This article—by violinist Ler Ler Ma, who’s in the chamber music graduate program at the Tianjin Juilliard School—is part of a series about what Juilliard students have been up to this summer
By Ler Ler Ma
For international students, strict entry and exit rules due to COVID made it impossible to return to our home countries this summer. Knowing this, our Tianjin Juilliard professors surprised us with a trip to Aranya. This seaside town is an arts oasis that’s about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Tianjin, and we performed as part of an arts festival. Just like all great summer music festivals, it felt like a retreat that was both meaningful and enjoyable. As Dean Wei He said to us, “No holiday is complete without music-making.”
Tall trees gave shade as we walked through the town, where cicadas chirped in the simmering summer heat and colorful posters announcing our concerts were in constant sight. Navigating our way through the Chinese-speaking community, we found that the arts are a big part of this town’s culture, from the charming European-style alleyways to the unorthodox performance venues. Unexpectedly, Aranya was much more humid than Tianjin (which is also located near the sea), and our rehearsals and performances sometimes took place in open air, resulting in strings playing on soft bows and pitches always being just a little bit off! Wind players somehow managed to get sand on their instruments too. That didn’t affect us, though; the audiences apparently enjoyed our concerts, with many returning to attend multiple performances. One of the audience members was so moved by our performance of “Gabriel’s Oboe” that she accidentally knocked over a partition during the performance! Working with our professors in this informal and relaxed setting, all of us felt really inspired.
One of my fondest memories of Aranya is of our community outreach appearance. Although we were given almost no time to prepare, we quickly put together a performance lecture on music being based on collaboration, presenting pieces like “Yo Te Amo” and “Sai Ma.” I helped come up with the idea of using Sai Ma (“race horse” in Chinese) to have the instruments compete against each other and was ecstatic that the audience loved our banter. The kids really enjoyed the performance, especially when we presented our separate instruments; Takao, our bassoonist, made reed instruments out of cafeteria straws; Alla, our flutist, taught tango to the audience and got the grannies and uncles to dance; Steve, our community engagement professor, gave a brilliant jazz bass performance that received cheers!
Of course, no holiday is complete without some outdoor activities. The teachers and students played soccer together, and some locals even joined us for a few games of beach volleyball. My only regret is that we could not stay longer, and I really do hope to return next year!