I Found Myself in a Far-Off Land
by Dr. Jaclyn Johnson
“There are two reasons why people don’t know what they want in life. One, they
already have it, and two, they don't truly know themselves.”
– Alan Watts, philosopher & scholar
Without any hesitation, I can honestly say that I have everything I want, and I know what brings me absolute joy and purpose: Teaching.
My trip to China as an International Choral Exchange Conductor, during the summer of 2014, was a transformative and life-changing experience. As I walked around Tianjin one evening, I was overcome by the realization that this was the first time in my life I had ever taken a large trip by myself. I was not traveling with my husband, my family, or my students. It was just me, and it was the most freeing and empowered feeling I had ever experienced. In that moment, I also realized how much I had been relying on others to make me happy and give me a sense of purpose, and it set me on a journey of self-discovery that has impacted every essence of the way I live and teach.
After returning home to the United States, I began researching the idea of finding my Authentic Self. When we are asked to describe ourselves, we often use labels based on what we do. For example, “I am a teacher, wife, sister, etc.” However, our Authentic Self is not based on what we do, it is who we are at our most basic and fulfilled self, and identifying what brings us absolute joy. For me, my a huge component of my Authentic Self is the act of connecting with the energy around me. At times, this means connecting with nature. Other times, it means meditating and connecting to the energy within myself. But, at my core, the experience of making positive energy connections with other people is what brings my absolute joy.
I realized THIS is why I love teaching. It is not the summers off or the pretty music I make. It is the simple act of inspiring others to generate positive energy in the world. During my trip to China, it became apparent that positive energy could be harnessed regardless of language barriers or nationality. The students I worked with were no different than my students in the United States, and music was our universal conduit for bringing joy into the world. Life is about the connections we make, and the legacy we leave behind. As educators, we know this all too well, and have the privilege of living our lives by this philosophy.
For those who are interested in exploring new and exciting facets of life, I highly recommend applying for the International Conductor Exchange Program. While abroad, I kept a daily journal of all my encounters and observations so I would always remember the impact the experience had on my life. The following are excerpts from that journal:
“Having just completed my first full day in Tianjin, China, my main observations are not the differences between our two counties, but the overwhelming similarities. The beautiful souls who retrieved me from the airport at midnight was a pair of third year undergraduate music education majors. As we chatted during the two-hour drive to the hotel, I realized that undergraduates everywhere are exactly the same no matter what their nationality. At the age of twenty-one, they were full of energy, nervousness, excitement, and in the case of the boy…practically doubled over from hunger at 2am…
My first workshop was a master class with the music education students of my host, Professor Liu Wei, at the Tianjin Conservatory of Music. She confided that the students were excited, yet extremely nervous about working with me. I smiled an understanding grin and assured her they would be wonderful. One by one, each brave student conducted their piece from memory. Professor Wei's quality of instruction was immediately evident, which included attention to cueing entrances, independence of each hand, and knowledge of the score. In a word, the students were fabulous. After only one semester of conducting, they were more proficient than many fourth year undergraduates I had seen.
As I worked with each student, the primary focus regarded posture, releasing unnecessary tension, and making the body reflect the music. They each had a tendency to lean forward towards the choir and were never afraid to have the look of “Don't you DARE get this wrong.” While I jokingly said that we occasionally want that look, the majority of time, it does not reflect the music. Laughter proved to be powerful unifying tool to cross the language barrier…
During my visit, I was invited to work with the Little White Dove Children's Choir. What I thought would be a simple gathering of children, perhaps in a small classroom, turned out to be quite an event. As I was ushered into the room, I was greeted not only by applause, but grandiose entrance music from the sound system. The small ballroom was filled with parents, students, and staff all vigorously applauding as I was led to a long table facing a stage with built in carpeted risers. “This is going to be interesting” I thought to myself. The choir had recently competed in a television competition, were now advancing to the next round, and were eager for additional performance suggestions.
The first concepts I addressed were articulation and buoyancy. Knowing there was a language and age barrier, I taught mainly through eurythmics: using body motion to emulate the desired sound. I had them toss imaginary ping pong balls in the air, poke the air, poke their neighbor, play patty cake, etc. They loved it all and most importantly, the sound changed. While working on creating a steady crescendo and diminuendo in “Siyahamba,” all it took was having the ensemble steadily crouch lower and rise up. A major turning point in the master class came as they were singing the “we are marching” section with strained voices. I asked them to imagine singing from their feet as they marched and, with that simple request, the change in sound and beauty was so significant that the parents broke out in rousing applause. I was truly honored to see the level of their excitement and appreciation…
After working with a number of choirs, the comment I received most was regarding how much I had the ensembles move. To achieve a variety of timbres, we used arm movements, marching, standing in circles, walking around the room, Tai Chi, waltzing, facing the singers directly in front of one another, placing a hand on their neighbor's shoulder, snapping, slapping their abdomen, singing in mixed formation, and more. I have always been a fast paced teacher and with the language barrier, the quickest mode of communication became eurythmics. The choir directors absolutely loved the efficiency of the teaching method, frequently asked, “Is this how all conductors in America teach?!”
After reading this article, one might be thinking, “I already teach my students that way. What is the difference?” And that, my dear colleagues, is exactly my point. There is no difference. While there might be slight cultural differences between each country, we are all more similar than we are different. By traveling to other parts of the world and interacting with people from all walks of life, we increase the connections that unite us as human beings.