This past spring at Hood River Valley High School was a lot like any other school year for me. I was busy preparing students for concerts, brainstorming ideas for the fall musical and pulling together the details for the Wind Ensemble and Chamber Singers trip to Vancouver, B.C. Around mid-March, I received an email from Dingfei Shen, the mandarin teacher at HRV, with a link to a page talking about an International Music Summer School in China.
Backgrounder: Dan Kenealy
Dan Kenealy teaches band and choir at Hood River Valley High School. This summer, he traveled with other music students and teachers from Oregon to attend an international music summer school in China. During his three-week stay, he learned to play the Chinese Bamboo flute, attended music lectures and participated in many Chinese cultural tours, including the Beijing Capital Museum. This school year marks his fourth at HRVHS.
I read the info and got really excited. I immediately emailed Shen back and asked what he thought my chances were of getting in — the program was open to music majors at Portland State University as well as local teachers. He said something along the lines of, “You’ll never know if you don’t submit an application, but I think you have a good shot!”
After submitting the application and letters of recommendation along with a video, I waited for about a month and hadn’t heard anything. Then one day, I got an email letting me know I had made it in. I think my dog was a little concerned to see me making so much noise and bouncing around the house for an hour.
Fast forward to July 12, and I was on a plane to Beijing with four music students and a professor from Portland State University, about to take part in a three-week music summer school. It was my first time flying overseas — I was excited and anxious. Fortunately, two of the students had attended the school last year, so they were able to answer a lot of my burning questions on the 11-hour flight.
When we landed in Beijing, the first thing I noticed was tons of buildings, humidity, and smog. After we gathered our luggage, we got on a bus and started working our way toward the hotel, where we would attend lectures, get our instruments and have rehearsals on the music we were assigned to play. On the bus, I was immediately captivated by the hustle and bustle of the city, but also noticed that there were so many parks. Later on, I would discover a beautiful park by the hotel, where I would go most days to catch some shade under a pagoda.
Once we got to the hotel, I think all of the students were taken aback at how big it was and how nice the rooms were. We were told it was a four-star hotel that the Chinese government does not open to the public, but only for events such as international exchanges. The rooms were incredible, and even had a little touch screen on the wall where you could play nature sounds through the speakers on the ceiling. My favorite part was the button on the nightstand that would open and close the room darkening shades, making it feel like nighttime whenever I wanted. For the first few days dealing with jetlag, this feature was heavenly!
The next few weeks were jam packed with morning lectures and cultural tours, followed by afternoon lessons and rehearsals on the instrument we were assigned to. I was assigned to the dizi (pronounced di-tse), or Chinese Bamboo flute. Every afternoon, I would spend about two hours with the professor, who would show me techniques and fingerings as best as he could. He spoke very little English, and I spoke very little Chinese, so there was a lot of communicating though hand gestures, facial expressions, and thumbs up and thumbs down.
However, we soon realized after watching what some of the other students or teachers were doing that we could message each other in an app called WeChat, which would allow both of us to translate what the other had texted into our primary language. Of course, some of the translations were a bit off, but it helped tremendously.
The lectures and cultural tours were all very interesting and insightful. I think many of the other students and I had conceptions about Chinese culture and music that were proven to be wrong by the lectures we heard from professors and artists in the community.
One question that burned in my mind for many of the lectures was the prevalence of female composers and musicians throughout the country’s history, as well as in current times, as this is often overlooked and underrepresented in teachings about Western European and American music. The answers I received were enlightening — it seems like female composers and musicians are well revered and acknowledged within the arts in modern Chinese society.
As far as the cultural tours go, my favorite events were the morning we spent at the Beijing Capital Museum, as well as the morning tour of the Peking Opera House. At the museum, there was an entire section dedicated to Buddha statues, some as old as 300 A.D. The pottery was also amazing. The Peking Opera house was a beautiful space, and we had the chance to go backstage and talk with some of the performers.
Unfortunately, due to flooding, the morning cultural tour of the Great Wall was canceled. However, it ended up being a wonderful day where we went to visit a Confucius School and got to try our hand at archery and experience a traditional tea ceremony. The tea was exceptionally delicious and even got me (a notorious coffee drinker) thinking about converting to a regimen of morning tea.
The best part of the entire experience was spending quality time getting to know the other students participating in the program and the professors from the Beijing conservatory. The program hosted students from Canada, the United States, Denmark, Romania and Kenya. I loved having conversations with other students during meals and talking about culture, music and food in their home countries. As far as Chinese culture goes, I came to admire the sense of camaraderie and hospitality I encountered in every activity. I spent many evenings trying new cuisine with fellow students and professors, exploring the numerous (and very fancy) shopping malls, and even experiencing a night on the town at a karaoke party.
Over the course of the three weeks, I made many great new friends who I still keep up with on social media and WeChat. Since there were so many students this year who were coming to the camp for a second or even a third time, I will definitely be looking into it again for next summer.
I am incredibly grateful to Jing Lu, an amazing professor at Portland State University, who translated for me and all of the other students as we tried to get around the city and communicate with organizers of the summer school. Without her, I would have been seriously lost at all times. I hope to arrange for her to visit HRVHS sometime this school year to talk with the music students and do a demonstration of the yangqin, her primary instrument.