Notes From China: Scranton Music Teacher Finds Warm Audience And Hope For The Arts During Overseas Concert

July 8, 2018

Music bridged the gap between languages and cultures during a recent trip abroad for local performers.

Students and community members who play with Marywood University’s concert band joined with musicians from West Chester University for an 11-day trip to China, where they performed three concerts as the Philadelphia All-State Wind Ensemble.

“I haven’t really traveled many places outside the United States, and to me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Corey Bartell, a Scranton School District music teacher who plays clarinet with Marywood’s band.

“Not many people can say that they’ve been to China let alone that they’ve performed in China,” he added. “And I just really wanted to experience the culture and see how their reactions to our music were compared to ... English-speaking countries.”

The trip came about through Dr. F. David Romines, Marywood’s director of bands and co-chairman of its music, theater and dance department who also serves as a board member of the U.S.-China Cultural and Educational Foundation. The group routinely sends American groups to China and vice versa for cultural exchanges, and this time 11 people from Marywood made up an ensemble that embarked on the 12-hour plane ride to Asia to share its love of music.

After a few rehearsals over the winter, the group headed overseas, where the timing worked out that it could perform at the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival, representing the United States, Romines said. The musicians performed a mix of songs, from an Aaron Copland classic to a John Philip Sousa march to “Tonight” from “West Side Story.” But they also made sure to include Chinese pieces, including one from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that they performed with the composer as guest conductor. The Chinese works made the audience perk up, Bartell said, noting those gathered remained “very attentive” throughout the concert.

“They’re really respectful of our music, and they were very, very appreciative,” he recalled. “In fact, some of them actually came to the edge of the stage and onto the stage because they wanted pictures with the musicians.

“They said thank you for the performance, and we were told by the director that our concert ... (is) one of the best concerts they heard there.”

The 60-member group, which included West Chester’s band director, Pittston native Andrew Yozviak, also traveled to and performed in Xuzhou and Shaoxing. In their free time, the travelers visited the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and checked out more modern attractions, such as the Olympic stadium.

“Surreal was the word I kept thinking about,” Bartell said. “I just kept thinking about how many people have walked this section of the Great Wall. ... It’s still kind of setting in.”

Marywood has welcomed students from China previously through the cultural exchange program, but this marked its first time reversing that path.

“Anybody that goes to China for the first time, it’s kind of a sensory overload sort of experience, because nothing that comes out of their culture has a common background with European culture at all,” Romines said.

“Everything was brand new. I think everyone who travels to China … (is) taken aback by just how appreciative the Chinese people are of Americans,” he said. “They really want to make American performers welcome. And I think it opened up our students’ eyes to a bigger world, and I’m hoping that’s a lesson that will prove fruitful.”

For Bartell, the trip offered educational opportunities not only for him but also for his students in Scranton School District. Bartell serves as West Scranton high school’s marching band director and is a music teacher at John F. Kennedy and Robert Morris elementary schools, and shared pictures from the trip and talked about how students learn in China in his classes.

“It’s really neat to show them there’s other things in China besides the Great Wall, like the Forbidden City and the different types of food that we ate,” he said.

Bartell said he feels grateful the school district let him take time off for the trip.

“They could have easily said, ‘No, we’re not going to let you use your sick time to do this. We want you in school,’ but for someone downtown (at the district administration building) to say, ‘It’s OK for you to go,’ kind of gives me hope that someone down there thinks that fine arts are still important.”

The musicians visited Chinese classrooms and saw student musicians Bartell described as “world-class” performers playing high-level compositions. That put America’s recent struggles with saving school arts programs in perspective.

“We can’t go backwards with the fine arts,” Bartell said. “We need to be moving forward with it. If you look at other places in the world, their fine arts are striving and they can still have successful students in reading and science.

“It is possible for those two things to coexist: a strong education and a strong fine arts education. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Contact the writer: cwest@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9100 x5107; @cheaneywest on Twitter