Cross-cultural interactions — one musical, the other migratory — lie at the heart of two year-long study abroad adventures a pair of Lawrence University seniors will embark upon later this year as the college’s latest Watson Fellows.
Benjamin Klein, a music performance (tuba) and theory/composition major from Sheboygan, and Kelly Scheer, a biology major from Lisbon, Iowa, were among two of the 50 recipients of a $22,000 fellowship announced Tuesday (3/15) by the Providence, R.I.-based Thomas J. Watson Foundation. The fellowship supports a “wanderjahr,” a year of independent travel and exploration outside the United States on a topic of the student’s choosing.
Klein and Scheer were selected for the fellowship from 184 nominees representing 50 of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges and universities. They are the 63rd and 64th Lawrence students awarded a Watson Fellowship since the program’s inception in 1969.
Denied a request as a fifth-grader to take up the drums on the parental logic that they were “too loud,” Klein instead turned his musical interests to the tuba. Two years later as a seventh-grader, he secretly purchased a manuscript book and began composing music.
Today, as equal parts performer and composer, Klein wants to expand his non-traditional perception of what music is, a view that emphasizes interaction in any environment between the artists themselves or the artists and their audience. To that end, beginning in July, he will use his fellowship for trips to Amsterdam, Sydney and Hong Kong to explore innovating music by crossing cultural boundaries.
“These three cities are alight with new ideas,” said Klein. “Since the 1960s, Amsterdam has become a center for new music. The importance of music in the cultural life of Syndey is recognized throughout the world in the sail-like shells of its famous opera house, but it is little known that popular musicians are producing new and creative works for an innovative music theatre scene. And in Hong Kong, there is the collision of Western and non-Western, democratic and communist cultures, a dichotomy that has exploded into one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic metropolises.”
Klein plans to stir music’s melting pot by contacting numerous acclaimed tuba players and composers in the three locales as well as by establishing relationships with young and emerging musicians and artists through important international music festivals held in or near each city.
“I may meet a percussionist who specializes in Indonesian drumming and is looking for other musicians to start a new ensemble or a choreographer who needs music for a dance portraying the construction of a Chinese skyscraper or a sculptor who wants a sound installation made up of clinking metal to accompany a new exhibition of mobiles,” Klein said, explaining how he hopes to incorporate the element of “artistic interaction” to create musical innovations.
As a tuba player, Klein has performed with the Lawrence University Symphony Orchestra, jazz and wind ensembles and the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University. His work as a composer has been recognized with the Pi Kappa Lambda Composition Award and the James Ming Scholarship in Composition.
“Through my composition and my tuba performance, I have tried to realize music’s freedom,” says Klein. “I want to celebrate and share that freedom. As a restless musician, the orchestra or institution can not contain the interactions that I deem so important.
“My fellowship will enable me to discover the full import that contemporary music can have in the specific places where this music is having the most dynamic impact,” Klein added. “Working with emerging musicians with unique cultural perspectives will stretch my own creative boundaries.”
As a child, Scheer enjoyed learning about long and arduous journeys, whether it was American settlers working their way west on the Oregon Trail or the arrival of robins and redwing blackbirds each spring from some far-away place. She never lost that fascination with long-distance travels, especially for birds, and admits she still remains in awe of their migratory trips.
Scheer’s Watson fellowship will take her to the Far East for a year, where she will turn her interest with bird migration into scientific study of one of the world’s longest and most important migratory bird routes, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Covering 20 countries and stretching from Russia’s Siberia to New Zealand’s south island, the flyway annually provides navigational guideposts for more than 50 species and an estimated five million individual migratory shorebirds.
During her year abroad, Sheer, like her study subjects, will travel the length of the 15,000-mile flyway herself. Along the way, she will visit the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary in the Phillipines, Moreton Bay near Brisbane in Australia, the sanctuaries of Firth of Thames and Firewell Spit along the coasts of New Zealand’s north and south islands, respectively, and the western coast of South Korea along the Yellow Sea. She will end her journey with a three-month stay at the Moroshechnoye Estuary on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. At each stop, Scheer will study not just the shorebirds themselves, but the habitat conservation efforts made in those countries as well.
“In each of these countries, I want to design field work and observational studies to investigate the various shorebird species and their migratory behavior,” said Scheer, who is spending the winter and spring terms in Costa Rica on an off-campus study program through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. “These studies may include a census of shorebird species to gather data on their diversity or the number of species in the community and their relative abundance. I also would like to execute surveys of the shoreline regions in order to examine the status of the existing habitat for these birds.”
One of the central aspects of Scheer’s project will be gaining an understanding through interviews with local scientists as well as local citizens as to the types of interactions the public and the birds have and the “sense of place” the shorebirds hold in each culture.
“I want to find out what conservation actions are in place to protect the birds and their habitat,” said Scheer, who undertook an independent summer research study of bat activity in Door County last summer. “I want to try to determine how the public responds to these conservation attempts and what role the birds play in the local culture. Do they have any religious or historical significance? Do the long-distance flights of these birds evoke a sense of awe and wonder in these people as they do me? ”
While age, experience and education have answered many of the questions Scheer playfully entertained as a child about birds, she says she is still “utterly enthralled” by birds’ self-propelled passages around the globe.
“Migratory birds are so incredibly in tune with their environment in ways that humans can not comprehend,” said Scheer. “They are truly global citizens, ignoring the artificial borders governments have delineated. I have always wondered what it must be like for a migratory bird and my fellowship project will provide me the closest glimpse possible.
“I am ready for the challenges, both mental and physical, this project will afford me,” Scheer added. “I’m eager to spread my own wings and soar.”
The Watson Fellowship Program was established by the children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM Corporation, and his wife, Jeannette, to honor their parents’ long-standing interest in education and world affairs. Watson Fellows are selected on the basis of the nominee’s character, academic record, leadership potential, willingness to delve into another culture and the personal significance of the project proposal.