Strike a Chord: Meet the Keystone Student Bands That Infuse Youthful Energy into Music
“Long time ago, our ancestors all once said something like this / Now, listen to our youth; what are they talking about? / However, you have to take a look: what on earth do you want them to do?”
The Keystone student musical group BandLee performed a poignant rendition of vocalist Luo Dayou’s “Zhī-hū-zhě-yě” (lit. “Archaism”) during the Harbor That Secret Dream folk rock and poetry night on September 25. The song captures each member’s attitude towards music, just as being in a musical ensemble brings them bliss.
In this event, three Keystone student bands and a group of student poets paid tribute to the folk singer Bob Dylan. Their performances were set against the backdrop of China's first and the world's most comprehensive exhibition of works by the American music icon.
In this feature story, we take a closer look at those bands and how they infuse youthful energy into their music.
Genre Jazz, pop
Active since 2016
Members Victor Ding (guitar), Sonic Liu (drums), Dlency Zheng (lead vocals), Ella Zhu (keyboard)
Thousands of people sang in unison with bands on the big stage of the Taihu Midi Music Festival 2019. Everyone was immersed in a musical frenzy and enjoyed a humid summer atmosphere along the banks of Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province. The Keystone student band Vitamin marked their second-ever appearance in this festival by participating in the Youth category and giving an infectious live performance that garnered cheers from the audience.
Just three years before this momentous milestone, Vitamin was known as “Echo” and its three founding members had just entered the sixth grade. They were Keystone’s pioneering student band that set the stage for students and teachers to form musical ensembles in school.
Drummer Sonic Liu, the latest addition to Vitamin, brings cheer to the band the way that founding guitarist Victor Ding infuses lightheartedness and optimism into their sessions. Ella Zhu may be reserved, but she gives life to the band with her masterful handling of the keyboard, owing to her eight-year experience of playing the classical piano. Dlency Zheng expresses the warmth of the band through her expressive vocals.
Vitamin has come a long way since their debut. Now, they have become a student band capable of performing in venues big and small. What energizes Vitamin is their “heartfelt love for music.”
So far, they have released two original songs. These were directed by Ricky, the lead vocalist and guitarist of the rock band Click#15 that rose to fame after placing fourth in the reality-variety show The Big Band in 2019. The program’s producers also invited Dlency to sing for the participating professional band Rustic.
During a month of rehearsing with this group, Dlency felt a “deep connection” that prompted her to elevate the status of her own ensemble. She introduced Vitamin to people in the program whenever there’s a chance. In the end, Rustic offered to guide to Vitamin. Dlency considers this her “biggest gain” from participating in The Big Band.
In the same year, the band was signed by Taihe Music Group to its Red Star music label. They also performed live in front of thousands of audiences in the Taihu Midi Music Festival. For such a young band, having these experiences was like being on cloud nine.
Vitamin members say they are ordinary middle schoolers, and that music spices up their otherwise busy school life. Learning remains their priority. Outside of music, every member’s world is diverse. Sonic plays football; Victor likes photography. Ella is particularly good at swimming and drawing, while Dlency is a badminton player.
Although everyone gets along well with each other, sometimes they have misunderstandings because of creative differences. “But after the quarrel, everyone is still a family,” the members emphasize. This mutual trust and sense of security have allowed them to go all the way from the sixth grade to the present.
Vitamin has entered its fifth year, during their transition period from middle to high school. Everyone cherishes their time with each other because Vitamin is not just a band—it is the best memory of their youth.
Q&A with Vitamin members
What kind of help did you get from teachers in setting up the band?
Sonic Liu: There’s a lot! I met Dlency through a KAP (Keystone Activities Program) that Mr. Mark Elshout organizes. We have participated in another KAP organized by Math teacher Mr. Gregory Barnes. His KAP on rock history is interesting because he brings everyone to classic rock album listening sessions. Mr. Barnes also provides some technical guidance. Meanwhile, Music teacher Jasmine Yang shares with us some various performance opportunities.
What’s the next big goal of Vitamin?
Ella Zhu: I hope we can release an original album before graduation!
How different is solo singing compared to singing in a band?
Dlency Zheng: The band is a team, so everyone's position is equally important. Some audiences might only value the lead singer, but I think they should see it differently. A band is “me in you” and “you in me.” Without this belief, the “life” of the band will fade away.
How did the band affect your study and personal life?
Victor Ding: As the grade level goes up, learning pressure also increases. Vitamin is a place for us to relax. When we jam and hang out, we devote ourselves entirely to the music. This makes us feel less tired. It also shows us the beauty of everything around us.
The Rolling Keystones
Genre Rock, jazz, pop
Active since 2018
Members Brady Ding (lead guitar), Andrew Li (lead vocalist), Wen Yutong (drums), Chloe Xu (guzheng), Eric Zhu (keyboards), Jamie Zheng (saxophone)
Andrew Li, Wen Yutong, and Eric Zhu first met in a KAP organized by Keystone Music teacher Mark Elshout. After a couple of sessions, the three students immediately clicked and decided to form a band. In 2018, The Rolling Keystones started to rock and roll, with Andrew in the lead vocals, Yutong in the drums, and Eric in the keyboard.
Their name, chosen by Mr. Elshout, is inspired by the rock band The Rolling Stones. Its meaning, however, carries more weight. The young musicians feel they are leaving a legacy by being part of The Rolling Keystones.
Starting from three members who mostly played rock, The Rolling Keystones has now become a well-formed band, with three new members infusing jazz and traditional Chinese folk music. Jamie Zheng is the band’s saxophonist, while Brady Ding plays the lead guitar. Chloe Xu adds the enchanting sound of the guzheng (Chinese zither). This unusual combination makes The Rolling Keystone a one-of-a-kind student band.
Their bold attempt in this musical fusion may seem strange and complicated, but actually, the members are quite fó xì (lit. “being Buddha” or a Chinese slang for “being chill” or “levelheaded”) towards music. Each member takes a turn to be the band manager and everyone listens to whoever is on duty. Through this, members understand the issues of one another and solve disagreements together. They also vote on different ways of presenting songs. Their actions reveal a harmonious relationship, allowing them to always be in their best state.
Almost every member of The Rolling Keystones can play other instruments. Vocalist Andrew began as a clarinet player, while drummer Yutong and saxophonist Jamie play the piano. Keyboardist Eric is a skilled violinist who’s also part of the Keystone Symphony Orchestra. Meanwhile, guitarist Brady is one of the Keystone Service Committee chairs, while guzheng player Chloe is also a gifted writer.
The fó xì musicians and their relaxed manner in music and academics have earned them praise and support from teachers. Mr. Elshout, who doubles as the band’s temporary bassist, and Music teacher Jasmine Xue have given them professional guidance and introduced them to numerous performance opportunities such as weekly assemblies, band exchanges, and musical competitions.
“When young musicians are brought to a stage where they can perform, they will be more motivated to improve themselves,” Ms. Xue shares. “I am helping them analyze everyone’s strengths so they can find their direction. In turn, it will make them strive harder and feel more confident, thus forming a virtuous circle.”
Just a few weeks before the Harbor That Secret Dream folk-rock and poetry night, The Rolling Keystones participated in a fundraiser event at MAO Livehouse. They delivered three songs, and much to their surprise and delight, their audience asked for more! Their encore performance moved their listeners, and even the young musicians themselves.
The Rolling Keystones is on a roll. The connections between members are getting more profound and experiences more memorable. For them, bearing the school’s name means a responsibility to pass on a legacy.
Q&A with The Rolling Keystone members
How do you balance study and band time?
Jamie Zheng: The band doesn’t pressure my study at all. It has helped me manage my time wisely and made me more efficient.
What does music mean to you?
Chloe Xu: To me, music is a “band-aid,” and a drip that brings me energy. It determines my emotions. Without music, my life will be a mess. The band has made me more cheerful, more confident, and stronger than before.
Eric Zhu: I enjoy and spend my free time through music. When the band was formed, I realized music is a bridge. Not only it connects me with my bandmates, but also with our audience and more people. Every day, I see and feel the charm of music!
What is the atmosphere in the band like?
Brady Ding: Our band is very fun, and every rehearsal is creative. Once we’re done rehearsing our repertoire, my bandmates will improvise some songs. There’s more understanding between us.
What is the difference between playing in a band and singing with an accompaniment?
Andrew Li: Having a band experience can definitely improve personal skills. It’s a kind of strong combination—and it is a process in which everyone understands and adapts to each other. When performing with a band, you consider your feelings and feel whether your approach is suitable for other members. Band members are like pieces of gear running perfectly with another, which makes a machine work well.
What’s the future of The Rolling Keystones?
Wen Yutong: We’ll graduate from Keystone one day. We hope some younger students who like music can continue rolling The Rolling Keystones!
Genre Pop, rock
Active since 2019
Members Joy Cheng (bass guitar), Yeung Liu (double keyboards), Arvin Wang (lead singer/rhythm guitar), Roy Zhao (lead guitar)
A group of students buzzes across the Keystone quadrangle, carrying their musical instruments of different sizes. Joy Cheng jokes about how she and her fellow bandmates look like wandering musicians. The group likes the idea as if they are setting out from the campus to another performance venue.
BandLee’s musical journey has just started. As a newly formed group, they are still exploring their sonic style. One can easily assume that the band’s four teenage members are into pop music. But they are old souls—and by “old” they mean they enjoy the music of the 1980s to 2000s generation. This includes the mandopop supergroup Superband, the Taiwanese rock band Wu Bai & China Blue, the heavy metal rock band Tang Dynasty, and the rock band Black Panther.
BandLee’s founding members Roy Zhao, Arvin Wang, and Li Zilei all met on the fifth floor of the East Residential Tower during their eighth grade in 2018. The youngsters instantly connected upon knowing they shared the same interest in Chinese rock music and Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop music from the 1980s to the 2000s.
The boys went on a service trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in the summer vacation of 2019. As the trip ended, the trio faced a split-up as Li Zilei transferred to a school in the United States. To commemorate their time together, they formed BandLee, named after the Taiwanese musician and Superband vocalist Jonathan Lee. The remaining duo continued BandLee and welcomed Yeung Liu as their double keyboardist and Joy Cheng as bassist.
Although Zilei is abroad, his bandmates continue communicating and rehearsing virtually with him. The quartet regularly sends their rehearsal clips to Zilei for his suggestions too. For BandLee, the band is not just a gathering of people who love music, it is also about having a deep emotional connection.
Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Arvin composes lyrics and melodies with Zilei. As a student who loves traditional Chinese culture, Andrew often thinks about adding folk music elements to their presentations. Yeung may be taciturn, but he expresses himself so well through his masterful song arranging. At the height of the pandemic in China, he composed the jubilant anthem “Hope.”
Compared to Arvin and Yeung, Joy and Roy are the “newcomers” in terms of musical experience. Both of them knew the basics of some instruments, but only began to learn the guitar properly just before BandLee started. With the help of their bandmates, Joy and Roy realize their band dreams.
In addition to rehearsals, BandLee travels together during their free time and holidays. The quartet is on the lookout for creative inspiration during the journey, as much as they are looking forward to making deeper connections with one another.
Q&A with BandLee members
What does music mean to you?
Arvin Wang: Music is an indispensable part of my life. I consider it as my energy and spiritual pillar. Music regulates my state of mind. I often relax by composing music or improvising when I feel down.
What is the most significant difference between a band and an individual performance?
Yeung Liu: Compared with individual performances, bands are a rich and layered display that incorporates multiple changes and emotions.
How do you balance study and band time?
Joy Cheng: Contrary to what others say, joining and playing in a band is not a waste of time but a process of enjoying hobbies. As long as you allocate your time well, you can do what you like. After joining the band, I cherish time more and improve my learning efficiency.
What’s your message for your bandmates?
Roy Zhao: Our lead singer and bandleader Wang Yanchu has taken on a lot of pressure. I admire his extraordinary perseverance. Yeung is a fantastic musician and a wonderful friend who patiently answers the questions I and Joy Cheng have. And for that, I am very grateful. I would also like to thank Joy. She has a lot on her plate—she’s a member of the Student Council and our basketball and volleyball teams. Despite that, she practices her part carefully before our rehearsals. She has made rapid progress!