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Musicians return from ‘epic’ trip to China

The Mercer Island High School jazz and wind ensembles took their music to China’s Great Wall over spring break. - Erik Jensen/Special to the Reporter
The Mercer Island High School jazz and wind ensembles took their music to China’s Great Wall over spring break.
— image credit: Erik Jensen/Special to the Reporter

As if its ambitious marching band, musical excellence, Island-wide popularity, and sheer size weren’t enough, the Mercer Island High School band can now add international acclaim to its list of accomplishments. Traveling is nothing new for this band; In 2006, it was the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., and last year it was the Monday Night Football half-time show at Qwest Stadium and a band exchange with Pasco High School in the Tri-Cities. This year, however, the band ventured far outside of the boundaries of the lower 48. This year, it was China.

For the MIHS band’s wind and jazz ensembles, along with directors Parker Bixby and David Bentley, spring break meant traveling all the way to China for 10 days of cultural and musical exchange. In keeping with the band’s recent aim to put more of a “cultural bent” on the program, the trip was an opportunity for students to be directly involved in a completely different culture and its music.

“We wanted to show students what music looks like outside the walls of our school, in a challenging environment where our music could be an equal language,” said Bixby, who directs the wind ensemble.

After 14 hours of travel and a less-than-recommended amount of sleep in a Beijing hotel, the band students found themselves unloading instruments and getting ready for their first performance at the base of the Great Wall of China. Despite strong winds that knocked down stands and blew away music in the middle of songs, the band’s first performance was received enthusiastically by, well, everyone within earshot.

“Playing on the Great Wall was epic, because while playing I thought about how many times I’ll ever get to do that again,” said senior Mori Rothman. “Even for professional players, that kind of a performance is unique.”

At Zhengzhou Normal University, a teaching college in the city of Zhengzhou, the band’s next performance yielded positive connections with Chinese students that extended beyond the stage. Stepping off the bus, MIHS students were greeted by applause from the university’s students and staff before beginning a day of instruction in traditional Chinese calligraphy, painting and instruments. At one point, Chinese and Island students congregated around a school piano, singing and playing songs for each other.

“I loved watching the kids trade pop songs back and forth over the piano and how spontaneous it was,” said director and chaperone Chuck Colburn.

During the performance that night, the band connected with their enthusiastic audience by playing a range of American songs. The university music ensemble, in turn, performed its modern take on traditional Chinese music.

“It was our best opportunity to show them all this hard work that we were proud of,” said Bixby. “We couldn’t say thank you for the amazing welcome they gave us, but we could give them music and have a dialogue with that.”

Band students were pleasantly surprised, too, with the level of participation they received from the audience.

“We played a vocal song called ‘Alright, Okay, You Win,’ in which the singer sings ‘Alright,’ and the audience and band yell back ‘Alright!,’” said junior Chris Gelon. “Usually it doesn’t work [to get the whole audience shouting], so when the audience at the university started singing back to us made me it want to burst out into laughter.”

The band’s last -- and perhaps most culturally shocking -- performance opportunity came at a government-sponsored concert hall in the historic city of Luoyang. Though the concert hall was nearly full, the audience seemed inattentive and talked throughout the entire show.

“I know that they liked it [the music], but they didn’t act like they did,” said junior Haley Piper of the audience.

Dealing with and trying to understand the inherent cultural differences between China and the United States was a constant effort for each student during the trip.

“There were moments when the group of students, and I personally, had to check in and say, ‘We’re not in the U.S. anymore. This is how it is here,’” said Bixby.

In addition to an audience that didn’t pay attention, MIHS students experienced a seeming lack of traffic laws on the roads, the difficulty of bargaining with the Chinese yuan between fragmented Chinese and calculators, and smog, smog, and more smog. A visit to Tiananmen Square in Beijing especially struck students.

“Tiananmen Square was definitely the highlight of the trip for me,” said senior Delaney Skordal. “I got chills from walking around the monument and looking at Mao’s giant picture.”

MIHS students were also shocked by the rock star treatment they received just for being a large group of American high schoolers.

“The first time a Chinese person asked me for a picture, I thought it must be a joke!” said junior Leeran Raphaely. “But the excitement on her face told me otherwise. Being in China made me feel welcome, different. The people made me feel like someone special.”

In what became the cultural highlight of the trip, MIHS students learned first-hand the differences between Chinese and American high schoolers when visiting Keifeng High School. Islanders spent the afternoon playing ping pong with members of the school’s competitive team.

After pitting “our best” against “their best” and losing both times, the group of MI students spent the rest of the afternoon in classrooms getting to know the Keifeng students.

“We answered so many questions about American culture and discovered some really unique aspects of their daily routines,” said junior Kara Lungmus. I

In the academically competitive atmosphere of Keifeng High School, the boarding students wake up at 5:30 a.m. to run, eat breakfast at 6 a.m., and spend the rest of the day in 11 class periods until after dinner.

In addition to asking countless questions about American culture, Chinese students were eager to hear “American music,” and Islanders were all too eager to comply. Junior Lauren Sadler and sophomore Gabby Vizzutti led a classroom of students in Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and were surprised to see that one Chinese student knew the song’s lyrics by heart. Senior Mori Rothman serenaded a classroom with “Afternoon Delight,” and senior George Gebben belted out “We Are The Champions.” Junior Leeran Raphaely attempted to teach a group of Chinese students about American jazz by singing some Louis Armstrong.

“It was a glimpse into the real China,” said Gebben. “It wasn’t a sightseeing opportunity, but an exchange of ideas. I loved it.”

After 10 days, students stepped off the plane at SeaTac with mixed feelings about China; disliking the smog but loving the students, impressed by the culture but shaken by the poverty, wanting to learn more about the history but not wanting to go back any time soon. But all were changed after experiencing what China has to offer.

“Beijing is no Seattle and Zhengzhou is no Sienna,” said junior Ruth Bender, “but I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t take the time to open my eyes to China.”

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