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Music without borders

July 13, 2011

Drake vocal students experience a cultural exchange in China

Musical traditions created on opposite sides of the world are bound to feature different styles of performance, composition, subject matter and languages. A recent trip to China convinced members of the Drake community that music can serve as a bridge between cultures.

In June, 24 Drake University fine arts faculty members and students spent a week abroad studying the cultural role of music in Chinese society and traditions of music and drama education.

Drake music students visited the Hebei School in China.

The group visited numerous academic institutions, attending concerts and presentations performed by Chinese students and music educators. Drake faculty members conducted master classes and one-on-one lessons, instructing Chinese students in the Western classical style of vocal music.

The students and faculty members also represented Drake and the United States, performing concerts comprised of American art songs, arias and musical theater repertoire.

Friendship through a folk song

Eric Ferring, a sophomore vocal performance major and musical theatre minor from Dubuque, Iowa, struck up a friendship with a Chinese music student named Li Chao.

During a recital held in Beijing, Ferring heard Li perform a traditional Chinese folksong titled “Wusuli.” The song is about a fisherman’s experiences boating on the Wusuli River in Eastern Asia.

“I immediately fell in love with not only the song and vocal technique associated with it, but also his portrayal of the character,” Ferring says. “After the performance, I met up with Li Chao and had to use hand signals to express my desire to obtain sheet music for ‘Wusuli.’”

Over lunch, Li translated the song from traditional Chinese musical notation into a phonetic version, sound by sound.

“He slowly went through each and every character in the song,” says Ferring, who intends to perform “Wusuli” at a recital this spring. “He would point to his mouth when I would say something incorrectly. This was his signal for me to watch his pronunciation more closely.”

Cultures in harmony

Chelsea Smith, who graduated from Drake in May, says that she learned about the differences and similarities between Chinese and American music education during the trip.

“I observed a vocal lesson and I understood what the teacher was trying to accomplish,” says Smith. “Though we didn’t speak the same language, we shared a love of the arts. Many of the musical principles that we are taught in the United Sates are the same, though the vocal production is a bit different.”

Associate Professor of Voice Leanne Freeman-Miller organized the trip, which was centered on the theme of “Cultures in Harmony: Transcending Language Barriers with Music” and made possible thanks to a grant provided by Drake’s virtual language studies program.

“Personally, I feel that it’s very important to develop cultural exchanges through music,” Freeman-Miller says. “We didn’t need interpreters during performances -- there’s an understanding between artists and musicians that transcends cultural or national boundaries.”

The Drake group visited Tianamen Square as part of a June trip to China.

The Drake group also visited the Peking Opera House, Tiananmen Square, The Summer Palace, The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China.

"We all very much enjoyed climbing the Great Wall," says Smith. "It was an incredibly inspirational and moving experience for many of us, and to now say that we have witnessed one of the seven great wonders of the world makes me all the more incredibly thankful for this amazing opportunity."

Read student blogs about the experiences at http://drakemusicstudio.posterous.com/

Interested in going abroad? Contact Drake's Study Abroad Office for information on upcoming opportunities.

— Stella Hart, class of 2011