Shortly after Commencement in May, Dr. Del Lyren, professor of music at Bemidji State University, set out on a four-week tour with “Voltage,” the university’s five-person student electronic music ensemble.
The tour was unlike any other experienced by the musicians, however, as it involved a trans-Pacific journey to China.
As part of the university’s expanding international efforts, arrangements were made for Voltage to participate in a month-long exchange program with Weifang University in Weifang, China. The students were sent to introduce electronic music and composition in an environment dominated by traditional instruments such as piano and violin.
Lyren, who supervised the trip for BSU, was joined by:
• Molly Bass, a music major pursuing a teaching certification from Slayton, Minn.;
• Judah Chezick; a business administration major from International Falls, Minn.;
• Jesica Lindquist, a music major pursuing a teaching certification from Victoria, Minn.;
• Josh May, a music and liberal arts major from Maple Grove, Minn.; and
• Ben Schreiber, a music major pursuing a teaching certification from Bemidji.
The group departed Bemidji in early May, arriving in China after a lengthy trip that included a layover in Japan.
The students’ travel experiences were varied; some, like May, had traveled out of the country before. For Bass, the trip marked her first-ever ride on an airplane.
“I had no idea how to prepare for a trip like this,” she said. “I pretty much went with it and tried to prepare for anything.”
Before leaving on the trip, the students participated in a half-semester preparatory course taught by Hongxia Sui, one of two visiting professors in Chinese hosted by Bemidji State during the 2012-13 academic year. Sui, who was visiting BSU from Weifang, provided the students with an introduction to Chinese culture that also provided some language basics.
Arrival in Weifang
Despite some pre-trip preparation, the group initially had to get over the shock of suddenly being immersed in a new culture.
“The first few days were kind of tough on all of us,” Lyren said. “When we got there it was cold and rainy, and our Internet didn’t work. So we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t know anybody, and we didn’t start our rehearsals or classes for a few days. We didn’t have food and didn’t know where to go to get food, and we were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.”
Weifang, located near the center of China’s Shangdong provence, is a city with a population of just over nine million, with 1.5 million residents living in the main metropolitan area. The university was established in 1951 and has an enrollment of approximately 20,000 students.
“Weifang itself is just a wonderful community,” Lyren said. “Even with nine million people it feels like a small town, in a way. It’s very easy to get around and did not seem that big.
“To me, what stood out was how clean and pristine the town is on the outside,” he said. “On the outside things were just beautiful. There are lights on all the trees, so it’s like Christmas at night.”
The group did adjust quickly to the new environment, however, and began to explore their host city and find ways to feel at home. Some familiar sights helped ease the transition a bit, as the group found no shortage of American fast food restaurants to provide connections to the United States.
“The most surprising thing to me was American restaurants,” Lyren said. “There is KFC everywhere, and McDonald’s. But there were only two Starbucks. It is very hard to find coffee, and that was tough for me.”
Schreiber likened the experience of exploring the city to traveling to a different planet.
“I had a few relatives before me that had gone to China, and they told me it would be like being on Mars,” he said. “The most surprising thing for me was the fact that there was very little English in Weifang; they do not get a lot of foreigners compared to other cities in China.”
Voltage arrived in Weifang on a Thursday, and after a three-day adjustment period began taking classes and rehearsing for its final concert the following Monday.
“It felt so good to start rehearsing,” Lyren said. “From that point, the lights came on for us and everything started to happen.”
Lyren and the students began taking classes in Chinese language, and also learned about Chinese culture by studying a variety of subjects including cooking, calligraphy and tai-chi. The group made dumplings and spent hours practicing how to write Chinese pictograms.
“The teacher was picky,” Lyren sad. “I sat in on the first class and they spent the first two hours just trying to draw a straight line. He wanted a flick at the beginning and a flick at the end — ‘head of a worm, tail of a sparrow.’ He wasn’t happy with any of us at the end of the first two hours. The students probably had five classes on it, and by the end they got better.”
The group also took advantage of the opportunity to branch out from the American fast food available in Weifang and try actual Chinese cuisine. They ended up experiencing food that might have seemed at home on an Andrew Zimmern Travel Channel special, including donkey and insects.
“The food is way different from Americanized Chinese food,” May said. “I was already aware of this from a couple of Chinese friends I have had, but some of the dishes still took me by surprise.”
Bass agreed, but also treated the opportunity to try new and unusual foods as part of the experience.
“Some of the food was shocking,” Bass said. “I never thought I would eat bugs, but surprisingly the grasshoppers weren’t that bad.”
Preparing for the final concert
The trip culminated with a a final concert on campus at Weifang University, attended by students, faculty and the university’s president. Preparations for that concert were intense, and the group spent several hours a day rehearsing.
“I remember the first day in Weifang, the university was not well-equipped for our instruments,” Schreiber said. “I was thinking there could be no way we would even make a decent performance at the end of the month. But things definitely came together.”
Lyren said the group had ideas in advance of the trip on what music it would play, but as with most other things on the tour the group had to adjust its plans on the fly.
“Things just kind of happened,” May said. “There would be plans and itineraries with dates and sometimes “morning/evening,” but never a specific time. Plans constantly changed at the last minute and we really had to keep on our toes.”
Lyren worked with the group’s hosts to round up equipment the group needed, such as a keyboard and higher-capacity speakers to support the output of the group’s instruments. Once those technical hurdles were overcome, the students got to work preparing for the concert.
“We spent most of our afternoons rehearsing,” Schreiber said. “We rehearsed the songs we played throughout the semester, and also arranged new songs.”
The group decided after its first week in Weifang that it wanted to include Chinese music students in the final concert, but found that the music it had brought for the trip would not work for traditional Chinese instruments. So, in the evenings after the group had finished with classes and rehearsals, May rewrote and rearranged the group’s music.
He composed each of the seven pieces performed during the concert, including an adaptation of an 18th-century Chinese folk song, “Mo Li Hua,” meaning “jasmine flower.” May’s composition, which he titled “Molly Hwa,” combined Chinese instruments, including a flute solo, with Voltage’s electronic instruments, in a way he described as “inspirational… with a fast rock-fusion groove.”
“To hear something I wrote come to life with so much character is the reason I keep on writing,” he said.
The music not only helped the Voltage students settle into a comfort zone of familiar practices and sounds, it also helped them bridge a language and cultural barrier with the Chinese students they worked with for the concert.
“It didn’t take long to get the songs down,” Schreiber said. “It helped that both our group and their students were very talented musicians.
“We got past our language barrier with music,” he added. “We couldn’t communicate that well with the Chinese students, them not knowing much English and us not knowing much Chinese, but we could play our songs together with little to no problem at all.”
Schreiber said that after the concert ended, the group was swarmed by people from the audience asking to have their photo taken with the group or wanting autographs.
“The students thought they were rock stars,” Lyren said.
Building BSU’s relationships with China
For the students in Voltage, the Weifang trip provided a lifetime of memories and an unparalleled opportunity to experience life in a new culture.
“I think I will remember most the friends I made there and the joy of experiencing a completely different culture from the one I have grown up in my whole life,” Bass said. “It taught me to appreciate the things that I have back home and to see the similarities in people even across the world.”
The group also successfully completed its goal of building the relationship between the universities in Weifang and Bemidji.
“This was a good way to solidify the relationship between Weifang and Bemidji State,” Lyren said. “While we were there, we hung out quite a bit with the eight Weifang students who are coming to BSU in August; that was exciting. We’re going to have them and our students who are over there working now over to our house for a big American meal this fall.
“I appreciate the university giving us this opportunity,” he said. “It really was the opportunity of a lifetime for all of us.”