Music: A Language Unto Itself

by Rachael Warecki '08

Xiamen Civic Theatre

On a stiflingly hot day last summer in China, Scripps music professors Rachel Vetter Huang and Gayle Blankenburg sat in a classroom, surrounded by Xiamen University undergraduate music students who listened avidly as they played a piece—twice. The first time, Vetter Huang and Blankenburg played only what was on the score. With no sign of emotion, they played as the Xiamen students had been taught to play, interpreting the sheet music as literally as possible. The second time through, the professors used body language, tonal nuance, and expressive phrasing to add the personal flair common to many Western classical music performances—a technique that the Chinese students knew of but had not attempted in their own study of Western music.

“We finished playing the passage and looked around and there were probably 40 dropped jaws,” said Blankenburg.

The lesson was one of many that Xiamen students received from the six faculty members of the Scripps College Music Department who had traveled to the university as part of a cultural exchange program. Over the course of two weeks, Professors Hao Huang, Rachel Vetter Huang, Cándida Jáquez, Charles Kamm, Gayle Blankenburg, and Michael Deane Lamkin introduced Xiamen students to Western music, all the while overcoming the issues of culture shock and language barriers.

“I was astounded at the enthusiasm [the students] displayed for Western music, a culture that is really not their own,” Blankenburg said. “Music is a language to deal with in itself.”

When explaining the Western classical concept of interactive music making, Blankenburg used the cross-cultural example of basketball. She explained that, just like a musical group, every player on a basketball court needs to know the location of her teammates. The Xiamen students learned to respond to each other’s rhythms and volume contrasts in ways that were not indicated in the score. They discovered they could go beyond the notes on the page and were excited to learn how awareness of individual emotional response while playing could change the experience of a musical work.

Blankenburg said that it was phenomenal to see the eagerness with which the students grasped this core musical idea: “It reminded me that we really didn’t have a communications barrier at all.”

The project started as an individual invitation to Hao Huang by Dean Su Li of the Arts College in Xiamen Unversity, when Su led a visiting delegation to The Claremont Colleges, in 2006. The Xiamen delegation gave several lectures at the Athenaeum at CMC and performed a program of Chinese music at Balch Auditorium. The Scripps president also formally hosted a College dinner in their honor.

“This created such good feeling that I was approached to come as visiting faculty,” said Huang.

But Huang believed a different type of faculty exchange would be more beneficial to both colleges, and so he proposed a series of collaborative recitals designed to foster a more in-depth understanding of music.

“It turned out Xiamen music students were truly hungry to interact with us,” Huang said. “As a delegation, we all brought different strengths and foci to teaching and learning.”

Bringing Huang’s proposal to fruition was easier said than done.  Emails went unanswered and there were many delays and complications in scheduling rehearsals. Musical scores sent to Xiamen were initially lost and then found again, and,to compound other difficulties, Su Li suffered a serious car accident two months before the delegation was due to arrive.  Huang worried that his most cherished concept—working together with Xiamen University musicians—was in jeopardy.  But within a week, Xiamen organizers had found the missing scores, established a preliminary concert schedule, and arranged military drivers to meet the Scripps faculty at exact times and places. The delegation was ready to go.

For some faculty members, the Xiamen trip marked their first visit to Asia after a lifetime of images of Chinese communism and repression.

“I’m in my fifties and grew up during a time when the idea of an American visiting China was simply out of the question,” said Blankenburg. “I also vividly remember the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and watched television in horror as the Chinese military bore down on student protesters. It was so incredibly remarkable, then, to stay in a military-owned hotel in Xiamen that was right next to the university.”

The program marked what Lamkin described as an “interesting time” for a country that has, in the past, relatively secluded itself from world affairs.

“China has had historic connections with the United States in many ways,” Lamkin said. “The people of China have always been interested in positive relations with America, so this is a critical time in East-West relations.”

Huang believes his colleagues have made significant strides in solidifying a connection with Xiamen. Although he was worried that the various obstacles would dishearten the group, he instead found that the hardships brought out the best in everyone.

“I was inspired to see my colleagues meet every logistical challenge with grace and dignity and to give unstintingly of themselves as professors and artists,” Huang said. “We were left with a newfound regard and respect not only for the people we got to work with but also for each other.”

When the professors arrived at Xiamen University, their days were packed. A typical day began with Chinese student interpreters meeting the faculty at their hotel and ended with student-teacher dinners. In between, the professors taught:  Blankenburg coached two student chamber music ensembles, rehearsed and performed with a student clarinetist and a student flutist, gave piano lessons, and, with Vetter Huang, taught many piano and chamber music master classes. Jáquez instructed students in traditional mariachi music. Lamkin and Huang worked with the Civic Orchestra of Xiamen while students observed, and Kamm taught a Chinese choir how to sing American folk songs. Every student was eager for instruction.

“The classical Western music program at Xiamen is thriving,” said Vetter Huang.  “There were many, many students superbly capable on their instruments. The learning curve was vertical. That was a thrilling thing to see in terms of their talent.”

At first, however, the Xiamen students didn’t necessarily know what to make of the six American professors.

“I suspect they were not used to faculty members with quite the sense of humor we all displayed,” said Blankenburg.  “There was a cellist in one of the chamber music ensembles I coached who whispered to a friend at dinner that she had never actually seen a foreigner before except on television, and she wondered if they were all this crazy.”

“There was a comment at the first dinner that we all had ‘strong personalities,’” said Jáquez. “But the students wanted to know and to discuss everything. In a way, it had become a reversal of the role I had taken in teaching mariachi classes.”

The bond between students and professors quickly grew as musical and cultural knowledge was exchanged. For the first time, Xiamen students played mariachi music, chamber music, and Western-style choral music, and the Scripps faculty found the students’ enthusiasm for these new styles impressive.

Jáquez was especially impressed by the Xiamen students’ affinity for the mariachi tradition. Although mariachi music has been previously practiced in Asia, it had never found its way to Xiamen University until Jáquez arrived. However, the students instantly understood the style’s concepts and wanted to be involved—right down to the pianist, who insisted on joining in despite the fact that there typically are no piano players in a mariachi band.

“To [the students], the idea of traditional music actually meant something,” Jáquez said. “In that particular part of the world, they had music as a part of their program. Mariachi fit into that structure of music, and immediately they understood the oral tradition and the story that was being told.”

Vetter Huang had originally questioned the value the professors would bring to already superb musicians. She thought, “Well, we’ll certainly have a wonderful time and we’ll make wonderful connections and learn wonderful things, but just how necessary are we to communicate performance practice techniques when they have recordings?”

When the professors arrived, Vetter Huang found that her misgivings were unfounded: recordings were not enough; students still needed the benefits of face-to-face, personal instruction. “I kept finding this so thrilling in a world where recordings are everywhere,” she said.

Although Lamkin had more contact with the City Orchestra of Xiamen than he did with the students, he, too, found the Xiamen students, faculty, and orchestra “receptive” to the finesse of timing and volume control and the experience “professionally enlivening.”

The orchestra had selected a composition by Xiamen University Professor Zhaozi Du, which was a new piece for both the orchestra and Lamkin, so Lamkin worked with Xiamen Professors Wang and Deng to perfect the orchestra’s performance. He found that they exhibited the highest quality of musicianship and responded well to his suggestions and comments, providing a nice, easy, cooperative exchange of ideas. “We all learned something,” Lamkin said.

By the end of their two-week stay, both the Xiamen students and Scripps faculty members had shared some unusual cross-cultural experiences: Kamm conducted a choir performance at which previously unseen choir members had appeared, wanting to sing. Blankenburg accomplished the unusual feat of eating cake with chopsticks when her students surprised her on her birthday.

At the formal farewell dinner, in keeping with the Chinese custom—and the theme of the delegation’s trip—students and faculty shared songs over the meal, culminating in Lamkin’s choreographed performance of the Hokey-Pokey.

When it came time for the Scripps faculty to return to the United States, several of the Xiamen students cried.

“It’s all going to come down to people needing people,” said Vetter Huang. “I was astounded and thrilled.”

The experience not only fostered personal growth, but also set the stage for what could be a long-lasting educational and intercultural exchange.

“[Xiamen University] hopes to establish a permanent visiting program with the Scripps Music Department and has already extended official letters of appointment to several faculty,” said Huang. “We completed a significant, multi-faculty project which promotes institutional cultural exchange and teaching, thereby showcasing Scripps College on the international stage.”

Huang and Lamkin hope that the faculty visit to Xiamen will eventually lead to similar summer programs for Scripps students. Huang envisions a partnership that would extend beyond the Xiamen School of Arts to the College of Economics and many other departments. The university has a special six-week term for students with summer projects—in fact, the Scripps faculty’s visit was part of the Xiamen project for the summer of 2007.

“It’s obvious what the connection could provide for Scripps,” Lamkin said. “Our students don’t have access to lots of different kinds of Chinese folk music, and we hope it will be possible to arrange for Xiamen faculty to come here.  Xiamen University is interested in making connections with other departments as well. They’re interested in what we can bring to their students and vice versa.”

The College’s Strategic Plan counts globalization as one of its tenets. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, one way Scripps aims to prepare students for that world is with student and faculty exchange programs such as the one the music professors experienced last June.

“A long-term relationship was begun this summer,” said Lamkin. “We’re becoming more aware of what is going on in the world, and this addresses directly the Strategic Plan of the College.”



« »