By Noelle Ike
It happened for different musicians at different times. For Rachel Peters, it was during our rehearsal in Pick-Staiger Hall, two nights before we would depart Evanston for our flight to Beijing. For Jasper Igusa, it was not until we boarded the buses to the airport that the plans and preparation we had done began to materialize. For Andre Prouty, it came during the first morning in Beijing, in which he recalls the grandeur of the breakfast buffet as realization that we were not only here to play our instruments, but also to experience and enjoy a new culture.
While the reality of NUSO’s Asia tour and the scope and opportunity of the experience set in for different musicians at different times, reflecting on the trip with my peers illuminated the ways in which the tour was truly a journey. With every city, every concert hall and every activity came learning both from a new culture and new audiences as well as from each other. While I can only speak for myself, I know many of my fellow musicians feel the same way when we emphasize the ways in which this experience was monumental – not only in our musical and professional development, but also in our growth as humans and citizens of an ever more interconnected world.
In many ways, the tour embodied what it is we aim to achieve as students at an institution like Northwestern University. To go beyond textbooks and practice rooms, and to be surrounded by likeminded peers who push you to grow to be better, stronger, and wiser than you ever knew you could be. To take all your years of training and studies and apply them to real-world scenarios with real-world stakes. And most importantly, to experience new people and places you would never be able to do otherwise, expanding your worldview in life -changing ways.
Devin Gossett, a second-year master’s student in horn performance, recalls the opportunity of performing in China as some of “the most positive concert experiences I’ve ever had.” As someone who had never traveled outside of the country, Gossett was concerned about managing his time in addition to any changes in physicality that could affect his performance. It was when he accepted this uncertainty and nervousness – in combination with all the preparation he had done and the guidance his teachers had provided – that he was able to gain invaluable experience that he says he will absolutely carry forward in his professional career.
“Admittedly, I was very nervous – these concerts were some of the hardest things I’ve ever done thus far in my career,” Gossett said. “But what I learned to do was accept that I was nervous. I just told myself – you’re going to take your nervousness, hold it by the hand and walk through this piece together.”
In recalling what was most impactful about the experience, however, it was not just the performances. For Gossett, it was the people.
“Getting to know the rest of the orchestra was incredible for me, the positive attitudes were incredible,” he said. “It became easier to make music with the people you knew and care about… that was the best part: getting to experience this new culture with new friends.”
As a sophomore flute performance major within an orchestra – and specifically wind section – of older peers, Bridget Pei found that rising to the occasion was not only necessary, but a way to apply everything we as students are told we will have to bring to the professional world. Despite battling jet-lag, exhaustion from travel and dietary adjustments, the highlight for Pei really came from a result of these challenges, which she cites as part of the experience of touring.
“You could feel the energy of every person in the orchestra putting aside whatever they were feeling personally, in order to put 110% into making us sound the best we could.”
Pei describes the orchestra’s performance in Shanghai as the moment she realized the true momentum of the tour overall. Specifically knowing that the anonymous donor who funded the tour, in addition to many notable alumni, board members and school leaders were in the audience made it clear to her that our music would be the means by which we could best show our appreciation for this experience.
“Even for the people who didn’t get the opportunity to be there for our performances, the orchestra knew and felt that we were representing something greater than just us as an orchestra,” Pei says. “It started out as a fun thing for us, going on tour; but the more it went on the more we realized it was about more than just us.”
For Dallas Turner, a senior majoring in oboe performance and mechanical engineering, the tour not only helped him come closer to his goals, but was critical in helping him decide what it is he hopes to do professionally.
“When the tour announcement was made over the summer, we were told that the wind fall auditions were the preliminary round to go,” Turner recalls. “I knew that I wanted to prepare as best as I could so I could at least make it past the preliminaries. Because of that, I practiced harder, my reed making output was though the roof, and I was working as much as I could… I kept pushing for it and I fell back in love with the oboe. It’s something I want to keep doing for the rest of my life.”
Turner says playing such a temperamental instrument like the oboe in different halls and different climates is challenging but ultimately rewarding. Turner and his roommate, Jasper Igusa, also an oboe performance major, would spend any free mornings on tour in their hotel rooms working on reeds and warming up so that when time came for the rehearsal, they had to do as little on-the-spot adjusting as possible.
Turner’s favorite part of the experience was climbing the Great Wall of China in Beijing. He likens the ascend to the experience of being a musician.
“Every step you take, as long as you keep going and keep trying, you get a little further and a little higher.”
Despite all the preparation that was necessary for something like the NUSO Asia tour to even take place, we knew an important part of the trip would be in expecting the unexpected. For Alec Mawrence, the unexpected came right before the orchestra’s final dress rehearsal in Hong Kong.
When he took his tuba out of its case to oil its valves – knowing that the day before they had been acting up – he knew immediately that he would not be able to perform on his own instrument.
“It was not going to work for the rehearsal or for the concert, and I knew I had to either find a repair person or another tuba as soon as possible.”
Mawrence alerted the tour personnel and together they began searching online for repair people in the area. He also thought to also look up the tuba player in the Hong Kong Philharmonic. It turned out that Paul Luxenberg – the principal tuba of the Hong Kong Philharmonic – was originally from California and had attended Juilliard.
“I found him on Facebook and messaged him, telling him about my situation and that I was from Northwestern,” Mawrence recalls. “He got back ten minutes later, and without hesitation, offered his instrument for me to use.”
Mawrence immediately hopped in a cab to pick up the instrument, knowing that he would not be able to participate in the orchestra’s dress rehearsal but that he could make it back for the concert. But this wasn’t the end of his journey.
While in the cab, he realized that he didn’t have enough Hong Kong dollars to pay the cab fee, but he had 20 US dollars that more than covered the cost of the trip. After convincing the driver to accept it thanks to a currency conversion app, he met Luxenberg and was able to retrieve the tuba.
They made plans to meet the next morning so Mawrence could return the tuba. The orchestra was leaving for their flight back to Chicago in the morning, so they met for breakfast at 6:15 a.m.
Mawrence recalls the event as initially stressful, but something he is glad happened in hindsight.
“It’s something about the tuba community for sure,” Mawrence recalls. “It’s very small and people know each other, and it was incredible that what happened was able to happen, and Paul was a great friend to have made.”
Noelle Ike, an undergraduate violinist, is a dual-degree Bienen and Medill student.