We the people…

001The wake up call came at 4:30am. We loaded our bags in the bus and headed for the airport. We spent two hours cued up in a long line to check in and then came the news. Our flight was delayed by about 14 hours! We would be getting in to Chicago in the late evening instead of the early morning which would mean we probably couldn’t get out of Chicago until the following morning and would have to sleep in the airport.

Fortunately, American Airlines shuttled us off to a nearby Beijing hotel to spend the extra hours. We each ate a buffet breakfast and I went back to my room and slept for several hours until lunch.

At lunch it was my intention to catch up on this blog, but instead I had several very meaningful conversations with fellow students. I am always struck by the incredible histories hidden behind the eyes of everyone we interact with. In previous tours and trips I have really enjoyed getting to know these stories and this trip is certainly no exception.

Unfortunately, discretion prevents me from telling these stories, but I want to touch on some of the themes that came out over this week that I had no idea about and feel so honored to now be aware of.

Some adversity I learned of included loss of dear friends to alcohol or drugs, abuse as children, severe illness, and a couple things I can’t even mention here. Knowing these histories make the successes I see around me all the more incredible and inspiring. You just never know the whole story behind people’s eyes and when in life you have an opportunity to gaze deeper into someone’s past that glimpse often explains behavior you may have once viewed as unjust or erratic.IMG_2769

IMG_2744Traveling in close proximity to others for an extended time often unleashes a negative side and there were a fair share of times when each of us behaved less than our best – myself included. People get irritable when they are sleep deprived, dehydrated and forced to sleep and eat in unfamiliar situations. However, over all, this group was easily one of the better behaved groups I have had the pleasure of touring with. To spite a jam packed schedule, a huge time difference and over 36 hours in flight, no real incidents occurred. Somehow we all found a way to get along.

I’m proud to know the stories of my fellow singers better now and am forever tied to each of them because of this common experience. Making music with this ensemble and this director was not on my plan for life this year. I even tried very hard to skirt this obligation at the onset of the fall. However, Dr. Bierschenk would have none of that and I’m eternally grateful for his insistence.
As I ready for graduation this summer I can not overstate the blessing Texas Wesleyan has been in my life. I never meant to be such a fan, but I can’t help but recognize the bountiful opportunities for expression and learning it has afforded me over the years. I met my wife here, learned jazz, and held a huge concert with all of my best and most talented friends under skillful guidance. There just aren’t any places in Texas where a student like me can really stretch his wings and be allowed to create. The faculty, staff and students are forever a part of my story.IMG_2993

Wesleyan is a hidden treasure buried in Fort Worth. It has enriched my life in unbelievable ways and I am forever changed for the people it has brought into my life. This trip is just the latest chapter in my educational journey. After graduation I will deeply miss this place, but I know that the connections made here will always remain alive wherever we all go and I’m warmed by this thought.

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“Good heart. Keep go!” – The Great Wall of China

The Texas Wesleyan delegation at the Great Wall of China in BeijingAfter a short drive we began our assent of a portion of the great wall. This section took almost 300 years of excruciating manual labor to build. I’ll admit having heard about the wall and thinking, “So?” I mean it’s a wall. How hard is that? Well, it’s quite something else to see. The steps are massive and the incline is ridiculous. IMG_2927To think that each huge stone was carried on someone’s back is unimaginable.

The trip through the Forbidden city had already worn me out, but I was determined to ascend at least part of the way. I began strong, but it wasn’t long before my out of shape body began breathing fairly hard and I could feel my heart in my chest. I stopped several times along the way, but I continued up the steps to the first tower. At the top of the first tower I could see better how high the rest of the towers were. It was pretty daunting, but I had something to prove. I knew I’d have been all over this wall as a kid and I wanted to see if I could still do it.

Along the way to the next tower a Chinese man came up along side me. He read my name badge and made a faux opera singing sound to indicate he knew I was a singer. He attempted to speak Chinese to me, but of course my Chinese is ridiculously limited. The only English he could come up with was “Good heart” and “Keep go” we continued to challenge each other up the steps to the next tower and we made it. IMG_2951It made me feel better that he was having a hard time with it as well.IMG_2958

All told, I made it to Tower 9 (3rd from the bottom) and then Meghan Toon and Selina Stewart joined me for there for the decent. The way down was a new kind of pain, but we made it without injury.
This was certainly a whirlwind trip to Beijing, but Eric did a great job of showing us as much as possible in our short time in the city.

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Beijing is not Guiyang

Forbiden city panoIMG_2830It was time to say goodbye to Guiyang today. Our hosts checked all our bags from the hotel to the plane for us so all we had to do was ride the bus to the airport and board the plane. Waiting at the airport we received several copies of a fully produced hardbound book of photos from our trip as well as a DVD for each of us containing a PDF copy of this book. The book outlines our itinerary and showcases many of the best pictures taken throughout our trip by Guiyang’s staff photographer. Their staff must have staid up all night to put this together and get it duplicated for each of the 70 of us. This is yet another example of Guiyang’s overflowing generosity.
We may never be so well treated again. From the police escorts, to free shows, generous gifts and elaborate meals – we all grew accustomed to royal treatment and we also recognized that as soon as we left Guiyang, we weren’t going to be honored dignitaries any longer.

When we landed in Beijing we said goodbye to the rest of the Fort Worth delegation and hoped a bus to go see Tiananmen square, the forbidden city and the great wall. Our new guide, Eric, IMG_2869explained that we had a whirlwind trip ahead and that we could do it, but we needed to walk fast, and basically not ask any questions. We all were okay with the arrangement and he was not kidding.

Before we stepped off the bus he explained how to say, “Boo Yow” to the venders which means, No. I don’t want any. He further explained that many vendors had several tricks that made them untrustworthy and made us promise not to buy anything from them. He also said, Do not make eye contact!

IMG_2877We complied and although we saw how many vendors there where and how obnoxious they were, they could tell we weren’t buying so they gave up pretty quickly.
We marched through the square at a pretty good clip. All the way, Eric provided expert high points about some of the buildings. Most memorably he commented on how the buildings were Russian designs and he lightly touched on how even today China seems to take its cues from Russia.

Just past the vast square, is the gate to the forbidden city. This forbidden city is the largest square in the world and was called forbidden because only the emperor and his close family and sergeants could enter. The vast size of this area is staggering. He said they had renovated a lot of it before the Olympics in 2008 and had used several tons of gold just to paint the buildings.IMG_2891
Eric told us how the bricks we were walking on we’re over 600 years old and that there were not once, but 15 layers of them so that assassins couldn’t possibly tunnel through. He also described in vivid detail the process by which a unic lost his equipment. It was both fascinating and terrifying.

There were thousands of people milling around the forbidden city, many were very pushy and not what we consider to be respectful of personal space. Luckily we were prepared for this very Chinese view of personal space and lines. As amazing as these sights were, it was quickly evident we all enjoyed Guiyang SO much more. Part of that is that we were treated so well, but another part is that Guiyang seems so much less spoiled by tourism. Guiyang is so remote that it remains a great deal truer to its past instead of overt run with hoards of people.IMG_2903
Several people comments about wishing we hadn’t left Guiyang. We were all glad to have seen the sights of Beijing, but after Guiyang it was a let down of sorts. We miss you, Guiyang!

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Daniel is lost in translation

Daniel volunteered to participate in a show where they spoke no English.  It was a riot!Tonight we attended the Grand Theatre of Guiyang‘s production of ‘Cool Guiyang’. This Broadway style stage show celebrates the many ethnic minority’s present within Guizou. From the very first number it was evident that no expense was spared in the production. The entire back wall of the stage and four different sets of legs (theatre speak for borders around the stage at various intervals to mask entrances and exits) were full color video screens with blindingly brilliant output.

Through large clouds of stage fog a giant waterfall with actual falling water emerged upstage as well as a second waterfall that rose hydraulically from the pit downstage . Costumes were elaborate. The dancing was exceptionally clean and precise and there was even a choral number with some very difficult tuning which was performed live. So often productions like this will use all canned music, but this production used actually live, a cappella vocals from the cast mic’d by overhead microphones.

The announcer was as suave as is comprehensible and seemed to have the audience in the palm of his hand. Now, I say ‘seemed’ because the comedy of the evening is that we all had NO IDEA what was being said. The entire presentation was in Mandarin. It was still very beautifully executed and excellently produced. They even had a live keyboard player for incidental music.IMG_2084

There was a leaf player, a knife walker and a man who somehow put his whole muscular body through a hoop the size of his waist. I do get the giggles though after a while of hearing anyone speak in a foreign language, so the evening brought huge smiles from me and then one member of our group took it to the next level.

The host seemed to be looking for volunteers from the audience for some sort of game. He was looking all over the audience for apparently males to volunteer. Daniel Winguard stood up waiving his hands volunteering to join in the fun. Now, I would have thought the fact that he had NO IDEA of what was going on would have dissuaded him, but apparently not. We were already roaring with laughter at the very thought of him volunteering, but sure enough – he was chosen to go up on stage.

There were four other men chosen and five women from the cast were standing upstage with what looked like some sort of costume. The host interviewed each of the other volunteers and then he came to Daniel and asked him something. I have no idea what he asked him, but neither did Daniel so we were dying laughing. There he is standing on stage in front of maybe 800 Chinese people being interviewed in Chinese and he is CLUELESS!

By this point tears are streaming down my face I am laughing so hard. The hilarity of the situation was unbelievable. Our guide Jackie went up on stage to maybe help a little, but there wasn’t much he could do. Daniel was on his own!

The game commenced and Daniel determined he was to attempt to put this costume on as quickly as possible. He was actually able to get dressed before the other men so he won the competition! This meant all the other men left the stage and it was just him, in his costume (which kept falling down around his ankles) and the announcer. The announcer asked him several more questions – which of course he couldn’t answer. Each question was met by roaring amounts of laughter from all in the audience. He was finally offered a prize and escorted backstage.

The whole thing was an absolute riot.

The show continued and featured some excellent dancing and the digital scenery was stunning to say the least. The cost for this production was huge.IMG_2092

Clearly the whole show celebrates and to an extent ‘sells’ Guiyang to the audience. There is even a ballad all about the virtues of Guiyang sung with beautiful pictures of beautiful countryside.

After the show we were each given yet another generous gift from Mayor Li. This time it was a beautifully produced Cd/DVD of the show. It turns out that the mayor is a musician and poet and composed the music and lyrics for the entire show. He also took all the beautiful photos included as scenery.

The memories do not seem to be slowing down!

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Yo Yo

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On the way back from the Miao village I sat next to one of our volunteer guides from Guiyang named Yo Yo. We talked all the way to the village and all the way back which was probably about 6-7 hours total. She spoke English perhaps better than any of the other guides and we talked about everything we could think about. She is a post graduate student studying English at the Guiyang Normal University. She taught high school for several years and is hoping to get into magazine publishing when she graduates in three years. Her boyfriend lives in another city so they don’t get to see each other very often, but they plan to marry when she graduates.

Yo Yo was one of the first to greet me when our flight landed in Guiyang. She introduced herself to me and smiled so brightly I couldn’t help but feel welcomed. I will never forget how her eyes lit up when she smiled. On the bus, I showed her pictures of my three kids and she gushed over how cute they were. Insensitively, I asked how many kids she wanted. She kindly reminded me of China’s one child policy. I could tell how much this hurt her and I regretted my insensitivity immediately. I knew that China had that policy, but it was never ‘real’ to me until today when I saw the longing in her eyes. I told her she would make a wonderful mom someday even though she said she wasn’t so sure.

We also talked about where I lived and she said told me that she had always lived in an apartment, but longed to have a little yard so she could have a garden and maybe a dog.

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She asked if I would ever come back to China and bring my family. I told her I would love to and that my kids would absolutely love it, but that I probably would never be able to afford to come back. I asked if she’d ever come to America and she said she’d love to, but seemed to indicate that it would be equally impossible for her.

What was really amazing about Yo Yo was that she picked up on several nuances of social interaction within our group. Somehow, despite cultural and language differences, she picked up on who among our group was involved with who, who was being picked on and several other things which I wouldn’t think would be so evident to a foreigner. I told her that this was one of the reasons I enjoyed choral groups; because so often they are made up of so many diverse representatives of human nature. I mean, just within our group we have so many different people with so many different stories and watching those spirits interact and form an expressive unit is a deeply beautiful thing.

On this trip we’ve experienced truly royal treatment, seen unbelievable sights and made life altering memories, but for me – my six hours talking with Yo Yo may be my most precious memory of China. To spite a world of distance, polar opposite governments, completely different customs and cuisine – she is at her heart a loving human with hopes and dreams of a happy family and a fulfilling job. The differences between our countries are many, but the commonality of spirit is very real. I treasure my time with her and was deeply sad to say goodbye. My trip to China was destined to be life changing and unforgettable, but it is made exponentially richer for having shared in conversation with Yo Yo. For me she is the face of China and has offered me such a beautiful window into the common soul we share with our communist friends.

I truly hope I will get the chance to introduce her to my family one day. Though money, distance and politics conspire to make that impossible, I remain optimistic.

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Xijian Miao Ethnic Minority Village

IMG_2647Our guide, Jackie’s mom is from the ethnic minority known as the Miao people.  Today we visited his home town.  Jackie tried to warn us for what was to come, but I don’t think any of us actually believed him.  When we arrived at the Miao village we were greeted by singing women in silvery headdresses and traditional costumes.  There were also three men playing the bamboo flutes.  There was a man at the front entrance to the village pouring each visitor a bowl full of rice wine to drink as they entered the village.  Then each of the Miao women brought horns full of rice wine and practically forced us all to drink.  I think I took 3 or 4 swigs of rice wine on the way in drinking from a common bowl and several horns.  Before I had kids I was really squeamish about drinking after other people, but after Max was born somehow it just doesn’t bother me anymore.  IMG_2654 Fuse

Having past this initial blast of women insisting I drink from their horns I began to enjoy the sights of the village.  We were slowly ushered into an open outdoor area with a really long table.  We had a seat and the plates of food began arriving.  For some reason I had had enough of trying Chinese cuisine and really just couldn’t make myself eat much.   IMG_2660The company was great and we all laughed and enjoyed ourselves.  Then the Miao women started singing again and we knew there was more rice wine headed for us.  Sure enough there were several waves of women bearing bowls of sweet rice wine.  IMG_2673IMG_2698They would not take no for an answer.  In Wiley’s case they literally poured it down his throat.  IMG_2718He was not amused.  However, we enjoyed the event greatly.  After this wave of alcohol a bright red yarn necklace was placed around each of our necks.  At the end of the necklace was a bright pink egg.  We were told later that these eggs were meant to warm our hearts.  IMG_2742That, and the gallons of rice wine were successful in this regard.IMG_2710

As the meal concluded we were asked to take seats facing the stage area for a presentation of “athletic dance”.   IMG_2747After a brief dance and drumming sequence, we were welcomed to the Miao village by the announcer.  The Miao women made another pass with the rice wine and then the announcer asked the Wesleyan Chamber Singers to come to the stage.  IMG_2798We had no idea what this was about, but we figured they were just going to recognize us or take a picture, or maybe another gift.  As we took the stage the announcer said, “Please listen as the Wesleyan Chamber Singers perform for us.”

WHAAAATTTT???  IMG_2812Okay, this is secretly my worst nightmare – a situation where you are on stage and there is no plan at all.  We had no idea this was coming and were not prepared to perform today!  Not only that, but several of us were swimming a little after several liters of rice wine had been poured down our gullets.  Dr. Bierschenk decided we would sing Ting Ying Tam’s Magnificent Horses.  We had tried this from memory once a month ago, but had decided not to attempt memorizing any of our music.  This was great comfort to me since my memory really is not strong.  However, we didn’t have any music with us since we had no idea we would be performing.  To add adrenaline to the experience – this is the piece I have a solo in.

I took out my iPhone and played an A on the virtual keyboard and we commenced to singing.  I have no idea if I sang the solo in the right spot or not, but we did all start and end together so I guess it was alright.  It certainly was an unexpected memorable event.  After we sang the announcer said we “brought honor and prestige to the stage with [our] shoes”.  This was a very meaningful statement and really felt sincere.  At so many points in this journey we have felt the warm regard of the Chinese people.  I believe this feeling is genuine and will never forget the warmth shown to us time and time again by these people 7000 miles from home.IMG_2814

Following our performance a small section of the Guiyang choir girls came forward and performed a very interesting piece very much in an eastern pentatonic mode with some very nuanced twists and turns and using the typical eastern tone quality which is so foreign and exotic to us.  They really represented their city well.

We all did some shopping on our own and then as we were waiting for the bus, the choir from Guiyang motioned excitedly for us to join them.  A couple of us answered their call and ran over to where they were.  We all joined hands and circled hurriedly around a young man exuberantly playing the bamboo flute.  It was a spontaneous moment of laughter and fun between two choirs.  I truly wish we would have had more chance to interact with their chorus members during the trip.  They are clearly a well rehearsed and talented group of students and it was a great honor to share the stage with them.

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Once in a lifetime Concert experience

IMG_2613(I’m posting this one out of sequence because I’m too excited about what just happened)

As we pulled into Guiyang’s Grand Theatre, “Jackie”, our guide, told us his mother would be watching tonight’s concert on television.  This was of course the first we had heard of this and were pretty excited.  We all entered the performance facility and went to a large dressing room in the basement to warm-up.  Dr.  Bierschenk put us throught our paces and reminded us to use our brains (which we needed).  IMG_2615 Stitch
Then he took a brief moment to show us how deeply this experience was touching him and that shot of enthusiasm and praise was something we took straight onto the concert stage.  We shared the stage with a brass quintet, a string chamber orchestra and the chorus from the College of Arts at Guizhou University.

The audience was filled with university students and many other citizens as well as members of our delegation.  The level of energy and trust on each piece was more than I am used to with this group.  It’s a solid group, but often a little tentative.  However, there was no holding back tonight, we sang very well and confidently and seemed to b

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e well received by the audience.

It was my very special honor to conduct a piece called Water Night on this concert.  Dr. Bierschenk was gracious enough not only to allow me this amazing opportunity, but also allowed me to walk out after the choir and take a bow before beginning.  The amount of honor this was for me surpasses my ability to capture the experience.  However, I felt so supported by the members of the choir that there was no nervousness about the conducting.  It was a deeply moving experience and one that would be impossible to forget.

We continued the concert and came to the end and that’s when the Guizhou chorus members all came out with a gift for each of us.  They gave us a gift that is a combination of several Chinese customs.  The top is an example of elaborate Chinese knotting and below that is supported 3 necklaces typical of the Chinese Miao minority which is native to the Guizhou province.  Dangling from these three necklaces are a hundred or so little metal fish.

Each of their chorus members presented each of us with one of these inscribed with the words, “Guiyang– Fort Worth Youth”.  Then they proceeded to sing a piece written to the tune of Dvorak‘s 9th symphony.  Dr. Bierschenk conducted them as they sang the first time and we were to join them the second time.  As the Chinese chorus sang this beautiful hymn like tune with the words, “Goin Home” I completely lost my composure.  There was something so moving about the beauty of the piece sung by people who live half way around the world from me.  All the generosity and warmth that has been shown to us on this trip piled on top of the emotions of this moment and made it nearly impossible to sing with them.  IMG_2623

It was a completely overwhelming experience of emotion met with wild applause anIMG_2620d a standing ovation.  It was a complete success and a beautiful and touching moment for many of us in the choir.  Fort Worth city councilman Dennis Shingleton stopped us all as we were about to exit the concert hall to share a heartfelt and sincere thanks for representing the city so well.  It was completely obvious that the emotions many of experienced on stage were successfully transmitted to the audience, because Mr. Shingleton was visibly moved by the experience.  His thanks meant a great deal to us all.

Afterward, as we exited the concert hall we were met again by cheering faces of the audience as well as the choir, wishing us well and thanking us for our performance.   Dr. Biershenk shared his approval with our performance as we drove back to the hotel.  When we got out, every member of our delegation had formed a tunnel of applause and cheering for us to pass through on our way to the hotel.  AGAIN – this meant the world to each of us.  I’m sure they would have wanted to go up to their rooms, but they took the time to make us feel extremely special.

This whole trip we have been treated like absolute royalty and have been showered with gifts, affection and respect.  I don’t know that we deserve the treatment, but it has touched each one of us so very deeply that Guiyang feels like a part of us.  It will be so very difficult to say goodbye to our hosts here after tomorrow.

There are too many people to name, but YoYo, Livia, Jackie, and Erik from Guiyang have been a huge part of making us feel so welcome.  we will never forget the warmth shown by them and so many other of the Guiyang people.

Tonight was a great example of how of the power of music to unite cultures.  Dvorak’s piece with the words “Goin Home” will forever be tied to this evening for me.  What more beautiful experience could we have ever hoped for?IMG_2625

Thank you, Guiyang

xiexie ‘谢谢’

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Qingyan Ancient Town

IMG_2532After the exhibit hall we traveled out to the Qingyan Ancient Town to eat lunch.  Initially I sat a table with all Wesleyan students, but when then the guides didn’t have anywhere to assist us Americans with the meal so I got up to offer my seat to one of them.  This however, displaced me and I wasn’t sure where or if I was going to be able to eat.  Pretty quickly I was invited to join my favorite volunteers Yo Yo and Livia as well as the head of the Guiyang foreign affairs and several of her staff.  I went from a table full of Americans to a table where I was the only American.  As intimidating as it was, I must admit I loved being able to observe native Chinese people communing around a dinner table.  I had little idea what they were saying, but of course Yo Yo and Livia kept me somewhat up to speed.  Being the only American the pressure was on to try everything and eat a lot.  There was really only one dish that I refused.  It was a soup of sorts with unidentifiable contents.  I found out later that it was “rocky mountain oysters” which is an American euphemism for testicles.  YES – That’s what I said – testicles!      IMG_2536

Dessert was a bowl of some sort of porridge-like substance.  To be honest it looked like like snot with white powder floating in it, but I tried it.  Yo Yo said it was lotus root and rose.  Sure enough, it tasted like roses.  Not bad.  It made me think of my daughter Rose back home.

IMG_2575After lunch we started walking around the ancient town.  Austin tried his hand a bow and arrow game and did pretty well.  I bought three bracelets for my family and enjoyed walking through the ancient Chinese town.

 

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They rolled out the red carpet at the exhibition hall

IMG_2504Our guide Jackie rejoined our bus to provide us with non-stop facts about Guiyang and Guiziu.  We were glad to have Jackie back, but I must admit I found Yo You and Livia’s entertainment very charming.  Singing songs for guests from abroad isn’t something I would feel natural doing, but as a musician, I find the sharing of one’s songs as a very personal expression and enjoyed hearing them sing to us especially in their native tongue.IMG_2506

As we continued our journey we arrived at the exhibition hall where they had a gigantic model of the city as it will someday be.  There is construction everywhere in this area and on a scale I am not familiar with.  Their plans for the area are very grand and would be amazing to someday come back and see.

When we arrived, they literally had rolled out the red carpet.  The news crew continued to stop many of us to ask questions on camera and photographers were snapping away.  IMG_2513IMG_2515

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Selena’s March on the People’s Square

IMG_2481IMG_2464On the way to the people’s square our usual guide Jackie wasn’t able to join us, so volunteers Livia and Yo Yo did their best to entertain us by singing songs to us in mandarin.  It was completely charming.  Then we arrived at the people’s square which is a large area surrounding government buildings with many large water features and beautifully maintained gardens and flowers.  This visit’s pictures tell it’s story better than my words, but one moment of note was when a line of Chinese troupes marched by unexpectedly and Selena Stewart joined their march.  We weren’t sure how this would be received, but we enjoyed watching her tag along behind for a while.IMG_2468

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