Student sings his way to second place in Chinese language contest

Cheng Luo of the Confucius Institute helps Brock student Sam Olson ready for the Chinese Bridge competition in Toronto last month.

Cheng Luo of the Confucius Institute helps Brock student Sam Olson ready for the Chinese Bridge competition in Toronto last month.

It takes a special set of vocal chords to sing opera.

Singing opera in Mandarin Chinese, though? That might have even thrown Luciano Pavarotti for a loop.

But not Sam Olson, who showed off his pipes and his ability to speak Mandarin Chinese at the same time during the recent Chinese Bridge competition at the Chinese Consulate in Toronto.

The first year tourism and environment student sang his way to a second-place finish by performing a Peking opera number for judges of the Chinese Bridge contest, open to university students who’ve learned Chinese as a second language.

Not only is Mandarin not his mother tongue, singing opera isn’t something Olson makes a habit of doing.

But the idea struck a chord when Cheng Luo at the Confucius Institute suggested Olson try it. Luo began mentoring Olson after Reading Week in February to ready him for the contest, which also required he give a speech.

Peking opera is typically sung one to two octaves higher than one’s vocal range, and its performance requires hand movements timed to the music. Luo and Olson met weekly to practise, which helped the student hit high notes above his usual range.

“This was my first time singing Peking opera,” Olson said. “Although Luo’s training was excellent, I still couldn’t get up an octave higher, but it was high enough so it didn’t sound so bad.”

While second place is nothing short of impressive, he admits he felt a little disappointed with the results.

Olson, who just completed his first year of studies, began teaching himself Mandarin when he was in Grade 8. A trip to China a year later caused him to fall hard for the culture and people, and compelled him to stick with his language training.

But without anyone to practise with, perfecting his speech and writing skills was a challenge.

“It was hard at first but anyone can learn Mandarin. You just have to be persistent and work hard at it.”

Olson chose to participate in Chinese Bridge to keep his skills “fresh” – necessary for someone with ambitions of studying and working in China after he graduates in 2018, the same year the country is predicted to have one of the largest tourism industries in the world, and the environmental issues that go along with it. Olson plans to do his MBA or a master’s degree in international politics at Nankai University in Tianjin. In the meantime, he has big plans for next year’s Chinese Bridge competition.

“Hopefully, I’ll come in first.”

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