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24/7 Perspective

By Betsy Goolian

When the University of Michigan Symphony Band departs for China on Sunday (May 7), a trio of students in the Screen Arts and Cultures Program and two faculty advisors will board the plane as well. They will shadow the students on the tour for the three weeks they are in China, from the moment they board the plane in Detroit to the final concert in Beijing. The point? To create a documentary of the entire tour experience from the student musicians’ perspective.

How different from the 1961 tour to the Soviet Union by the same ensemble fifty years ago, under the baton of famed band conductor William D. Revelli, documented by the early-generation Instamatic cameras available at the time. Today, most students have cell phones that take photos, but for this 2011 tour, many of the musicians will be equipped with flip-style video cameras for impromptu moments.

The SAC entourage, though, will be equipped with the real deal:  three state-of-the-art cameras, lights, tripods—all the equipment required for highest-quality output. The film students are already engaged in the project right here in Ann Arbor, videotaping student musicians at rehearsals, at the Chinese culture labs offered during winter semester, at the dinner at a local Chinese restaurant where students learned both etiquette and the proper use of chopsticks, and at the monumental packing of the instruments—a complicated business of measuring and weighing and packaging valuable instruments for the long trip to the far east, no easy feat, so complex in fact that a “mock pack” was run through several weeks prior to the real one.

The SAC students will be there every minute of the trip, from dawn till dusk, sharing housing with the band members, rising at the same hour, going off to rehearsals, eating the same meals, attending the same receptions, and on the planes and trains that will take the group across the great continent to their concert dates in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Xi’an, Shengyang, Tianjin, and Beijing. The finished documentary will be cinema verité in style, a realistic capture of the experience from the student vantage point.

Once back in Ann Arbor, those miles and miles of footage will be edited and distilled for a variety of final products:  as keepsakes for the students; as videos of varying lengths for the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Confucius Institute, Center for Chinese Students, and Screen Arts and Cultures, the U-M programs participating in the tour; and as an impressive accomplishment for their own career portfolios.

The pièce de résistance, though, will be a finished documentary that the SAC students can screen to selected audiences and even submit to festivals. There’s no better experience for aspiring filmmakers than to actually get behind the camera, and this tour offers them the real-life experience that can’t be replicated in the classroom or studio.

“This project means a great deal to all of us,” says faculty advisor Chris McNamara, SAC senior lecturer and film and video artist. “For the students, it represents the first opportunity to work on such a large-scale documentary project. It’s an immense undertaking to create what we envision as a lasting document of the tour. We want this video to serve as a historical memento for all involved, but we also want it to tell the story about this symphony band at this particular moment in time.”

The three SAC students are juniors Sally Volkmann, Ben Antonio and graduating senior Bess Vennema. Accompanying them and guiding their progress will be faculty advisors McNamara and Tom Bray, converging technologies consultant at U-M’s Digital Media Commons. Although they will assist the students in conceptualizing the documentary, the finished product will be the students’ own.