Monday, March 17, 2008

Xiè-xie, Frostburg State University!!

This trip to China with FSU’s Chamber Choir has been truly transformative for everyone involved. I am very thankful I got to go on this trip and hear these students sing, especially during such an explosive moment in China’s history, when its leaders are welcoming the United States, and its cities are in a state of tremendous change and development. Our students’ voices—whether they were joking around, casually singing on a bus, quarreling before a key performance, or filling the hearts of audience members with their deep, rich harmony—threaded through everything, a compass of sound that took us all to higher ground.

For me, this higher ground is an unshakeable confidence that I can go anywhere and be a storyteller—even to the other side of the world. I traveled to a completely different country to be a part of a cultural experience that was absolutely amazing. I took a million pictures and published all of this stuff online on my own, for the sheer joy of writing about it and getting it down every night, so I could release all the inspiration I felt from being there.

And then there’s this whole other major part of what this experience was about–I can’t even begin to explain it–it’s like these faculty and students have accomplished something akin to the ping pong diplomacy of the 1970s. They journeyed to a part of the globe very different from their own and opened their hearts. They gave themselves through song many times over, made friends with so many people we met there, embraced China’s idiosyncrasies. They heard China’s own song of greatness and became inspired by it.

The last night we were in Changsha, our friends at Hunan Normal University treated us to a farewell banquet. To say goodbye, the students sang “Usuli Boat Song” one last time. As the words came together during that final moment and their voices filled the room during our last meal we would share together in China, we all knew it was the ending of something life-changing—that experience of growing together as a group, of seeing things for the first time and embracing challenges—musical, personal, cultural. Many of us were crying—I felt tears running down my face while I snapped pictures, and had to stop and wipe them away.

Thank you, Frostburg State University, for giving us this time together in China. Many thanks especially to the administration and to all the people there who worked so hard to make this trip possible—Hank Bullamore, Bill Mandicott, John Bowman, Karen Soderberg Sarnaker, Jonathan Gibralter, Hongqi Li, Yanling Fan and the many others at FSU who helped this come together. This is the type of education our students need to truly understand who they are and how they will be a part of this world.

Our deepest appreciation is also extended to all of the great people in China who made our trip so special through their friendship and assistance– Lily, Susan, Ashley, Alex, Martin, Manshu, Jennie, all the students, faculty, staff and government officials we met at Beijing Chaoyang Xinghe Primary School, Hunan Normal University and Hunan City University. We hope to see you all again very soon—whether it is here in Maryland or in China again. Zài jiàn!

The Hunan Normal University performance drew more than 400 people!

Lost—and Found—in Translation

So music might be an international form of communication, but what little things have to happen along the way to facilitate this type of experience? Before our Chamber Choir arrived in China, they spent at least 5 days during their rigorous January rehearsals mastering the pronunciation of Chinese words in “Usuli Boat Song” with the help of FSU instructor Yanling Fan. You could sense that kind of effort every time the Choir performed this timeless Chinese folk song in China, where audiences nodded in pleased recognition, sang with them and came up after their performance to compliment the students on doing so well in their delivery.

Our friends at Hunan Normal University also made an effort to help us convey our music to Chinese audiences. Our translator and the concert’s MC took the time to listen to the students as they rehearsed their program. The MC asked our guide a few questions in Chinese and took notes in the margins of a prepared progam so she could really express the songs’ meanings to the audience at the later evening performance. At Hunan City University, the Choir sang on a stage flanked by giant, electronic marquees featuring both the English and Chinese name of each selection that was performed.

There were lots of other little things that added up to help us feel at home in China and encourage our Choir to sing their hearts out – the welcoming receptions prior to our school performances, the students who came rushing up on stage as soon as the Choir’s concerts were over to talk to our singers and take pictures. We also all really appreciated the fact that Hunan Normal University students accompanied our guides on many of our sightseeing excursions and even took an afternoon to pair off with FSU students to get to know them better, exchange contact info for future correspondence and just generally learn from each other.

As for me, well, as soon as I heard I was going to China, I read tons of books and listened to Mandarin CDs at work so I could retain a few handy phrases for future conversations while I was there. John, Karen, Mark and I also came equipped with business cards featuring both English and Chinese text, which we handed out to all the great people we met.

All in all, we came to China with the intent and enthusiasm to really connect with and communicate with its people, and I’m so glad we did, because it made the trip that much more meaningful and helped our music to be heard in the most personal way possible.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

In Tune/Tuned In

In Beijing, the sense of change is intoxicating—the Lite Brite nights, with their pulsing signs and people, the ever-changing skyline with its creative, hodgepodge architecture. All these things make it feel like a place where anything is possible if you can take a deep breath—despite the smog and the arid climate—and jump into whatever adventure comes your way.

By contrast, Changsha is literally—and figuratively—a breath of fresh air, but a deep one, one you draw in when you want to center yourself and figure out your next step carefully and with purpose. FSU’s Chamber Choir embraced this steadying calm during a tour of the Hunan Normal University campus. We had arrived in Changsha the night before at midnight after a marathon day of performing and travel, and now we awoke ready to stop, look and listen.

The listening came during a moment of the tour when we ran into three smiling Hunan Normal University students who greeted us in one of the school’s pretty stone buildings. It was an easy moment of friendly curiosity between our students and theirs, a welcome change to yesterday’s excitement in a somewhat unfamiliar setting. Here in Hunan, we were surrounded by lush greenery not unlike our own familiar mountainside in Western Maryland. And the air was cool and damp and easy to take in, as was the warmth of strangers. Suddenly the Choir students formed a circle around the three Hunan students and decided to offer them their own greeting. “Black is the color of my true love’s hair …” they began.

Surrounded by song, Hunan Normal’s own students settled into the joy of hearing something new and that early bloom of friendship that is possible when you feel something with someone you’ve only just met. At the end of the song, they were full of appreciation for our students’ talent.

I asked Jesse, one of our students about that exchange later, while we were walking back to the bus.

“Some of us like singing in the circle because its more personal to us that way … we feel like we’re really giving them something,” she said.

Her thoughts made me think about the physical presence of song, too—what it’s like to have sound coming at you from all angles, embraced by voices.

Later that day, we had a delicious lunch at the University with several of their key administrators and faculty. It was a lot of fun talking to them and realizing that our schools’ similarities are quite strong—Hunan Normal is also working on various sustainability initiatives and environmental research, and began as a teacher’s institution. That, along with a chance to sample Changsha’s spicy cuisine full of new flavors, left us all feeling rejuvenated and connected to one another and to all the possibilities that might be simmering in the months ahead between our two institutions.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another Dragon Lady? : )

Ashley, our guide, insisted I put down the camera and stop working for a second so I could document my time at the Summer Palace. Here is the pic he took of me. Thanks, Ashley.
Posted by Picasa

A lovely singer at the Primary School performance

Posted by Picasa

Primary students gave us construction paper collages

Posted by Picasa