Hello from Guangzhou, China! I am here now teaching and performing at the Youth Music Culture Guangdong festival with Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble musicians, other former Civic Orchestra of Chicago members, and many young performers from around the world. Every day, I coach chamber music groups, rehearse in the orchestra, practice improvisation in Silkroad style bands, and eat as many dumplings as I can.
The theme of this year’s festival with Yo-Yo Ma is inspired by his belief that “nature has the greatest imagination”; nature created everything, and for that, it is the most creative and imaginative thing in the universe. Humans can then approach nature by expanding our imaginations through experimentation and experience. And expanding our imaginations makes our music more communicative, more expressive, and more impactful.
In this exploration of imagination, Yo-Yo has asked all the faculty and participants involved to draw on our own experiences. So (of course) I have been constantly drawing on my experiences with Trade Winds. Working with children—playing with them and making music with them—has given me the chance to expand my imagination. I specifically have been recalling the time my Trade Winds life directly intersected with my job here in China: when Yo-Yo visited RefugeeOne in 2017. I organized this exciting afternoon of music making with the help of the Civic Orchestra as part of their annual Bach Marathon event, that brings performances of the Brandenburg Concerti to spaces and audiences across Chicago for a day. When Yo-Yo arrived, he began from silence, playing solo Bach music, and the children were fascinated. Soon, they began to chat, probably about what they observed, and clapped along with what they heard. In an instant, I watched Yo-Yo move into his imagination to adapt to the energy of the room, and he began to improvise a dance tune. The children danced in their seats, and he looked at them, encouraged them, and invited them to join him onstage, all with his body language and playing. Children drummed on their chairs, and he began to respond to what they were doing. He created an original piece of music with them; all of this seamlessly flowed naturally out of his Bach Cello Suite.
After this symphony of joyful collaboration, Yo-Yo invited one child to the stage to tell a story. Simultaneously as the story went on, Yo-Yo improvised a cinematic soundtrack as accompaniment to the boy’s imagery. Here were two imaginations at work together—the boy telling the story of a monster that lived in the dark corner of a house, and Yo-Yo’s in real time responding to the boy’s words, with cello sounds and colors that no one in the room had ever heard before. As a musician, it gave me a whole new reason to be virtuosic on my instrument: to expand my color palette to be able to collaboratively communicate a story.
Having seen this performance just over a year ago, I am able to collaborate with Yo-Yo more effectively here in China. I’m also constantly learning more to take with me into future Trade Winds activities. Working with our students in Trade Winds has given me the ability to tap into my imagination. It also has taught me that musicianship gets better when I’m tapped into the imagination through experimentation and experience. My students have given me new glimpses into what music is, further than my imagination could ever take me on its own, and I continue to use this perspective in every aspect of my life!