We’ve all seen images of China on TV. Imagine experiencing it while performing as part of an international Olympic Orchestra. Take a journey to Beijing—to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and a soccer stadium in Tianjin—as 1,800 band members make music and history.
Photo by R. Canlas and D. LaFlam
While most Americans watched the Olympics on TV, taking in the culture of China through news reports and video clips, 1,800 lucky musicians and color guard members had the opportunity to live out their own Olympic dreams as part of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Orchestra.
This international group delighted Chinese audiences and entertained Olympic spectators in the week leading up to the start of the games, making history as the first international group to perform in Tiananmen Square, according to Vallejo, Calif.-based World Projects International Music Productions, the tour operator.
The Orchestra, which was really a marching band complete with sousaphones and color guard performers, comprised three “hubs”: the Gold Hub from China, the Green Hub from Australia, Guam and Japan, and the Red Hub which proudly represented the United States with more than 600 performers from the West Coast.
When the three hubs joined together for their “Tutti” performances, the results were spectacular as the talented performers simultaneously filled the air with all the energy and excitement deserving of this chance of a lifetime.
Leader of the Band
Dr. Brad McDavid, director of athletic bands at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, was chosen by Bill Lutt, the Olympic Orchestra producer, as the lead artistic director for the full ensemble as well as the director of the American contingent since he had previously taken the UW Husky Marching Band there for an exhibition at Beijing University in 2001 and also had prior experience leading large groups.
McDavid is also an alumni member of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Band, a memory that makes him grateful to be a part of the opportunity presented to this current group of performers. “I’m hoping it will have the same impact on these students that it had on me,” he says. “L.A. was an incredible performance opportunity, and I created friendships that I still keep in touch with today.”
The Red Hub consisted of performers from four geographical regions along the West Coast of the United States. The first and second included UW, the University of Oregon in Eugene, and surrounding high schools invited by McDavid. The third included members of the Fresno State Bulldog Marching Band and schools in the Modesto area of California invited by Olympic Orchestra music arranger and Fresno State director of bands Dr. Gary P. Gilroy. And last was the world-renowned James Logan High School Marching Band from Union City, Calif., chosen by World Projects based on its reputation and consistent level of excellence.
Certainly a group of this size and an event with the historic importance of the Beijing Olympics requires a great deal of preparation. Add in the logistical challenge of having performers from multiple continents with different marching styles and in some cases no exposure to Western marching techniques. Then give them only three days together before their first performance, and you’ve got the challenge that the 2008 Olympic Orchestra staff needed to tackle. So how did they pull it off?
A few weeks before the trip, McDavid said: “We’re really stressing with the various hubs that they’ve gotten together and rehearsed, so that things can happen smoothly when we arrive. Most of the Olympic bands have weeks to prepare. The Sydney band had three weeks to prepare. So we’re really depending on the directors to prepare their students.”
Directors were given a variety of video and Internet resources to help with this monumental task, and many began holding weekly rehearsals through the end of the school year with more regular rehearsals and camp days this summer. Training started with an international staff meeting in Beijing one year ago where they adopted corps-style marching. Out of respect for the host country, directors also decided to give several of the marching commands in Chinese.
The color guard routines were choreographed by Mark Metzger of James Logan High School and recorded on DVD to be rehearsed by each hub. Metzger was also in China for part of the tour to rehearse with all three hubs prior to the performances. According to World Projects staff member Saul Charlesworth, this was the Chinese contingent’s first experience with Western color guard technique. “They have a long history of their own styles of dance but performed Mark’s color guard routines at a very high level considering their experience.”
Most musicians find it a challenge to memorize the music for a 10-minute halftime show. Olympic performers were faced with memorizing more than 30 minutes of music!
The Red Hub prepared a variety of pieces for its individual performances. These included American favorites like “76 Trombones,” “Strike Up the Band” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
For the Tutti ensemble, Gilroy arranged three medleys with percussion instrumentation by David Glyde from The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps. The first piece was a medley of classical tunes featuring the work of Beethoven. Another featured several Olympic themes, and the third was a medley of Chinese folk tunes, which turned out to be Gilroy’s favorite.
“It has a very robust and aggressive fast part and then goes into a beautiful lyrical melody and closes with a different folk tune that is again very fast and robust,” he says. “I enjoy listening to it the most.” Gilroy was happy to report that the Chinese audience enjoyed the arrangement as well. “At one point we were playing one of the soft, lyric, pretty melodies,” he reflects. “People were waving their little Beijing Olympic flags in the air, softly with the flow of the music. That was one of the most inspiring parts, for me, of the whole trip.”
Students reported that their biggest challenge in preparing for the trip was memorizing the music to the standards of performing it on a world stage.
“At home when we’re marching, there’s pressure to be perfect,” says Janelle Arenz, a piccolo player from the University of Washington. “You always want to put your best foot forward. But in an international performance when you’re representing your country, you want to be 100% perfect. So it’s been a challenge to get my part the way it should be and make sure it’s pristine and crisp along with juggling academic and other responsibilities.”
Funding the Dream
The initial cost of the trip was almost $3,800 per participant. However, like the rest of the United States, the 2008 Olympic Orchestra was not immune to the impact of rising fuel and airline costs. In February of this year, participants were faced with an added $700 surcharge, making the total cost almost $4,500. For many students involved, the trip was not officially school-sponsored, which meant limited ability to fundraise as a group.
The Modesto community got really involved in helping participants after learning about the fuel surcharge, according to parent Trish Christensen from Fred C. Beyer High School. Parents created special T-shirts and car decals to raise money, and many community organizations jumped in to sponsor the group. It all culminated with a community concert at Thomas Downey High School just before departure.
The city of Modesto also had special pins made for members of the Modesto contingent that they could trade, in Olympic tradition, with their new international friends.
When musicians signed on for this trip in November of 2006, they knew the experience would be the chance of a lifetime. “It’s such an honor to represent your country at the Olympics,” expresses Arenz. “I never thought that as a musician, I would be able to go.” What they didn’t know is the performances would also make history.
On Aug. 3, the Olympic Orchestra became the first foreign musicians to perform in historic Tiananmen Square as part of a televised Olympic cultural celebration. The square was closed to the public for several hours while the Tutti group performed an hour-long concert with international media coverage.
“The Tiananmen Square performance was amazing,” says high school senior and clarinet player Ashley Crow. “There was a ton of media there. The people watching us were amazed. They kept taking pictures and recording our performance.”
The Tutti ensemble also came together for a performance at the Tianjin soccer stadium about 70 miles from Beijing where students really “had a firsthand view of the value the country and the government put on their involvement here,” according to parent Trish Christensen.
The convoy of 57 buses received a police escort through the entire route where roads had been cleared of traffic to allow their passing. Upon arriving at the stadium, they found spectators excited to see them, waving. “It really felt like we were all celebrities,” Christensen says.
Following their performance, the students were treated to a little taste of home, McDonald’s Big Macs and a Coke, before heading off to watch the China versus Sweden preliminary soccer match.
On the Great Wall
Each hub also had opportunities to perform individually and for one another. A small, select group of musician’s including clarinet player Ashley Kavarian and flute player Samantha Christensen were invited to perform at a ceremony for the welcoming of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Although it meant additional music to memorize, Kavarian says she was most excited about this performance, “We were chosen to play for the president of the IOC,” she says. “There are about 50 of us. We’re playing different music from not only the Americas but also Australia and Japan.”
The Red Hub performance on the Great Wall of China was a highlight for many despite the heat and the steep climb uphill to the performance site.
“The sound was incredible!” shares parent Trish Christensen. “It was such a surreal moment in time for many of us witnessing this. Just puts a lump in your throat and a few tears in your eyes to see your children there in a place where you have only ever heard about but certainly never understood the incredible magnitude of the size and effort put into that wall.”
The Orchestra Village
Throughout their stay, the participants from both the Red and Green hubs were housed at what trip organizers called the Olympic Orchestra Village, which consisted of a five-star hotel and resort complex modeled after the Forbidden City complete with indoor and outdoor recreational facilities and a huge rehearsal venue. Crow says she thought the musician’s village was “awesome.” “The village was huge and had beautiful sites everywhere,” she says. She goes on to add, “The food was very different. My favorite would have to be this bean paste bread. A surprise was edible fungus. It was pretty good!”
The Cultural Experience
Once the performances were done, the rest of the two-week trip was filled with sightseeing and cultural opportunities.
“The cultural experiences for the student musicians are maybe the most important part of this huge event,” says Lutt, the Olympic Orchestra producer. “Student musicians from all over the world rehearse, eat and perform together as well as have the opportunity via parties and sightseeing to socially interact. This is incredibly important as a vehicle for personal growth and mutual understanding.”
Participants visited the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Shanghai, and pearl and silk factories in addition to many other places.
Through music they connected with cultures significantly different from their own and fostered good will. “We have been offered an opportunity that is so unique and is just so cool in the course of human history,” says Grace Davis High School band director Dan Bryan. “The fact that we get to be a part of that is pretty special.”
One World, One Dream
The 2008 Olympic Motto is “One World One Dream,” and certainly the 2008 Olympic Orchestra brought musicians together to experience the power of music to bridge many cultures in peace and celebration. Performers overcame intense heat, grueling rehearsal, language barriers and even illness. In the process they made friends, created lifelong memories and represented their countries with dignity and pride.
McDavid speaks of the power of music to bring people together. “My greatest experience was definitely getting the opportunity to come over to Beijing early and work with the Chinese students and their directors,” he says. “Their head director spoke virtually no English, and I spoke minimal Chinese, yet we always seemed to have no problem communicating. Music truly is the universal language!”
Spencer Christensen, who plays alto saxophone, agrees. “The people in the Orchestra and the Olympics came from all over the world, showing that when we unite for these games, we are one world,” he says.
Perhaps Spencer’s mom Trish expresses this Olympic spirit the best. “I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to travel to China,” she writes in a correspondence to parents that weren’t able to attend the trip, “but especially to be a part of the effort to unify the youth of the world, so they can build a bridge of sharing, learning and growing towards the future of all our countries. That is what the Olympics are supposed to be about, right? Unifying the world through friendly competition, the sharing and learning of common skills, and the camaraderie of Nations—our children leading the way. I hope all the students that made this trip come to realize, whether now or in the future, that they played a part in history.”