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SMC professor delights at Chinese universities

| Monday, September 22, 2014

Saint Mary’s very own music man, Professor Jeffrey Jacob, spent three weeks of his summer on tour performing at Beifang and Guiyang University in China, where he showed off his chops in classical Western piano music and his own contemporary compositions.

SMC Music ProfPhoto courtesy of Jeffrey Jacob
A Chinese friend of Jacob’s invited him to perform overseas after hearing him perform compositions from several fellow pianists, Jacob said. Impressed by Jacob’s talent and fascinated by his mix of Western and contemporary music style, Jacob’s friend offered him the opportunity to perform with and teach music students, he said.

“My friend, he’s a composer, and I met him at a conference here in the U.S.,” Jacob said. “There was a work of his performed, and I asked him if he had any piano music. I recorded myself playing it, and I made a CD of it. He was really grateful, and he said, ‘I can arrange a trip to China if you want me to.’ He said it would be a really good experience,” Jacob said.

This summer was Jacob’s second visit with students and faculty at Chinese universities, he said.  Because both universities are very large, he stayed at hotels specifically for university guests, he said.

The experience was a wonderful and memorable one for Jacob, but the best part for him was the social interaction with the Chinese people, he said.

“They were friendly. They were curious. It was just amazing,” Jacob said. “At both universities, a group of faculty members would take me out to a fancy restaurant. All restaurants have private rooms, and the food was just wonderful. I really love Chinese food. That was nearly every night. They wanted to talk with me, know about my career, about Saint Mary’s College, which I was very happy to put a plug in for the school. I got the opportunity to see what life was like in China.”

At both universities, Jacob played two solo piano recitals, one of a repertoire of famous Western composers and the other of his own contemporary compositions, he said.

“It was a very intense experience,” he said. “They are very interested in western music. They have a long history of traditional Chinese music, but right now, they’re more interested in Western music. Students can major in traditional Chinese music or Western music. The main instrument they’re interested in is the piano. [The school is] having trouble getting them interested in strings. Everybody wants to play the piano, so they were very happy to get a pianist.”

For his experimental, more modern recital, Jacob was uncertain as to how it would be received by students.

“My specialty is contemporary music, very wild. They asked for that recital. I didn’t know how they would take it, but they were just very interested,” he said. “I invited students to come up after the recital, come up to the piano, look at the scores. There was just a tremendous amount of interest in Western music.”

Jacob also gave lessons every day to both faculty members and students, which were formatted as a master class for music majors, he said.

“I would give a lesson to a particular student, but there would be as many piano students who wanted to observe … watching and observing and taking notes,” he said. “I was astonished, [because] usually at a large master class, there will be 25 to 30 students. They required all of the music majors to come to it, so they were listening to my master class. There were over 400 people listening to my master class.”

The most challenging aspect of his interactions with students was not the music but the language barrier, Jacob said.

“It was tricky, because they don’t speak English. That’s the hot topic now — everybody wants to learn English,” he said.

Jacob’s Chinese friend who had invited him served as his personal translator, as he is completely bilingual in both Chinese and English, Jacob said.

“He was born and raised in China. He was a violinist. He was the head of music at a university in China. Then he decided he wanted to further his education, so he brought his family to the U.S. to get his doctorate. He’s been in the U.S. for 11 years.  He had no trouble translating, but it was hard for him because I said a lot of stuff, so he had to translate a lot of stuff,” Jacob said.

Jacob even helped students with their English-speaking skills after his shows, he said.

“There were some students who came to my recitals, and I noticed these two students hanging around afterwards,” he said. “They wanted to practice their English, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I went out for tea with them and spent a couple hours with them. Mandarin Chinese is a completely different way of communicating. It’s very difficult to become even moderately fluent in both [English and Chinese]. That’s a goal of mine.”

Jacob said he was active every day, not only teaching and performing but also taking in the Chinese culture.

“It was the social component of the trip that was the most satisfying,” he said. “It was just really overwhelming, the generosity of the Chinese. It was just wonderful.”

Faculty and students were also more than willing to answer any questions Jacob had about the Chinese lifestyle and how it has evolved through enormous changes over the past 30 years, he said.

“Right now, China is a booming economy, the second-biggest economy in the world after [the United States]. 40 years ago, there were at least 100 million people in China who were at the point of starvation. That’s how far they’ve come. Now, everyone has more than enough to eat, things are just booming. It’s really amazing,” he said.

If there is any element Jacob wants to share with his students about his experience touring in China, it is the Chinese work ethic, he said.

“[Music students] are expected to practice a lot. It’s not uncommon for a student to practice eight hours a day,” Jacob said. “What was really stunning to me was how social the Chinese were. For example, in the evenings in the cities, everybody goes outside. They’ll wave to their friends. It’s an extremely social culture. It was difficult to walk because there were so many people, and everybody was very relaxed. They were just having a great time. They were all out with their friends and their relatives. In China, the family unit is sacrosanct. Sometimes while out, you’d see two, three generations with other families with their friends.”

Jacob has an extensive career in music performance and composition, having traveled around the world performing and recording with a variety of people, but he said he would love to perform again for the Chinese people because of their wonderful hospitality and keen interest in his craft.

“Someday, I would definitely like to return,” Jacob said.

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