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Musical ambassadors

By Jonathan Hulting-Cohen

The current University of Michigan administration has been engaged in creating cultural and educational ties with China since President Mary Sue Coleman took her first delegation to the country in 2005. This year the administrative standard-bearers will be joined by an eager cast of student musicians who are striving for the level of musical and professional excellence expected of the University’s prestigious band program. The U-M Symphony Band is in the midst of planning and preparing for its own cultural ambassadorship, a concert tour of China in May.

Michael Haithcock (photo right), director of bands, and the tour administrative team have set up a series of cultural laboratory sessions, offered throughout winter semester andrequired of all tour participants, both to give the band the socio-political context for its trip and to reinforce the expectation of personal growth.

Each ninety-minute lab has two parts:  a language and culture lesson by the three Chinese band members who will tour with the group and a presentation by an expert renowned in each of the fields covered. We have had sessions on such important topics as “Understanding Traditional Chinese Art,” “Understanding Traditional Chinese Cultural Mores and Customs,” and overviews of the cities we will be visiting:  Hangzhou, Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenyang, Beijing and Tianjin.

Those classes have shown us the significance of our tour in terms of the realities of 21st-century economics, the growing influence of China on world politics, and the role of the University of Michigan at the vanguard of academic collaboration with China. It has also made us aware of our role as musical ambassadors, not only of the United States but also of our Western symphonic band tradition that has only recently begun to take hold in China. We have been made to understand that we have both an extraordinary opportunity and a great responsibility to favorably represent our nation and our musical heritage.

But this cultural context has been put in further perspective. During the first lab session, the band had the opportunity to hear Professor Donald Sinta reflect on his experience as band member and featured soloist on the U-M Symphony Band’s 1961 historic concert tour behind the Iron Curtain.

However great our politico-economic ties to China today, the 1961 band performed during the incredibly tense political climate that was the Cold War. The U.S. State Department was largely responsible for the tour; its close involvement is testament to the precariousness of the international situation and the importance of the trip. While out on tour, the band learned that the American invasion of the Bay of Pigs had failed and shared the embarrassment—during the height of the Space Race—when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first man to circle the globe.

The fifteen-week tour was transformational for those band members. It was said in one lab session that for many members “time stopped” when they returned to the United States. Professor Sinta described how band members bonded musically, but also how they got to know who they really were in extenuating circumstances:  surviving on food that was barely edible, getting by with their minimal allotment of clothing, adapting to constantly changing cities—while still performing at the highest level nightly under the strict baton of William Revelli. Those experiences brought the group together in ways that could never have been predicted.

In the words of Professor Sinta, “we were all one.” To this day, there is a community of 1961 band alumni that periodically reconvenes to reminisce about what they experienced fifty years ago.

Will the 2011 band feel the same way? It’s difficult to say. We will be abroad for three weeks instead of fifteen; will visit only five cities instead of many; will eat good food without worrying about the quality and quantity of our next meal; and will be allowed forty-four pounds of luggage rather than the three pairs of underwear and socks permitted of the 1961 band members.

But already there is a camaraderie forming among our current band members, one that I have not yet witnessed at the University of Michigan. I have heard band members practicing their newly acquired Chinese language skills with one another outside the lab sessions, discussing ways to incorporate traditional Chinese instruments into Western music ensembles, and expressing their eagerness to interact with Chinese conservatory students when we arrive.

After our last session I heard one conversation about what exactly modern Chinese communism is in light of the extraordinary expansion of the nation’s economy. I overheard another about how quickly the recent Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” was quelled and whether the wave of revolutions we are now witnessing could jeopardize our trip. It’s clear that the cultural labs have broadened the consciousness of the band and that the resulting conversations have brought them closer together. It will be interesting to see how this evolves throughout the tour and in the years to come.

No number of experts could ever fully prepare us for our experiences in China, but the cultural lab sessions have been intriguing and inspiring. At the end of our ten sessions, we will be informed travelers with a higher level of cultural understanding than that with which the 1961 band departed. Hopefully this will allow us to adapt more quickly to our surroundings, allow us a richer experience than we otherwise would have had, and help us make sense of what we see.

Of course the dream is that, like our 1961 predecessors, we will enter the fraternal oneness they experienced. If the conversations the cultural labs have inspired so far are any indication, this is already beginning. I look forward to being a part of this transformation in the months to come.

Jonathan Hulting-Cohen is a University of Michigan student. He plays saxophone in the University Symphony Band.