Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Monday, August 8, 2011

A summer teaching Chinese students at Northeastern

I spent the summer of 2011 teaching a course on American music for students in the US-Sino Pathway Program at Northeastern University. This is a special transition program for Chinese students entering American universities. The students complete a year of English-language instruction in China, then the summer program in the US, and then move on to one of several universities in the US to continue their educations. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article on this educational model (subscription required).

As someone with an educational background in ethnomusicology, I found this teaching assignment an interesting application of my training in cross-cultural music studies. Superficially, it would appear that I was an American introducing American culture to a group of foreign students. But in reality, it's not possible to make such a neat division between "us" and "them." Like many international students, these Chinese students have arrived with a deep appreciation of American popular culture. Michael Jackson was a particular favorite. When we watched Michael Jackson videos, many of the students knew all the words to the songs and heartily sang along.

The students also introduced me to Chinese interpretations of American music. One favorite of mine is the Taiwanese country singer, Jay Chou:

I had some surprising moments when I tried to draw connections between American and Chinese culture. The American composer John Cage, for example, is known for developing methods of composing music by chance. One of his methods involves his idiosyncratic use of the ancient Chinese divination text, the I Ching. Some of the students had never heard of it. Others knew about it but did not attach much importance to it. It goes to show that we must be wary of defining cultures in term of some eternal essence with ancient roots.

The conclusion of the course was a concert performed by the students. Here is a group of students doing a dance to Scott Joplin's ragtime composition, "The Entertainer." I am accompanying at the piano.

Thanks to my students and to my fellow instructors, Hubert Ho (Northeastern), Jeremy Van Buskirk (Longy School of Music), and Dominic Ferrara (Berklee School of Music) for a memorable summer.

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