Teaching staff of music education tour in ChinaProfessors Colleen Conway (c.) and John Pasquale (r.) accept gift from Chinese conductorMusic education students in China

Music Education Students Enjoy Immersive
Teaching & Learning Tour

by Marilou Carlin


In the spring of 2011, the University Symphony Band, the most prestigious wind-and-percussion ensemble of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, engaged in a trip of a lifetime when its members became the first SMTD musicians to tour China. The band performed nine concerts in six Chinese cities over the course of 22 days in what was, for many, a life-changing experience.  


Just one year later, in May 2012, SMTD strengthened its alliance with China when another group of students embarked on a three-week tour entitled “Instrumental Music Education in China: Cross-Cultural Performance and Pedagogy.” This time, 17 students traveled to Shanghai, Xi’an, and Beijing to work directly with Chinese students and teachers. The participants included 10 music education undergrads, two music education graduate students, two graduate conducting students, and one student each from the College of Engineering, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and the Ross School of Business.


Organizing the tour and accompanying the students were Colleen Conway, associate professor of music education, and John Pasquale, assistant director of bands and lecturer of conducting. Both tours came about thanks to U-M’s Confucius Institute (CI-UM), created by a U-M partnership with the Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), which seeks to strengthen ties between China and the United States through the arts.


An integral component of U-M President Mary Sue Coleman’s China Initiatives, the Confucius Institute is one of 60 at universities throughout the country, but the only one to focus primarily on the promotion of Chinese arts and cultures. Launched in 2009, the establishment of the CI-UM was driven by Lester Monts, senior vice provost of academic affairs, who is also a senior consultant to Hanban.


Both of the SMTD China tours are a testament to the success of the CI-UM. This second excursion was a direct follow-up to the Symphony Band tour. “The wind ensemble movement in China is in its infancy,” said Pasquale. “While the Symphony Band toured the country, their extraordinary level of performance sparked a strong interest by our Chinese colleagues in collaborating with the University of Michigan’s faculty and students. Within three months of returning home, we had made the plans and secured the funding to return to China.”


The goal of the music education tour was to provide instruction and artistic collaboration of instrumental and ensemble pedagogy at the high school, university, and conservatory levels. These exchanges would involve individual, section, and ensemble work, and include shared sectionals, rehearsals, and performances. Within the scope of conducting and instruction of pedagogy, Pasquale and Conway decided to utilize the incredible talent of graduate and undergraduate students from the conducting and music education departments. The original objective was inevitably complemented by the growth and excitement that accompanies an immersive foreign excursion.


“I had no idea what to expect of the people, the music, or the culture,” said Chris Plaskota, a music education senior. “My experiences were overwhelmingly positive and the three weeks I spent in China were some of the most enlightening and fascinating weeks of my life.”


“The trip was such an eye-opening experience for the Michigan students, some of whom had never left the state,” said DMA conducting student John Caldwell, who participated in the tour as a lecturer and conductor. “It was a chance for them to see how music is being made all over the world, to appreciate many of the opportunities they have had in their lives, and to think about how best to incorporate what they learned and experienced into their future teaching.”


Pasquale saw tremendous benefits to all the students and was especially thrilled with the growth that he witnessed in the undergrads. “Their ability to adapt to a wide variety of situations and rely on their training as teachers and musicians to create the most positive and successful outcome possible was nothing short of incredible,” he said. “Their eagerness, flexibility, intellect, and maturity, which was utilized throughout this experience, will shape who they are as teachers for their entire career.”


“I was so proud of the Michigan students,” said Conway, one of the primary music education advisors and instructors on the trip. “They were really able to take what they have been learning about music teaching and learning on campus and implement it in an international instructional setting.”

During their three weeks in China, the American students visited four universities and two leading high schools, participating in music classes, rehearsals, performances, and lectures on a variety of topics. They performed, played alongside, and led sectionals for Chinese students; attended classes on Chinese calligraphy, tai chi, and Chinese culture; observed Chinese music classes and took part in a master class led by Chinese coaches; performed two evening concerts with their Chinese counterparts; and, in their free time, visited many of the country’s remarkable attractions. The experience provided extensive exposure to Chinese music and culture, and offered an improvisational crash course in communicating through music.


“I saw firsthand what it’s like to have to communicate over a language barrier,” said junior Grace Wolfe. “I got a lot of satisfaction out of these interactions. I also got to experience what I write about on most free-response essays and projects—the phenomenon I rave about: how music truly is the universal language!”


Music’s role as a bridge to commonality was a theme that was repeated throughout the trip. Whether in the formal setting of the classroom or rehearsal, or the social atmosphere of meals and sightseeing, music fostered communication. “Despite differences in educational experiences and language barriers, music gave all of the students involved the opportunity to enjoy learning from one another,” said LSA senior Kevin Smith. “Backstage, the trumpets would not only talk about school, hobbies, and academic life in general, but also became friends quickly enough to spend some time telling stories, joking around, and getting to know each other on a more personal level.”


The American students were surprised to find that many of the Chinese students did not begin playing instruments until they were in college. For music education majors, however, this offered a great opportunity to work on their teaching skills. “Our students really had the opportunity to shine,” said Conway.


“One of my favorite memories is the day we spent working with the Chang’an University students,” said junior Micaela Acomb. “After a joint lecture and instrument demonstration from both Chang’an and U-M, we rehearsed as a full band, and then the Michigan students got the opportunity to lead sectionals. I was touched by how appreciative the Chinese students were for our visit, and they seemed genuinely interested in making music with us.”


The graduate conducting students, meanwhile, gained vital experience as musicians and leaders of ensembles. They were placed on the podium in a wide variety of situations. They worked with all levels of students, high school through conservatory, with significantly different musical backgrounds from typical American students, and led wind ensembles as well as orchestral rehearsals and performances. “The experience of assessment and adjustment, of communicating effectively and artistically through gesture and verbally through a translator, was invaluable,” said Pasquale. “It was wonderful to watch their confidence and effectiveness evolve throughout the tour.”


Lisa Furman, music education PhD candidate, summed up the experience of all participants: “The smiles, laughter, conversation, and music making that occurred in each setting were certainly reflective of the cultural exchange goal of this exciting and important trip.”