Music brings harmony to cross-cultural exchange

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A youth orchestra from Taiwan visited Fees College Preparatory. (Photos by Tempe Elementary’s Justin Aungst)

By Diana Whittle

Not only did the kids at Fees College Preparatory Academy get a taste of Asian music and how it helps bring harmony in a different culture—it opened their eyes to a world they’d never before seen much less understood.

A youth orchestra from Taiwan recently visited Fees, and the experience proved to be eye-opening for students, says Amy Smith, Fees music teacher and orchestra leader.

Generally students focus on what happens in their immediate surroundings, but the international visitors served as a learning catalyst for the Asian country and its customs, she explained.

“We spent a few days before the visit planning and preparing—we learned about their schools, social life and the history of Taiwan.”

As the teacher liaison for the Fees chapter of National Junior Honor Society, Smith recruited 10 members to help take the 80 visiting students on a tour of the school.

“Then, I had about 120 of our music students listen to the Taiwanese students perform. After the performance, 35 of my top orchestra members took the students to lunch in the cafeteria and then exchanged gifts and socialized with the students for about half of an hour,” said Smith.

And, because the official language of Taiwan is Mandarin and the country’s official script is written in traditional Chinese letters, students worked with the visitors’ Taiwanese teacher, Wen-Su Li, to come up with questions that worked around the language barrier.

An added benefit, she said: the Fees kids learned that music is a powerful language on its own, which helped to overcome any differences.

“While we didn’t speak the same language, we were able to sit and play in an orchestra together and enjoy that experience without saying a word. It shows the kind of connection that music can create between people,” said Smith.

Li received both his masters’ and doctoral degrees from ASU. He decided to travel to Arizona to show his students the campus where he studied and to meet one of his instructors, Margaret Schmidt, who is still an ASU professor.

“(The Taiwanese) really seemed to enjoy having a tour in their own language,” said Schmidt.

“Another high point of the trip was to see the music therapy lab that Li organized when he was a student at ASU.”

Schmidt and Li have maintained a friendship for the last 10 years and she has visited Taiwan several times, where she was able to teach with him for three weeks.

“I started teaching in elementary and middle schools, and while I love teaching at the college level now, it also gives me a chance to reconnect with younger students,” said Schmidt, who earned her doctoral degree from University of Michigan.

As for Smith, who’s been teaching for about 15 years, she’s a local native who grew up in Tempe and attended Rover Elementary and Fees before graduating high school at Marcos de Niza.

“I received a scholarship for music from ASU and finished my bachelor’s degree there,” said Smith, who also had Schmidt as a college professor.

Even for the experienced educators, the visit from the international students was an academic highlight.

“The students were so excited,” said Smith.

“They thought all of the Taiwanese students were so nice. 

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