Due to yesterday’s delay we missed our first evening performance. However, that was a sold out concert with 1500 patrons so the presenter asked if we could do a 5:30 show and a 7:30 show tonight to accommodate those from the previous night. There was some discussion about if the kids were up for 180 minutes of singing, but we decided we’d give it a try. After a sound check we were ushered into a smaller theater and introduced to a local children’s choir and their parents. Each of their children brought a unique gift to exchange with our boys to welcome them to their city. I had not anticipated such a wonderful reception with such genuine warmth. The boys were treated like honored guests and loved being the center of the attention.
When we arrived at the theater they showed me to my private, VIP dressing room. I can certainly get used to this treatment.
As we toured the space a Chinese man came up to me and handed me a stack of post cards. On the postcard was an older picture of the TBC. He pointed to a handsome boy in the picture and asked where he was. I was overcome with pride as I realized that he was pointing to a picture of my son, Max. I did not expect to have a proud parent moment on this trip since my son is no longer a part of the TBC, but I was completely overwhelmed with emotion as I thought of my son back in the US. The theater mailed tons of these postcards out to their patrons and, according to this man, everyone wanted to see this specific boy when the TBC came.
Getting 28 children and their 70 suitcases through and across the streets of Beijing on foot past very persistent beggars and then through security was quite an adventure today. However, the bullet train from Beijing was worth the effort and energy. The ride was smooth as silk and the train traveled at 305 kilometers and hour. It was a great way to travel and see the countryside wiz by. Unfortunately, when the train made it’s stop in Wuhan a voice came on and announced (in Chinese) that the train could not continue due to a flooded tunnel. While we waited for a bus to take us the next 6 hours to Changsha, I took most of the boys out to play frisbee in front of the terminal. We had a lot of fun throwing the frisbee around for a couple hours until the bus arrived.
This evening we joined forces with parents and students from the Amerilish school in Beijing to celebrate the forth of July on some farm land far outside of the city. After a long bus ride down some ridiculously narrow streets, we arrived at a resort with several fun things for the boys to do. They set up several narrow bar-b-cue pits and provided us with plates of prepared meats and vegetables on wooden skewers. There were no verbal instructions, but the kids didn’t seem to hesitate to take the reins and begin grilling the meat. I was pretty worried that someone might be injured or the meat wouldn’t be cooked well, but the boys were careful and Mr. Chen, our bus driver, was very helpful in showing the kids how to get it just right. As it began to get dark they brought out a large metal barrel full of scrap wood and dumped several shovels full of glowing coals on top of it. The barrel quickly burst into flames as Chinese pop music was screaming from two speakers. The Chinese people led us in a couple dances and then our host played the always appropriate – Chicken Dance followed by the Macarena. The TBC boys followed suit dancing, laughing and singing in conga lines around the bonfire.
Mr. Earl told them a campfire story from his scouting days and the boys sang a traditional Chinese song for a very appreciative crowd. As the bonfire began to wind down a bit we roasted marshmallows and made s’mores for everyone.
The hosts then passed out a ton of sparklers and began shooting off tons of fireworks which lit up the night as the boys ran around the race track usually used for racing ATV’s.
It was an unforgettable way to celebrate American independence.
Yesterday morning I played for the funeral of Burrel Wooten, a 100 year old member at Ridglea United Methodist Church. My family and I grew up in that church family and seeing several old friends and getting to play in their beautiful sanctuary was a real treat.
Mary picked me up after the service and had a sandwich from Jimmy John’s ready for me to eat on the way to my final rehearsal at Brookhaven. My friend Debbie did an outstanding job stepping into my shoes at the piano and I was very relieved to know they were in such good hands. After rehearsal, Mary and I ate dinner at Terra in Las Colinas and then checked in at the Embassy Suites by the airport. For years, Mary has said she’d like to stay at this hotel. It is quite beautiful. It has 10 floors with a huge atrium in the middle with giant goldfish swimming in a man made stream complete with a waterfall.
We decided to splurge so it would be easier to get to the airport in the morning. We explored the hotel, played several games of cards and watched a movie. She fell asleep pretty quickly, but I had a very hard time going to sleep thinking about this trip.
This morning I had a yummy breakfast and caught a Lyft to my gate where a few TBC parents were already gathered. Quickly the terminal filled with boys and their lovingly nervous parents. We checked all their bags and the boys gathered to sing “God Bless America” and then say their goodbyes. There were tears and hugs and final lectures about finishing summer reading and then… there were no more parents.
The plane is much more spacious than I remember from my last trip and the entertainment options are extensive. There’s seat to seat chat and video games and movies. Several options to keep the kids busy as we fly 7000 miles to Beijing.
My son, Max was a member of the Texas Boys choir for five years. His time with the TBC unlocked a world of musical artistry that very few people may ever know. I am deeply indebted to his directors, Mr. Bryan Priddy and Ms. Ellie Lin for teaching him to strive for an extremely high level of musicianship. Along the way he also learned a great deal about being a part of a community of musicians. These years are more precious to him than almost any other experience and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. It has shaped him into who he is.
On a couple of occasions during his time with the TBC, I was able to come and play piano for the ensemble which offered me a front row seat to observe how this very special ensemble operates. This also allowed me to become very close to both Mr. Priddy and Ms. Lin.
A year ago, when his voice began to change, his time with the TBC concluded with an amazing tour to Germany. It is a huge understatement to say that this ending and transition into a different singing ensemble was an emotionally difficult one for the entire family. When Max aged out it also seemed that my time with the TBC had also come to a close.
Max and I were very sad to hear of Mr. Priddy’s resignation shortly after spring break this year. His hard work and dedication to the TBC provided countless memories for Max and his departure would surely be a huge blow to the boys. Ellie stepped in to fill his shoes in the directors position which left the seat at the piano vacant for their upcoming month long tour to 16 venues in China.
When Ms. Lin contacted me and asked if I’d be available to join her, it was incredibly bittersweet for me. Of course the opportunity to tour China with a world class ensemble and with a musician of her caliber was a once in a lifetime chance and a huge honor for me. However, to go without Max is heartbreaking to say the least. However, Max was incredibly supportive as was my wife, Mary. They encouraged me to say yes and find a way to make this happen.
Although my duties as a high school choir director are minimal in July, I still have 4 services to sing and play for at First United Methodist church each Sunday as well as a summer musical to music direct at Brookhaven College in Dallas. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to sneak away from these commitments, but both institutions were overwhelmingly supportive in my seizing this opportunity to travel. Peggy Graff and Robert Stovall at the church were able to find pianists to cover for me there and wished me well on my journey. As for the summer musical – I was lucky enough to have a great friend and musical soulmate willing to take on the enormous task of playing and musical directing the show for me. I told director, Darise Error that my friend Debbie Pesnell and I share a musical brain and I truly believe she would do an amazing job picking up where I left off. It was a true act of faith and good will on her part to allow me to make this arrangement.
With all these loose ends tied up, I was finally able to say yes and sign on for this unforgettable opportunity to perform all over China.
I am incredibly excited and can not wait to see what unfolds.
After 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. To 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. It made me feel better that he was having a hard time with it as well.
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.
It 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, explained 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!
We 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.
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.
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!
Our 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.
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. The 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. They would not take no for an answer. In Wiley’s case they literally poured it down his throat. He 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. That, and the gallons of rice wine were successful in this regard.
As the meal concluded we were asked to take seats facing the stage area for a presentation of “athletic dance”. After 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. We 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??? Okay, 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.
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.
That day last October that we sang the national anthem for the signing ceremony in Fort Worth, we would never have thought that later in the year we would be standing on the other side of the planet singing in front of an official assembly in Guiyang. This morning’s signing ceremony we sat across from the beautifully dressed chorus from Guiyang University. Although we worked on singing the Chinese national anthem, we were very glad to find out that there would be a proper Chinese chorus to do that honor. They sang it very strongly and proudly and then it was our turn. We traveled thousands of miles and several days to sing this anthem and represent our country and we sang it very well with much expression. It felt very good to sing this anthem in China. More than that I thought it was a great honor to sing both anthems side by side showing that both China and the United states are at a point in their relationship where we could join together and celebrate a friendship of cities like this.
As quickly as the ceremony began, it was over and we were on to the people’s square…
Tonight we entered the ballroom on the 3rd floor of the Sheraton Hotel and were seated around round tables similar to what we experienced at lunch. This time one large wine goblet was filled with Coke, a smaller goblet had some sweet red wine and then a tiny shot glass contained the national drink of the region.
There were several speeches including one from Guiyang’s mayor Li. Mayor Li gave each of the choir members a long box containing two beautiful traditional Chinese flutes. At our table we met a married couple from Guiyang. Their names were Boni Jiang and Katie Scott. She was originally from America and actually graduated from the University of Texas in 1998. Boni grew up in Guiyang, but they both met in South Africa working for the peace corp.
The mayor provided us many live musicians who played us with traditional Chinese music. First to perform was a man playing the Golden bamboo flute. This is the flute that the tower in square we visited was patterned after. He danced exuberantly around the stage blasting us with the distinctive sound of his instrument. They were exceedingly helpful in explaining the cuisine and customs. It was great to speak with an American living in Guiyang.
They had a boy and a girl at home with his parents so they could attend the dinner. Katie explained that in Guiyang it is traditional to give many toasts and she supplied no shortage herself. Several of our party were feeling very ‘toasty”.
Another performer of note was the leaf man who sailed around the room playing – a leaf. There was nothing particularly special about the leaf, but he somehow made it sing between his lips in a sound similar to a saw. He comically offered leaves to Becka and Dr. Bierschenk so they could play along. Unfortunately, leaf playing is an art lost on both of them, but they tried very hard.
This was yet another example of how wonderfully we were treated. Katie and Boni really did a wonderful job of making us feel welcomed and special. They explained that our visit really was a big honor for their city. It would take us a while to get used to be treated so royally. This is not something college musicians are used to. But we were embracing our treatment and falling in love with the warmth of the Guiyang people.