Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Final Visit to Turkmenistan

What a phenomenal closing to a 3-year, 4-visit project with the Turkmen National Conservatory in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Congratulations to the students on a remarkable final concert! I am profoundly grateful for this experience would like to thank Nargiza Metyakubova and the staff of the U.S. Embassy, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan for their generous support visit after visit. And of course John Ferguson and the American Voices team for believing in this work and for creating this opportunity.

My first performance as a standing cellist!
Ready to rock it
Rockin' it
The benefits of this program were numerous and far-ranging. Because it was a multi-stage project, we were able to cultivate meaningful and close relationships with various community members with whom we engaged with, from Conservatory students and American Center public, to local teachers, staff and young professionals associated with the music scene. Through these long-term friendships and partnerships, we were able to convey a huge range of knowledge, expertise, teacher training feedback, and general advice. The students we taught will become the next generation of teachers and performers in Turkmenistan and hopefully what we shared will inspire them be more curious and creative in their artistry!

Post-concert smiles
With my incomparable colleagues
With students from the Turkmen Folk Music Department
For me, the goal was always to invite the students to learn in a new way. Through playful encouragement and creative collaboration, I tried to shape a non-intimidating learning environment. Using the creative flexibility found in American music styles, I pushed the students to explore the uncharted technical landscape of the cello. To my delight, the students really responded to this new creative freedom and I noticed a marked difference in their overall confidence and creative imagination visit after visit.

Our quartet got down with some Kenji Bunch
Huge honor to conduct the Turkmen String Orchestra
"Wear this!"
For me, these four visits have been richly rewarding and transformative and the experience of teaching in Turkmenistan specifically really reinforced my belief in the communicative power of music to connect us all as global citizens. Music is a powerful diplomatic tool in helping to discover and celebrate our similarities. This shared language allows for immediate and deeply-felt communication, a form of communication which may at times succeed when other more conventional forms of diplomacy fall short. To me, exciting and deeply felt music-making and learning can create the ultimate platform for powerful human connections and meaningful cultural exchange.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reflections and Updates

During my last month in India, I was contacted by Nikhil Sardana, a Mumbai-based journalist and Western Classical music advocate. He is deeply invested in helping to transform the Symphony Orchestra of India, now comprised mainly of foreigners, into an ensemble which reflects India and celebrates Indian musicians. His online magazine Serenade, is an excellent resource for industry news stories and other cultural events happening around the country.

Nikhil was very interested in my work after reading an article entitled "Heal the World" in the Bangalore Mirror about my strings workshop project at the Bangalore School of Music. He asked me to write a piece summarizing my experience as a Fulbright Scholar in India. So if you're curious about my year in India, here is the article entitled "Finding my Path: Exploring Music in India as an American Cellist and Educator" which features some great photos and a quick recap of my experiences.
In other news, I recently returned from my third year teaching at the YES Academy programs in Erbil, Kurdistan, and Beirut, Lebanon. I am always moved and amazed by the genuine warmth, generosity, kindness and overall goodness I experience in the Middle East. I feel like students I only see once a year for a few weeks are some of my dearest and most treasured friends. Thanks to my fearless and passionate colleagues, you are all astounding artists and human beings, and to the peerless American Voices staff. YES2018!

The awesome cello section at YES Lebanon
The Baroque Ensemble
Conducting the YES Orchestra in Erbil
Cello Ensemble from Kurdistan and Iraq
I also had the honor of returning to El Salvador for a third summer as a Program Coordinator with MusAid. We had an all-star team of eight phenomenal guest teachers from all over the world and it was perhaps the most successful project with El Sistema El Salvador to date!

Last day thank you card from the students
Performing at the Teatro Nacional
Stuffing ourselves with pupusas
I'm off to Turkmenistan in under a month for my fourth (and final) cultural diplomacy project with the US Embassy and the Turkmen National Conservatory. More news to come!

With my wife, Kim Mai Nguyen, in Erbil

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Whirlwind Month

The last month has been a whirlwind of traveling, teaching, performing and unforgettable musical experiences! In late November, I flew to Mumbai, which was my first excursion outside of Delhi since arriving in India. I spent a fantastic week in Mumbai working with the incredible students and faculty at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation! I was very impressed with the promising young cello students, many of whom had only been playing for one or two years. I also performed a duo concert at the Russian Cultural Centre with Mehli Mehta faculty cellist, Magdalena Sas.

Group Cello Class learning a fiddle tune
Duo performance with Magdalena Sas at the Russian Centre
Post-concert pic with MMMF students and Magdalena
After Mumbai, I had the pleasure of visiting yet another exciting and dynamic music program in India! I was so lucky to be able to spend a week in Goa helping the talented and hard-working students of Child's Play (India) Foundation prepare for their big Christmas show! Congratulations to all on a spectacular performance!

Sharing some American bluegrass music
Violinists with attitude!
Conducting the Advanced Ensemble
Final bows

After a few days of rest, I flew off to Turkmenistan for my third visit! It's hard to put into words how moving, inspiring and transformational this past week in Ashgabat was for everyone involved in this phenomenal project. The students at the Turkmen National Conservatory really stepped it up for the final concert, playing and singing with heartfelt abandon! Thanks to Derek, Peter and Mai for being incredible colleagues and musical collaborators and to the U.S. Embassy staff for 10 days (+ many months) of tireless work and generous friendship. Thank you for your commitment to cultural exchange as a powerful vehicle for diplomacy. As ever, thanks to John and American Voices for continuing to create these remarkable, life-changing opportunities.
Conducting Blue Rondo a la "Turkmen"
Performing a Cole Porter set with colleagues
My Cello Ensemble featured in the State Newspaper
I'm already looking forward to my next project! I'll be flying to Kolkata in few weeks to conduct a week-long intensive workshop with the Calcutta School of Music Chamber String Orchestra focusing on works by American composers, which will feature traditional music styles like Jazz and Bluegrass. This is what it's all about!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Durga Puja in Chittaranjan Park

I recently got to experience the magic of Durga Puja, an annual Hindu festival in South Asia that celebrates the Hindu goddess Durga. It's also the most significant socio-cultural event of the year in Bengali Hindu society. It just so happens that I live in a neighborhood of South Delhi called Chittaranjan Park (or CR Park), home to a large Bengali community with many Kolkata-style street-food stalls, Bengali sweet shops, fish markets, temples and cultural centers.

Interestingly, CR Park was established in the early 1960s under the name EPDP Colony or East Pakistan Displaced Persons Colony, and later renamed after a prominent freedom fighter named Chittaranjan Das who was a leading figure in Bengal during the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1919-1922.


During the holiday, many enormous pavilion-like structures called pandals are constructed to house elaborate sculptures of the goddess Durga. From what I could tell, there appeared to be a pandal nearly every block! Apparently, planning committees work all year to design and build unique depictions of the Goddess and there is a friendly competition to see which sculpture is the most creative, unusual or beautiful. There is also plenty of good eating, including all sorts of delicious Bengali sweets!


I had a fantastic time wandering from pandal to pandal and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the festival. Being one of the only foreigners, I got a lot of curious looks, but I was never excluded or made to feel uncomfortable. It was also impressive to see families dressed in their finest attire and women wearing stunningly ornate and beautifully tailored saris. Only downside was traffic, which went from bad to worse! Now on to the biggest holiday of the year, Diwali, which starts in a few weeks!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Welcome to India

After an extremely satisfying, but very grueling month teaching in the Middle East, I really needed to go back home and decompress, but no...I flew directly to India! I have been in Delhi, my new home base, for just over one month now. At first it was difficult, because I was exhausted from the previous month and I had no energy at all to venture out into my new surroundings. And for anyone who has been to India, you know from experience that it takes a lot of adjustment at first!

Auto rickshaw ride with my cello to my first lesson
So you might be wondering, why? How? What?...India? Very good question. As a recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright grant, I moved to Delhi to study Hindustani music and to explore musical and educational intersections between North Indian and Western classical music traditions. This is a process that started a year and a half ago when I first decided to apply for a Fulbright. I first became fascinated by North Indian classical music while teaching music and living in Kabul. Afghanistan's musical heritage is deeply linked to India, and the two cultures study many of the same classical instruments including sitar, sarod and tabla. One of my ultimate goals while I'm here is to develop a cross-cultural pedagogical method for strings, with a special focus on improvisation. I will also be working with a number of different NGOs that offer music classes to children from underprivileged backgrounds who would never have access otherwise.
Honoring the Gods
I imagine that every blogger who has ever moved to India has written about the FRRO. The FRRO is a government office where foreigners must go (within weeks of arriving in the country) to register their presence as a foreigner in India. I spent much of my first month trying to satisfy the employees of this office. Ultimately, it took four visits, each visit more bewildering than the last, to succeed. The Fulbright office in Delhi did everything they could to prepare me for this process, but it still wasn't enough. We were all scratching our heads by the end, contemplating the mysteries of Indian bureaucracy.

Delhi streets
Celebrating Ganesh on his birthday

After finally getting registered at the FRRO, my next responsibilities included setting up a bank account, figuring out to pay my bills, where to shop, and how to get around. Luckily I live in a really lively, bustling area of South Delhi where I can find practically anything within steps of the apartment. But everything takes patience, practice and sense of humor and often the most basic errands can turn into accidental adventures or perplexing ordeals.

Concert of Hindustani vocal music
Very few foreigners live in my neighborhood, so I tend to get a lot of curious looks, especially when I have my bright blue cello case on my back! I've nearly caused a dozen car accidents as drivers will stare at my cello as they drive by. Here's a funny story--a few weeks ago I was waiting by the side of the road for a cab, when a wandering cow approached me. I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there waiting for the cow to make a "move" (sorry, I had to). After a brief moment of inspecting my cello case, the cow came closer and gave my case a long, slobbery lick! Luckily, my cab showed up right then to rescue me.

Humayun's Tomb through the trees
Being absorbed into the flow of life in Delhi is truly an experience. While confusing and difficult at times, it is far more often unexpectedly charming. And the combination of complete cultural engagement with the study of this unique musical tradition, provides a fascinating context in which to immerse myself. I look forward to sharing more with you as my journey unfolds!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Catching up

Has it really been almost three years since my last post? Wow. I can you tell you now, I really regret not keeping the blog up to date! So much has happened and I have a lot of catching up to do. I felt that the blog had come to natural conclusion after leaving Kingston, but looking back, I see that that was really only the beginning.

As some readers may remember, I started this blog when I arrived in Kabul to teach at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. It's hard to believe, but that was almost exactly four years ago. The experience was so profound that it set my life on a new course and as I look back over the last three years, it's easy to see that Afghanistan was a pivotal turning point in my life. What I have come to discover is that I am no longer content following the old-fashioned and slightly out-of-touch career-path of a "cellist" (and is that even possible these days?), and after my experiences in Afghanistan, I don't think I can ever return to imitating that life. Everything I witnessed there convinced me that now, more than ever, this increasingly globalized world needs education and communication through cultural exchange.

So here it goes, a concise-ish summary of the last three years teaching music in unexpected places!

Belize City, Belize
August, 2014

After returning from Jamaica, Mai and I moved across country and settled in Oakland, CA. I originally grew up in Northern California and I felt strong pull to return to the west coast. Around the same time, I was contacted by Kevin Schaffter, the executive director of MusAid, a global music education non-profit that assists musical institutions in under-resourced parts of the world. Kevin asked Mai and I to join him on a project to teach at the National Youth Orchestra of Belize. Without hesitating, we accepted the invitation.

Not sure what I'm teaching here...
Performing with Mai on a morning TV show

It was a productive project with many memorable moments! At the end of workshop, Kevin took us aside and asked if we were interested in joining the MusAid staff. We were delighted and humbled by his offer and happily accepted. We have now been working with MusAid for just over two years now and have helped launch teaching training projects, repair workshops and large-scale instrument donations all over the world.

Performing with the MusAid faculty
Conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Belize
San Salvador, El Salvador 
June 2015 & 2016

My work with MusAid continued with two trips to San Salvador to work with the phenomenal students of El Sistema El Salvador. I can't say enough about this incredible organization. Through their work offering a positive after-school outlet for kids, they have helped prevent the growth of gangs and drug-related violent crime. With a supportive community of dedicated teachers and staff, they have created a welcoming and creative environment for kids of all ages and backgrounds to learn music free of charge.

Teaching group cello classes (2015)
Performing at the Teatro Nacional (2015)
In 2016, I returned to El Salvador for another productive and rewarding workshop. This time I filled more of a supportive role as a program leader and logistics coordinator. However, I was able to occasionally sneak away from my administrative duties to have fun with the students!

Creative thumb position exercises! (2016)
Leading a Sistema Nucleo Workshop (2016)

Beirut, Lebanon
August, 2015 & 2016

During my time in Afghanistan, I had heard a lot about the organization American Voices and the executive director John Ferguson. John is one of the leading figures in the field of cultural diplomacy and has been doing this work for over twenty years. American Voices has been conducting cross-cultural engagement with audiences in over 140 nations worldwide, with a special emphasis on supporting youth in nations emerging from conflict or isolation. After departing Kabul, I reached out to John to introduce myself and express my excitement about his work. We had a nice phone call and not long after, he invited Mai and I to join the YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academy faculty in Lebanon and Kurdistan. In Lebanon, we worked with students from all across the Middle East, including Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Kurds, and of course, Lebanese. In addition to the usual stuff, I also taught composition, which demanded a lot of creativity on my part!

With the great scholarship students from Egypt (2015)
Leading the orchestra in a fiddle medley (2015)
Rehearsing for a faculty chamber music performance (2015)
In 2016, John invited Mai and I back as faculty for the YES Academies in Lebanon and Kurdistan. It's impossible to put into words how meaningful the experience was for both Mai and I; teaching music in that part of the world has a uniquely resonant way of reconfirming my belief in the power and importance of the arts.

With the hard-working Baroque Ensemble (2016)
This fabulous cello section! (2016)
Youth Philharmonia dress rehearsal (2016)
Post-concert smiles (2016)
Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, Kurdistan
August, 2015 & 2016

Conducting the intermediate orchestra in Sulaymaniyah (2015)
Beautiful day off with students in Eastern Kurdistan (2015)
Teaching composition (2015)
These guys came a long way in two weeks! (2016)
Finale performance with orchestra and dancers in Erbil (2016)
Group picture in Erbil (2016)
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
December 2015 & March 2016

In October of 2015, I received an email out of blue from John Ferguson asking if I like to go to Turkmenistan. He knows me well, and of course, I dropped whatever plans I had and said yes. The primary focus of these workshops is to expose the Turkmen students to American music genres and new styles and movements in composition, performance and song. It's quite a pleasure and challenge to work with students who are at a very high level technically, but who are also incredibly receptive to different concepts and approaches.

Conducting the National Conservatory Orchestra (2015)
Working on new styles with these talented cellists! (2016)
I am so excited to return to Turkmenistan for two more workshops in December of this year and in March, 2017!

What a relief, we're all caught up! Stay tuned for my next post, which will reveal where I am and what I'm doing these days! Until then, thanks for following.