The Bach House in Eisenach, the town where Johann Sebastian Bach was born, has acquired a portrait of the composer long believed to have vanished. It’s very likely the portrait was made during his lifetime.
In January, seniors Steve Becker, Duncan Standish, Nate Mendelsohn, and Cory Todd traveled to Beijing to participate in our ‘Jazz Meets East’ program. We’re bringing you the full story, in three parts.
Part I: A Portrait of the Experience
This winter term, our band (The Men With Short Beards) flew to Beijing, China for two weeks to perform at jazz venues and host a residency at I.S.B. (the International School of Beijing). We went on the tour as a part of the “Jazz Meets East” program, a program that has helped send jazz ensembles to China every winter term for five years and counting. Funding came from tour revenue as well as school grants and an online donation campaign via Indiegogo.
The string of about nine gigs marked not only our band’s first substantial tour, but also our first time playing outside of Oberlin, Ohio. To simultaneously see a new part of the world and showcase our band’s repertoire of original music (to unbiased ears) was an exciting thing for us. Terry Hsieh ’12 (Beijing resident and originator of the “Jazz Meets East” program) booked our gigs and clinics, bringing us to all kinds of Chinese jazz clubs and performance spaces. East Shore was a crowded, smoky jazz bar that overlooked the north edge of the Qianhai Sea and got packed on weekends. We played there twice, getting inspiration from the posters of American Jazz Legends that hung on the walls around us. Modernista was a friendly international music bar and restaurant that hosted us on two of our wildest gigs: a rowdy swing dance and an even rowdier New Years party. CD Blues was a stylish blue-lit and table-filled jazz venue bordered by a stage on the far end, a full bar along one wall, and a sit-down Italian restaurant upstairs. That night we ate spaghetti and played our set for one couple that sat near the stage; to our surprise, they stayed the whole time and asked for an encore.
When we weren’t on stage, we made time to get to know the city by walking around shopping areas, eating at the tastiest spots, and catching a glimpse of some prime tourist attractions. After all, a goal of the project was cross-cultural interaction, and we were set on immersing ourselves. We ate an unforgettable array of food: dumplings galore (steamed buns and pot stockers), scrambled eggs with hot peppers, fried mushrooms, rice porridge, Chinese-style hot pot, Japanese food, Taiwanese food…the list goes on and on. We also saw a number of astounding sights in the forms of palaces, temples, and one massive wall. The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven are just a few of the places we visited.
We spent the last few days of the tour working closely with young musicians at the international school. Once there, we were told what the kids had been focusing on musically and what we were to work on with them. Thankfully, that topic was ‘free improvisation.’ Yes, we are a jazz band, but our influences span much wider than the word might suggest, and the music we grew up listening to consisted largely of radio pop, catchy alternative rock and mainstream hip hop. As we grew to love jazz, we also grew to love avant-garde music and free jazz, then classical and contemporary composition. We believe in the power of a song, but we’re equally passionate about the freedom that comes with free improvisation, the freedom to express a mishmash of different influences, feelings, and ideas — maybe all at once.
With the ISB students, we had a chance to focus on this kind of musical approach that stretches beyond the confines of standard jazz practice, an experience that we would have loved for ourselves at that age. We ended the residency by playing a concert in the auditorium where we improvised freely with two student groups and performed one of our songs with their school’s 70-piece string orchestra. In the words of ISB’s jazz band director and improvisation teacher, David Beckstead, “It was epic.”
Generally speaking, the tour was a great success! None of us fell off of the Great Wall and we only got into a few unresolved arguments with cabdrivers.
Stay tuned for parts II and III of ‘Who Are The Men With Short Beards?’ – an in-depth interview about the experience with the band.
Oberlin College will soon construct a state-of-the-art hotel, restaurant, and conference center that will be named in honor of Peter B. Lewis, the late philanthropist and chairman of Progressive Insurance Company.
Our final week in Panjim was filled to the brim with music, teaching, and friends. Wednesday was our last day teaching the four older violin and cello students so to celebrate, we took them out to ice cream. The boys laughed at us as though we were crazy, but we later realized that they had probably never been to ice cream before. It was very special to be able to walk through Panjim with them and learn more about their lives and goals. Again, their curiosity and ambition amazed us and we were sad to have to say goodbye. Thursday brought our last day with our nine young violinists. We taught them individually and ended with a group class full of games and songs. We learned so much about teaching from the kids at Hamara School and will undoubtedly miss their questions and smiles.
On Friday night, we played our last concert with the Camerata at the Monte Music Festival in the old city of Goa. The concert was full of a vibrant energy and beauty that we will never forget. The Monte festival combines traditional classical Indian music with Western classical music and takes place on the top of a hill overlooking the rivers, hills, mangroves, and palms of Goa. The evening began with an outside concert overlooking the western horizon. It was very moving listening to the calm rhythms and intricate harmonies of the Indian flute and drums as the red sun dropped into the haze. We ended the evening with a Camerata performance inside a church on top of the mount. The orchestra was joined by a Goan/Portuguese soprano for Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate and excerpts from Händel’s Messiah. The concert was inspiring and had an organic and alive feeling that is so often missing from classical music. There was an intense focus on the friendship and community that music fosters and even in the short time we spent with the musicians from Camerata, we developed so many honest, sincere, and thoughtful friendships. Performing at the Monte was one of the most inspiring and memorable moments and the perfect way to end our month in Panjim.
We arrived back to Oberlin earlier this evening and are relieved and overjoyed (believe it or not) to see snow and take deep breaths of crisp, wintry air. Adapting to a more orderly pace of life will be a difficult adjustment in many ways, but we are happy to be in our home country. We spent the past 40 hours of travel reflecting on our month abroad and remembering how the seed for our travels was planted so many months ago.
On a beautiful summer day last July, Sophie and I were sitting in our living room talking about why music is important to us. We had just returned from a warm sail at our shore and were brainstorming all the places we would like to see in this world. Thinking ahead to our January Winter Term at Oberlin, we knew that we wanted to travel and use music as a form of cultural exchange. So we began an Internet search, spontaneously typing in countries that we have always dreamed about visiting. India was an obvious first choice. We entered “India music children” and the Child’s Play Foundation was near the top of the results list. On a whim we emailed Dr. Luis and expressed interest in volunteering for a month. He replied within a couple of days extending an open invitation to come and teach. Over the next few months we were in contact to develop and organize what has become a month-long collaboration and residency with Child’s Play. In September we asked Jaime if she would like to be a part of the project. Dr. Luis wanted to have a cellist to offer lessons and perform. We are so lucky that it worked out for the three of us to travel and work together.
Funding our project was an obvious hurdle. It costs a lot of money to fly across the ocean. We decided to apply for a grant from Oberlin, a valuable experience that forced us to think through every aspect of our project, and resulted in a detailed written proposal and budget. We solicited as much feedback as we could from family, friends, and staff at Oberlin. Crafting our application was an incredible learning experience for all of us and we are so grateful for the time many people spent reading about our project and meeting with us to share their ideas. We were awarded the grant just after Thanksgiving. We raised additional funding through generous donations from friends and family. It is amazing and surreal to think back to over six months ago when our dreams seemed impossibly grand. But they have blossomed into something much richer than we believed possible. Our experience in India has been inspiring, uplifting, challenging, beautiful, humbling, human, exotic, rewarding, caring, melodious, honest, gratifying, and life-changing in ways we never could have imagined.
We are blown away by the support and enthusiasm we received and are so grateful and thankful. Thank you to the faculty, staff, and deans at Oberlin for making our travels and experiences possible. We are blessed to study at a place that supports creativity and nurtures curiosity. Thank you to Dr. Luis for his enormous generosity and hospitality, to Lee, Ashley, and Elvina for their friendship, warmth, and support, to Syanna for sharing her love of teaching with us, and to our fellow musicians in Camerata Child’s Play for welcoming us into the orchestra. Thank you to our friends and family for such generous support and comforting enthusiasm. And finally, thank you to our parents for their unwavering love and encouragement and for making it possible for us to receive an education and pursue the things that we love.