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UW’s Griffith Teaches, Leads Orchestra in Shanghai

July 15, 2019
orchestra grouped for photo
UW Department of Music Professor Michael Griffith recently conducted the 40-member Shanghai University Orchestra during a two-week teaching excursion at China’s Shanghai University. Griffith also was on the faculty for the university’s International Short Course program. (Shanghai University Photo)

University of Wyoming Department of Music Professor Michael Griffith completed a two-week teaching excursion at China’s Shanghai University late last month.

Griffith, director of orchestral activities who also just completed his 30th year as UW Symphony Orchestra conductor, was on the faculty for Shanghai University’s International Short Course program. He taught a class on orchestral music of the East and the West. He had 35 students in the class, mostly undergraduates from various majors across Shanghai University’s campus.

“Professors are brought in from all over the world, but the students in the program are all from Shanghai University. Some were familiar with orchestra music, so Beethoven was nothing new. To others, it was a revelation,” Griffith says. “One interesting assignment I gave them was about a famous Chinese orchestral work ‘Spring Festival Overture’ by Li Huanzhi. They all would have heard it, on television at least, at the Chinese New Year.”

He played them two performances, one with the instruments of a typical Western symphony orchestra, the other using traditional Chinese instruments, such as pipas, erhus, suonas and Chinese percussion. The students wrote a short paper comparing the two, telling Griffith which they preferred and why.

“It forced them to think about what they heard -- they could hear it over and over on Youku, their version of YouTube. Plus, they had to write in English. Their answers were fascinating,” he says. “It’s very exciting and challenging to teach when the students’ first language is not the same as mine. I had a translator, even though they had all studied English. Some were quite fluent, some less so. I had to pace my lectures to allow for the translator to interject herself and not use too many longer, complicated sentences.”

He also had to structure tests to measure the students’ knowledge in a way that allowed them a chance to succeed, even if their English was limited.

“It made me think hard about my teaching style instead of just doing it like I always do, and that’s a good thing, an interesting challenge,” Griffith adds.

During his Shanghai experience, Griffith conducted the 40-member Shanghai University Orchestra in a program of Schubert, Dvorak, Liu Tieshan and Stravinsky.

This was Griffith’s fourth trip to Shanghai. He reflected on the differences between the East’s and West’s music.

“The biggest difference is that East Asian music is mostly pentatonic, a different scale from what we use in the West,” Griffith says. “Their music for symphony orchestra is quite distinctive that way. They also tend to use more program music -- music that is about something external, not just interesting sounds.”

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