Kate’s Performance Tour to China & Japan: A trip that set a path for life

I grew up in rural Northeastern Iowa and had never left the country before my college wind ensemble went on a three-week performance tour through the People’s Republic of China and Japan. I attended a small, liberal arts school called Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where I started my degree in Music Education but ultimately graduated with a BA in Music and a minor in Business. It was my ensemble, the Wartburg Wind Ensemble’s, tour to China and Japan* that showed me the path that I wanted to follow, a career in arts administration.

Me posing in front of our life-size concert poster in Shanghai

I was incredibly nervous to be leaving the country for the first time, especially to places that were so different than the middle-America in which I grew up! The Wind Ensemble has a tradition of traveling every three years and had a strong system in place to ensure everyone felt comfortable and was prepared before taking off. Planning for the trip started at least two years in advance. My band director, Dr. Craig Hancock, had a number of events planned to get the entire ensemble prepared and excited about the trip!

A promotional poster for our concert in Uto, Japan

Our trip was scheduled for the month of May, so we had all school year to get ready to travel. We were paired up and assigned a destination or landmark that we were going to be visiting, to research and then present to the entire ensemble. Every Friday, one pair of musicians would present on their topic – I was assigned the city of Ichikawa, Japan, where we were to perform a concert! With each presentation, we grew more excited and were better prepared with what to expect on our tour. We had a fellow music student who was Japanese tutor us in useful Japanese phrases and had sessions where we practiced eating with chopsticks! Closer to our departure date, we went over packing tips for our suitcases and instruments and were all assigned one piece of percussion equipment that we were responsible for transporting.

The 2013 Wartburg Wind Ensemble Clarinet Section posing for a picture before we fly to Beijing

Finally, it was time to leave! The 15-hour flight from Chicago to Beijing seemed to take no time at all (probably because of all the movies I watched and the little bit of sleep I was able to catch). We spent a whirlwind week in China, traveling from Beijing to Xi’an to Shanghai. In that time, my fellow ensemble members and I went on rickshaw rides, visited hutongs, went to the Beijing Zoo, took in the magnificent Temple of Heaven, toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, played a concert on the Great Wall of China, saw the incredible Terra Cotta Warriors, and performed at the Chinese National Music Hall! The Great Wall of China was not like I imagined – there were many more steps than I thought there would be, huge uneven ones at that! We played a concert at a designated area for performances and the experience was one I’ll never forget.

Performing on the Great Wall of China! There were many more stairs than I was expecting.

Next, we flew to Tokyo where we began the Japanese portion of our tour. We had local tour guides show us around the city, including the Meiji Shrine, Asakusa, and Takeshita Street in Harajuku. We had Shabu-shabu for dinner and took in the night life. After Tokoyo, we traveled to Ichikawa, where we performed an exchange concert with a local school ensemble. In Nikko, Utsunomiya, and Uto, we stayed with host families in their homes instead of in hotels. It was great to form relationships with local Japanese families, even when we didn’t speak the same language! My roommate Jessie and I communicated with one of our host families through a translation app on our host-sister’s phone. Jessie and I spent an entire free day with the Hakota family, who took us to a Japanese dairy farm, Edo Wonderland (a theme park of sorts that is created to look and feel like the Edo or Tokugawa period, between 1603 and 1868), a bread-making workshop, and to see fireworks at a local cultural celebration.

Top: At dinner with a fellow clarinet player from Nikko, Japan; Bottom: With our host mom and host sister at tea in Kumamoto, Japan

We performed many concerts along our tour and had the opportunity for exchanges with local schools. One of my most memorable performances was when my clarinet section performed ‘Clarinet Candy’ from memory and dropped out one by one until it was just my clarinet professor playing! It was our performances in large concert halls that inspired me to follow a career in arts administration. Until that point, I had been studying music education because it is something I am passionate about and the only “real job” I knew of at the time for someone who was interested in a career in music. My performance tour to China and Japan showed me that there were many other types of jobs that existed for people who were good at organizing things and wanted to work with musicians and music students. After all, someone had to organize our tour, book the concert halls, arrange the performance, and lead our trip!

Me on Itsukushima Island, Japan in front of the “floating” Torii Gate. Photo credit Benjamin Bogard

My performance tour to China and Japan not only opened my eyes to new cultures and provided me with new experiences and learning opportunities, it also inspired me to pursue a career in arts administration. This experience ultimately led me to my position as Marketing & Communications Manager at Encore Tours! Performance tours are so much more than just traveling and performing abroad, they can change lives. It changed mine.

*Encore Tours did not organize this tour.

About the Author

Kate Huffman

Kate first discovered the power of intercultural communication and exchange through music on a month-long trip to China and Japan with her college wind ensemble. She's been hooked on traveling ever since and has performed with different groups in cities such Beijing, London, and Kyoto to name a few! Kate is a clarinet player and a passionate arts advocate with degrees in music, arts administration, and cultural policy. Kate is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Encore Tours.

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