Study Abroad by Alexander Busby

Alexander Busby is a freelance five woodwind doubler who performs throughout eastern North Carolina. He has performed nationally throughout the states of Texas and North Carolina and internationally in Shanghai and Suzhou China, and Taiwan. Alex was recently published in the March 2019 issue of Flute Talk. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor where he studied flute with Sheryl Goodnight and is a current graduate student at East Carolina University where he studies flute with Christine Gustafson. 


Study Abroad:
Is it Worth it? and What to Look for in a Stellar Program

The idea of studying and performing music in a foreign country can be alluring to both the young and experienced musician but is it worth it? I recently had the incredible opportunity to study abroad in Taipei, Taiwan in a study abroad program which focused on chamber music, cultural understanding, and language. As a graduate student who has participated in national and international programs of study and previously traveled overseas for music performances, I was able to separate the awe of travel from the content of instruction and overall purpose of the trip. I went with the goal of understanding what attributes a functional and musically satisfying program contains. Finding a study abroad program whose function lends toward its purpose and overarching goals can be difficult, but the outcomes of carefully selecting a program that fosters music instruction and collaboration, cultural immersion and understanding, and language will prove worth the often intense and lengthy search.

Study abroad programs, while often geared toward younger musicians, are equally available for graduated and even professional musicians through such avenues as national grants and certification programs hosted overseas. Perhaps one of the most recognized and highly regarded exchange programs is the Fulbright program which offers grants for research, teaching, and special projects that include the performing arts. This program and others like it are available to a wide range of musicians from students to professionals. While there is an abundance of study abroad programs that focus on either cultural immersion, language, or music, the combination of three or even two of these components is difficult to find. The internet, while a valuable preliminary source, is limited in assisting to find such detailed programs. Approaching a current or past professor who has knowledgeable about overseas music travel can prove the most resourceful option in assisting to find such a program. Setting aside time to research and seek out the program that fits your musical needs will produce better lasting results and benefits.

One of the most rewarding parts of a study abroad program is the exchange of music knowledge and culture and the relationships you build in this process. This exchange happens frequently, and is often so transparent that it goes on without conscious effort or even realization from the participants. I am reminded of an oboe lesson I had while studying in Taiwan where reed making led to a detailed discussion of formatting rules and guidelines for dissertations. It came as a shock to my overseas oboe professor when I showed great interest in learning how to make European style oboe reeds, a skill most American oboists don’t show much interest in. While I was scraping a new reed, we began a discussion on dissertation formatting rules, as my professor was completing the finishing details in her doctoral dissertation written in English, which was her third language. I never dreamed my knowledge of academic formatting would be of much use outside of the states but I was proved very wrong during that lesson. One often seeks a program which maximizes learning, and rightly so, but equally as important to learning is the potential impact the participant can have on the instructors and classmates through the sharing of methods and original ideas. The exchange of musical knowledge opens doors to lasting relationships with new colleagues, all while propelling the growth of the participant as a young professional musician.

We have all heard phrases such as “where words fail, music speaks.” While this may have some truth to it, spoken language is vital in communication and cultural understanding. I am reminded of a situation in Taiwan where both the understanding of the Mandarin language and the use of music proved helpful in communication. I was collaborating with two Taiwanese students on Saint-Saens’ Tarantella for flute, clarinet, and piano and it was our second rehearsal, with the ability to start and stop at specific places in the music being crucial to its success. I remember trying to communicate a specific place where there was a problem aligning the movement of the clarinet and piano parts. Not being able to count past five in Mandarin presented a problem. Nothing short of singing through the melody while clapping the piano rhythm could communicate to my colleagues what the issue was and where to begin. Thankfully, as rehearsals progressed, so did my Mandarin, and both proved a success by the end of the program. However, I did find that carrying a pocket dictionary never hurts. Finding a program that fosters growth in the language of the host country should be a vital part of the search for a well-rounded study abroad program, as study-abroad forces you out of your comfort zone to speak an unfamiliar language rather than the comfort of staying in a domestic program.

While in the beginning stages of learning, practicing a foreign language can be overwhelming and even a bit scary but putting to practical use what has been learned, both in every-day and professional situations when appropriate, lends itself to greater progress while engraining what you know into your long-term memory. Learning the sounds and rhythms and rules, and breaking of the rules, of a different language makes your brain work in ways it never worked before. Trying to pronounce a combination of sounds and intonations you have never pronounced before makes you focus on the connection between your muscles and brain in a whole new way, a very challenging way. You learn to listen all over again and little by little, instead of having to think through every sound you hear, you feel the meaning of the sounds without thinking. Trying to communicate in a new language connects you with so many human emotions, much like music does. Humility, embarrassment, and frustration when you find yourself struggling to say the simplest of things like a little baby, and hear your funny little accent. Nervousness and self-consciousness when you decide to risk saying something you aren’t sure of with the possibility of it being completely wrong and sounding ridiculous. Gratefulness when you find a kind person to help you along. Empathy for foreigners trying to make their way in your country and doing their best to learn your language. Admiration for those who have mastered another language. Awe of how many varieties of communication humans have invented. Joy when you are able to communicate with someone.

I have found that many people in the host country are often very willing to help a struggling foreigner practice their new language skills, and many have great respect for those who try to converse with them. Practicing a new set of language skills is similar to practicing one’s musical instrument in the time and devotion it takes to do either, with benefits that follow down the road.

While foreign language study is an important part of the curriculum of a study abroad program, a program that encourages and supports understanding of the heritage and traditions associated with that language is equally as valuable. Many times future study abroad participants are given a pre-departure questionnaire to fill out before heading overseas. There are often a wide range of questions in these surveys, but almost always include a section on how well you understand and will be able to react in cultural situations. With the potential to be viewed as busy-work, this survey reiterates just how different the culture and society that the participant will be entering into is from their own. The program that strives to promote participants to seriously consider the traditions of the host country is one in which the participant will gain the experience and knowledge needed to act as a young professional overseas.

While abroad I was able to listen to traditional music played on indigenous instruments such as the Erhu. As you listen and get know the music of the country you are visiting, in my case the music of Asia, it is as if a portal is opened into the lives of the people that surround you. You can see the connection of traditional music in everyday life, the folk song whistles by the street teller, as well as in the formal concert setting, in which mastery of the music tradition are displayed. If possible, find a program that allows and encourages guided tours of historic sites while also providing time for personal exploration of the country visited. It is through this kind of immersion that participants are able to connect with each other and leave with a deeper connection to that country and its people.

The opportunity to study abroad in a foreign country allows international diplomacy to occur through the shared knowledge of music in a very natural and transparent way. The benefits of finding a program that fosters growth in music, cultural understanding, and language, or any combination of the three, are immeasurable and worth an intense search to find. A stellar study abroad program has the ability to influence its participants in a way that has a lasting effect on their career and life.

My deepest gratitude to Meagan Busby whose contributions to the language aspect of this article were insightful and moving. Meagan has been living in Spain for two years where she teaches English and further embraces her love of the Spanish language and culture.

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