Life’s Symphony Never Ends

Hsiao-mei Ku is Professor of the Practice in Duke University’s music department and a violinist in the Ciompi Quartet, Duke’s resident string quartet. She is faculty-in-residence in Pegram residence hall, as well. And for the past four years, she has led groups of students to China as part of the DukeEngage program. She recently wrote to describe the experience.

From high to low, east to west, my musical journey has been a remarkable roller-coaster ride. Concert performances have taken me to many countries across the world: from Beijing Concert Hall to Carnegie Hall in the U.S, from the Turpan Basin in China, 154 meters below sea level, to the highest capital in the world, La Paz, Bolivia, at 3,567 meters above sea level. As a young artist, I performed many times for China’s leaders and at age eleven, I first appeared on television. In addition to serving as concertmaster in symphony, operatic, and chamber orchestras, and being a member of quartets, I have released two albums of Chinese composer Ma Sicong’s violin solo music as a Naxos artist. However, for the last four summers, my artistic creation has expanded to include Duke University students who join me to score another movement of life’s symphony.

During the summer months, I lead 12 Duke students to carry out Duke University’s DukeEngage “Empowerment Through Arts” program in Zhuhai, China. There Duke students have created beautiful melodies for the symphony. By teaching 16 integrative arts classes at Zhuhai No.9 Middle School, Duke participants encourage young Chinese students to pursue their dreams, try out novel art forms and motivate them to create endless possibilities. To support the upper voices with vigorous rhythmic energy, Duke students fill rich harmonies underneath every possible moment. They immerse themselves into the surrounding community and listen to the street noise or smell the odor of the neighborhood; they catch the different intonation of Putonghua and Cantonese languages; they awe at the rich history of Chinese civilization in Xian and Beijing during the excursion trip, and have a chance to catch a glimpse of the mixture of east and west influence on Hong Kong and Macau; they fill the joys of host brothers and sisters, and taste food from different regions; they play games and sing along with adorable children at the orphanage, and exchange ideas with Chinese university students or share their experiences with high school international track students who chase their dreams by applying to American universities; they dance and sing, sharing a fun experience with their No.9 students during the final show on stage, and then the next minute are squeezed into all kinds of shapes, becoming drops in the vast human sea when No. 9 students flood the stage after the show; they all laugh first and then begin to sob and howl, tears and sweat zigzagging down their faces. Do you hear this human symphony now? Does this beautiful music resonate in your heart?

It is during this two-month period when Duke students create this symphonic movement, that they rediscover themselves, and reevaluate their strengths and weaknesses; they extend their limits and confront their fears, they test what they have learned in Duke classrooms and verify their own ideas and goals. It was a jaw-dropping experience to say the least when I watched what DukeEngage students can achieve and it is hard to imagine the richness of what these students can experience each summer. This program is mentally challenging, physically exhausting, and emotionally exhilarating for both the students and me. It has provided me a once in a lifetime experience. There are no words, no pictures and no video clips that can ever capture the gigantic scale of this symphony accurately – the DukeEngage China Zhuhai program. There I feel renewed and reborn.