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WIU University Relations: WIU Wind Ensemble to Brazil for spring break tour

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WIU Wind Ensemble Preparing for Musical, Cultural Exchange in Brazil

February 23, 2010

In the ten years since he first picked up a pair of drumsticks, Western Illinois University Music Education major Jacob Eastman has encountered countless pieces of music with Brazilian-inspired beats.

“Growing up, I played all sorts of drum beats in drum lessons that came straight from the Afro-Brazilian genre,” Eastman said.

And he said many of us have probably heard Brazil’s influence coming through our radios or televisions, whether we made the connection or not.

“There is a lot of popular music out there with ‘beats’ that are basically altered versions of Afro-Brazilian styles.  It’s everywhere, if you just listen for it,” Eastman said.

But when it comes to another culture, there is only so much one can learn inside a university classroom, or by listening to the radio.  This spring break Eastman and 36 other WIU student musicians will leave their textbooks and practice rooms behind to experience the South American country and its rich musical culture first-hand.  In a musical and cultural exchange arranged by WIU Director of Bands Dr. Mike Fansler, the university’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble will spend eight days between Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, collaborating with local musicians, giving and receiving clinics at two Brazilian universities, and offering the gift of music to underprivileged children.

“As an international traveler, I value my experiences so much that it’s important to me to offer similar opportunities to my students,” said Fansler.  “I’m really looking forward to watching and hearing the reactions of first-time travelers as they step off the plane into an unfamiliar country.”

Brazil is the fifth largest nation in the world in geographic terms, and WIU Associate Professor of Percussion Rick Kurasz says its musical offerings are as diverse as its land and people, and percussion is only a part of it.

“Since Brazil offers an enormous amount of musical styles, the amount of different percussion instruments and techniques is simply staggering. One could spend an entire lifetime just studying Brazilian percussion and still not know everything Brazil has to offer,” said Kurasz.

“I planned an itinerary enabling my students to teach as well as learn.  For example, at one university, we will receive a hands-on clinic on Afro-Brazilian drumming, then our students with marching band experience will take the lead, offering a clinic on American marching band techniques,” Fansler said.

The trip will also offer the WIU students unique access to professional Afro-Brazilian musicians and, thanks to a recording session, a lasting product of their collaboration.  Salvador public radio will air the performance, giving some of the students their first exposure through a foreign broadcaster.

Culturally and geographically, students will experience a stark contrast in Rio de Janeiro, easily South America’s most popular tourist destination, famous for its annual carnival celebrations and the massive statue depicting Christ with outstretched arms.  The heat, the scenery, the Portuguese language, and the ethnic diversity make Rio a far cry from west-central Illinois.  In an effort to help bridge the cultural gap, Fansler created a charitable component to his group’s mission.

Along with the 37 students and eight staff members, about 500 pounds of musical instruments and another one-to-two-hundred pounds of methods books will make their way from the state of Illinois, U.S.A., to the state of Bahia, Brazil.  Since last fall, Fansler has been gathering donated instruments and teaching materials from around the country with the plan to provide some of Brazil’s youth a rare musical opportunity.  Once the instruments are placed in their hands, the children will receive a music lesson from the WIU band members.

“In our WIU advanced music education courses, my students and I practice mock-teaching, instructing how we would with beginning instrumentalists. In a few weeks many of these same students will not only have the opportunity to teach beginners in a real setting, they will have the added challenge of doing so with children who speak a different language,” said Fansler.

The charitable endeavor has WIU Musical Instrument Repair Technician Chad Walker working overtime, restoring piles of used instruments to playing order.  Walker, who will travel with the band to Brazil, says he will log between one hundred and two hundred hours working on the donated instruments alone.

Things are no less hectic in the University Band’s office these days where Fansler and Associate Director of Bands Dr. Shawn Vondran are working their way through legal pads filled with to-do lists, collaborating with contacts across the country and on the opposite side of the equator, making sure that every part of this multi-faceted mission goes off without a hitch.  The planning started over a year and a half ago, but this is crunch time.

“Just when you think you have things under control and smoother sailing lies ahead, up jumps another problem with the word ‘URGENT’ flashing in bright red right before your eyes. At times, the stream of information in and out of our office moves at a speed that seems impossible to keep up with,” said Vondran.

In addition to the many items on their to-do lists comes the task of preparing first-time international travelers to take a leap outside their comfort zone.  While Fansler and Vondran have performed and taught all over the world, they are keenly aware that Brazil’s stamp will be the first to grace many of the passports traveling from Macomb to Rio next month.  But whether they are first-time or veteran globetrotters, there are some basic considerations Fansler hopes all his students will take into account.

“One of the most important things our students should remember is the vast difference between cultures, and they should understand and respect those differences.  It may be easy to assume that everything functions as it does in the United States, but that isn’t always the case.  In addition, students must realize that their mannerisms and actions reflect the culture of the U.S. and they need to be prepared to be ambassadors of our country,” Fansler said.

Because the first impacts of culture shock are often physical, the travelers are fortunate to have Macomb physician and WIU graduate Dr. David L. Miller along for the ride.  As a music major in the early 1990s, Miller envied classmates who had the opportunity to travel to Germany with the Jazz Studio Orchestra, noting the lasting connection the former students share to this day.

“It’s one of the things that I hope this Brazil experience will provide for the students going down.  They’ll be able to draw on this the rest of their lives and realize that this experience that they had in Brazil is one that they’ll never forget.  I really think that bond is important,” said Miller.

Next month, Miller will finally get his opportunity to travel internationally with a WIU band, and while he hopes his medical services won’t be needed, his presence on the trip will no doubt offer some piece of mind to his fellow travelers and their parents back home.  In addition, Miller’s participation is evidence of the kind of enduring relationship the School of Music works to forge with its students.   In fact, the doctor is one of two WIU band alums who will be joining the students in Brazil.  Fansler hopes the Brazil experience will give students like Eastman another good reason to stay connected with the university long after graduation day.

Are you a journalist or media company interested in our story?  Contact Abby Rhodes for information, at!


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