Kody Willnauer arose with the 58 other members of the KU Wind Ensemble to a surging round of applause from the Chinese audience. Although the standing ovation was one of many the ensemble inspired during its diplomatic tour of China, it marked the fourth encore of this particular evening.
"Humbling," Willnauer says of the experience. "(We were) really appreciative that these people came to listen to a band for two hours and were so amazed by it that they asked us to do four encores. I don't think you can get that positive of a reaction from any audience (in the U.S.)."
But Willnauer, an Olathe native who will be a sophomore at Kansas University in the fall, may be too modest. The impetus for the 12-day trip was a similar reaction by Chinese officials more than a year ago at the National Music Educators convention in Minneapolis, Minn. There, the KU Wind Ensemble, the university's most elite concert band, impressed delegates from Chinese music conservatories, who said they were "stunned by the performance of the University of Kansas."
The delegates invited KU Wind Ensemble director John Lynch and his 59-member band, along with nine additional faculty members, to come to China and lend their musical knowledge to conservatories through a series of five concerts and master classes. They pledged that half of the expense of the trip would be funded by the Chinese government. After matching funds and contributions from individuals and organizations at Kansas University, each band member paid $550 for the trip.
Ensemble members says their performances seemed to astonish audiences and musicians in several Chinese cities, including Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming and Shenyang. That appreciation sometimes prompted interesting acts of gratitude.
"We had a guy give us a presentation of kung fu as a thank you for playing," Willnauer says. "He wanted to teach us the great traditions and heritage that kung fu has in China, (like that which) we brought over in music. He was a man of 70 years old, and he only looked 50. He was so full of grace and thankfulness for us that it was his honor to show us his kung fu skills."
Sharon Leopold, a master's graduate in music and the head graduate teaching assistant for the band, shares memories of feeling flattered as well.
"The whole trip, the reception we received - we felt like famous people, like rock stars," she says. "At the concerts, people rushed the stages (because) they were so excited to see us. It was a great feeling."
Leopold was surprised by the open-mindedness of the Chinese students and conductors, who were given master classes in addition to attending performances.
"Bands have only been around for the past four or five years (in China)," Leopold says, adding: "They were eager to learn everything (we) did and the master classes that the faculty did. They ate up every bit of information that the professors gave them."
Lynch was surprised at just how much teaching was possible despite the language barrier. In the master classes, he found that he had tools more eloquent than words at his disposal.
"Trying to explain how rubato works as a subtle musical concept, I found myself trying to sing a certain concept," Lynch says. "That was actually the easiest way to communicate what I was trying to get at. Music is a really universal language. Any time I could translate what I was trying to express into sound, demonstrating that way, it was actually more effective than trying to describe it verbally."
What touched Lynch even more, however, was a similar effort that his students made to connect with their Chinese counterparts. One of Lynch's favorite memories came one afternoon after a master class.
"All of my students went out into the courtyard area and were doing master classes for their students. I came out after my session was done and I saw this taking place, and it was the most amazing experience, watching our kids interacting with their kids and exchanging musical ideas - even with this language barrier," Lynch says. "They were demonstrating things for each other. It was an amazing cultural exchange."
The KU Wind Ensemble seems to have left a powerful impression on the China's musical community - and even some high government officials.
While the tour included an outdoor concert that celebrated the 60-year anniversary of the end of World War II and the cooperation between China and the U.S., the ensemble also made some diplomatic ties of its own. Lynch reports that all of the faculty have been invited to return next year, and steps have been taken to initiate a musical exchange between KU and the Sichuan Conservatory of Music.
Even more evidence of the friendship cemented by the trip is found in the ensemble's most notable offer: an exclusive invitation to the KU marching band to come to Beijing three summers from now.
"Our Marching Jayhawks have been invited to come back as the guests of China to perform for the Olympic Games in 2008," Lynch says. "We're the only ones they have invited so far. We might actually be the representative band for the United States."
Though not sure he'll still be at KU in 2008, Kody Willnauer is sure the trip would be well worth it.
"I'd do it in a second," he says. "Whatever the cost, I'd do it in a second."