In a display case in the atrium of the Music Building, there’s an unusual instrument: an authentic horse-head chi fiddle, inscribed “to School of Music of University of North Carolina at Greensboro,” in English and in Chinese characters.

The instrument was a gift from Inner Mongolia University for the Nationalities (IMUN), which presented it to Director of Opera David Holley in 2009, when he brought the Charles A. Lynam Vocal Competition winners to perform there. Former UNCG German professor Doryl Jensen helped arrange the tour, as he had done for several UNCG performers in previous years, but the connection with IMUN was still just forming.

“That horse-head fiddle that David Holley brought back – that’s what really started it all,” said Professor of Voice Nancy Walker, who became the first UNCG faculty member to teach in China through the connection with IMUN.

In May and June of 2012, she was in residence there for four weeks. She, like many UNCG professors who would follow her, brought a Western, student-centered teaching style and Western ideas about classical music to share with students and faculty at IMUN. But when she returned, she brought back knowledge of Chinese culture and music.

“I’m a strong believer in what connecting with another culture does for you,” Walker said. “It’s an eye-opening, life-changing experience. We should be doing it with as many cultures as we can.”

This month, Associate Professor of Voice and Coordinator of Vocal Pedagogy Robert Wells will teach and perform at IMUN, as well as at Guangdong Ocean University. Associate Professor of Music Education and conductor of UNCG Sinfonia Rebecca MacLeod will travel to Shoaguan University and Xi-an Conservatory, to work with music educators. This will be the second trip for both music professors; Wells also went to China in 2015, and MacLeod went last year, when she taught at Shoaguan for six weeks, including leading the wind ensemble there, and conducted a two-day clinic with approximately 50 public school music teachers from Guangdong Province.

“Navigating the cultural differences in communication style, classroom environment and methods of feedback was complicated, and stimulating,” MacLeod said of her past teaching experience in China. “I know that the experience made me grow as a teacher and has allowed me to meet the needs of more diverse students and learning styles. Sharing philosophies, values and strategies with my Chinese colleagues was an incredible experience.”

Associate Professor of Dance Duane Cyrus will also make a trip to China this month, to Shaoguan and Xi-an. This will also be his second trip. In 2014, he and Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology Gavin Douglas took a group of UNCG students to IMUN, where they had the opportunity to learn and perform alongside Chinese students. This year, supported by a Strategic Seed grant focused on vibrant communities, Cyrus will share his current research project “Comanche: Hero Complexities” with Chinese students and explore its themes through choreography.

“Visiting China and sharing dance with the students at Chinese universities allows us to communicate beyond language barriers,” he observed.

All three artists are looking forward to their trips, made possible by more than ten years of connections created by the UNCG International Programs Center and key figures in the College of Visual and Performing Arts as well as the Graduate School. Since 2006, Jensen and a Chinese friend to UNCG, Tang Cai, have been facilitating faculty visits to institutions in China, and they always made opportunities for faculty performances a priority.

The performers included Jazz Studies Professor and pianist John Salmon, his student Antonio Truyols, Professor of Music and pianist Joseph DiPiazza, Associate Professor of Music and violinist Fabian Lopez, and Head of the Department of Dance Janet Lilly, who created a performance piece with Chinese students. The East Wind Ensemble, which included current Vice Provost for Graduate Education Dr. Kelly Burke, also performed in several cities in 2008, including at the Shanghai International Arts Festival and the Shanghai Radio and TV Broadcast Conference.

The UNCG professors and performers who travel to China expand their cultural knowledge and share teaching techniques with Chinese institutions, but they also create a pathway for artist-in-residence exchanges. The visiting artists that come to UNCG have chosen to come here because of the performances and teaching that UNCG faculty brought to their institutions, and the relationships they created.

Salmon, along with many other UNCG faculty who have performed in China, spoke highly of his experiences there, and of working with several Chinese students who come to the UNCG School of Music from the IMUN. Chinese students make up the largest international group on campus, and each faculty member who has visited China or assisted in hosting Chinese visitors on campus has the prediction that the strong connection with IMUN and other Chinese universities will continue to expand, providing more global opportunities for UNCG students and faculty and for Chinese scholars and artists.

While it isn’t played often, the inscribed horse-head fiddle in the display case is clear evidence that the connections are appreciated.

“It’s gratifying to me to know that I was a part of the early part of this collaboration,” said Holley. “To see how it’s grown and flourished, to know the exchange of cultures and ideas through the mediums of music and dance.”

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications