Imagine a university event where the entire student body assembled with flowers and gifts to welcome a handful of guest professors. Huge welcoming banners and finely-crafted portraits of the professors would decorate the school. A ceremony to present the gifts and a formal welcome would celebrate the professors’ arrival. Later on that evening and every night for the rest of the week, banquets would be held. This overwhelming reception greeted the five Lawrence faculty who traveled to China during spring break. The professors, all Conservatory faculty, spent two weeks in Beijing and Xi’an teaching lessons, giving master classes, and performing concerts. They divided their time between three schools, and in each one met with similar enthusiasm.
The five faculty who traveled to China included Janet Anthony, Catherine Kautsky, Fan Lei, Robert Levy, and Howard Niblock. Last year, Professor of Saxophone Robert Jordheim taught at two of the schools in Beijing. This year, with the help of a Lawrence University Research Grant, the five were able to make the trip.
The three schools they attended included The People’s University and The University of Nationalities in Beijing, and the Xi’an Conservatory in Xi’an. Each school differed from the other, but in each one China’s communist history was still evident in some form. Musically in China, “the Russian tradition is still alive and well,” said Janet Anthony.
While the influence of Russia could be seen especially at the more established schools, The People’s University indicated newer trends moving toward Western culture. Its first freshman class matriculated this year, and its new principal was educated at UC Berkeley and Stanford. The school is based more on a liberal arts Western education model than on the more focused Chinese conservatories represented by the other two schools.
Part of the students’ excitement over their foreign guests, according to Anthony, came out of their eagerness for Western culture. In the Russian tradition, strings and piano are emphasized instruments while woodwinds and brass are not. Jazz is an especially rare luxury, as Mr. Levy found when he taught trumpet and jazz master classes. “The students were hungry to learn,” he said. Whatever music was brought from Lawrence, the students wanted a photocopy because it is very difficult to find Western sheet music in China.
Apart from their interest in Western culture, the students were eager and quick to learn about music. Anthony found them “really quick to change and adapt.” While the students’ abilities varied, Levy was “amazed at how good their ears were.” It also impressed him that “the students were very well-prepared.”
Despite the student’s readiness to listen, communication was often a problem due to the language and culture barrier, and some of the professors found these hurdles frustrating to different degrees. Lessons and classes would be assisted by occasional interpreters, various amounts of singing, and other improvised means of imparting ideas. Levy said it reminded him that “music is an international language, for sure.” For Kautsky, it provided a new insight: “It made me respect that much more the international students that we have on campus who have been able to cross the cultural boundaries with such amazing success.”
On the last day, following their final performance, the students rushed the stage and showered the Lawrence faculty with bouquets of flowers. The trip, the first time that a group of Lawrence professors have made an international tour together, was by all accounts a great success.