Joanne Kong

August 31, 2015
Music professor participates in cultural exchange

At the end of a long academic year, most faculty look forward to a bit of relaxation, and a slightly slower pace. The opposite was true for music professor Joanne Kong, who found herself on a plane just a few days after graduation.

Kong was en route to Santa Catarina, a state in southern Brazil, to share her talents as a musician and educator. The 11-day trip was organized through Partners of the Americas, an organization that develops sister state relationships between countries around the world. “Virginia’s sister state is Santa Catarina,” Kong explained, “and the State Department funds travel for representatives from each state to visit the other in different areas like music and the arts, education, science, and agriculture.”

In 2013, Patrick Cavalheiro, a conductor from Santa Catarina, visited several schools throughout Virginia and worked with both the UR Chamber Ensembles and the UR Symphony Orchestra. Kong helped organize Cavalheiro’s activities, so when it came time for a Virginian to travel to Santa Catarina, she was selected.

Kong was excited to experience Brazilian music and culture, and the rich music-making traditions of Santa Catarina, while also sharing her expertise in teaching and performing classical music. “I had heard that in Santa Catarina, there is not as much emphasis on classical music training,” she said. “There’s a rich folk tradition, but also emphasis on popular music. A part of my trip was to help them see the benefits of a wide variety of types of music that are available to them.”

“I taught five piano master classes where I worked with students of all ages from beginner through adult, and I had the chance to meet with the teachers as well,” she said. “It was a fantastic way to share ideas about how to teach piano, and aspects of music performance.”

She also felt a strong appreciation for the teachers in smaller towns who were working with limited resources. “I was so impressed with the dedication of the teachers to nurturing musical abilities of their students, even though the availability of good musical instruments was, in some cases, quite limited,” she said.

Kong had the additional opportunity to meet with local leaders, participate in media interviews, and perform with two different orchestras as a concerto soloist. “The joy of getting together with people I don’t know who share this common language of music, it was a tremendous experience and I’ll never forget it,” she said.

When Kong wasn’t teaching and performing, she was immersing herself in the Brazilian way of life; she stayed in Cavalheiro’s home and his mother’s home during the trip, rather than staying in a hotel. “You really get to know the people, see how they live, see the culture, and enjoy that new experience,” she said.

She was treated to a mini-performance of gaucho music and singing, shown local landmarks, and sampled Brazilian cuisine. “I enjoyed how people seemed to take more time than Americans to enjoy the company of others in social and family settings,” she said.

“The Brazilians are so quick to show appreciation, they’re so outgoing and friendly,” she said. “Their energetic approach to everything that they do, and their appetite for learning, I was really inspired by that.”

Kong hopes to similarly inspire students in both Richmond and Brazil, as she and Cavalheiro plan future musical exchanges over the next few years. “It’s wonderful when individual artists or conductors like Patrick or I get to visit other places, but it’s even more beneficial when our students have the opportunity to go,” she says. They are hoping to bring Brazilian students to Richmond and then for UR students to visit Santa Catarina.

“I think exchanges give us the opportunity to feel that all cultures are really one culture,” Kong said. “Music is about sharing what it is that makes us human, and to do that as much as possible by reaching out through programs such as this, it really makes me feel so fortunate to be an educator.”