over the years, I have had to keep adjusting my lips to overcome that.”
Besides parks, community cultural centers lend their spaces to the elderly for group practice sessions. Sometimes, the centers also fund accessories like performance costumes.
“Parks are places to find talent,” Yang explains. “It provides retirees an opportunity to showcase their skills and bring joy to people.”
Audiences are not restricted to the elderly. Many younger people are equally enamored of park performances.
Apple Qian, walking with her mother and child in the park, enthuses about how parks add a welcome dimension to daily lives.
“It’s a great place to socialize,” she says. “Why stay at home?”
Another park-goer, 30-year-old Cai Gaokui, says he loves the positive energy of the environment.
His wife adds, “I was telling my husband that we should learn to play a musical instrument now, or our retirement could be meaningless.”