Formal piano studies at the age of seven and martial arts training in Tae Kwon Do and Kapkido as a 10-year old sparked a fascination both in music and in other cultures, particularly those of Asia, in Ansel Wallenfang that has since grown into a life-long passion.

Beginning this August, Wallenfang will have an entire year to pursue those passions up close and personal thanks to a $22,000 fellowship from the Providence, R.I. based Thomas J. Watson Foundation.

A senior piano performance major at Lawrence University, Wallenfang Monday (3/17) was named one of 48 national recipients of a 2003-04 Watson Fellowship, a grant that supports a “wanderjahr” — a year of independent travel and exploration outside the United States — on a topic of the student’s choosing.

Wallenfang, 22, was selected for the fellowship from nearly 200 nominees representing 50 of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges and universities. He is the 59th Lawrence student awarded a Watson Fellowship since the program’s inception in 1969.

Wallenfang will embark on a 12-month study of music and Asian cultures in mid-August, spending six months each in China and India, beginning in Xi’an, China with extended stops along the way in Guagnzhou, Ji’nan, Beijing, Calcutta and eventually Pune, India. His project will center on two instruments that are indigenous and unique to each country’s musical identity: the erhu, China’s two-stringed violin, and the tabla, India’s famed classical drums.

“My fascination with Asian music and my desire to learn the instruments and traditions surrounding them run very deep,” said Wallenfang. “I vividly remember the first I heard the tabla, in accompaniment to Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Everything seemed to stop. I discovered a new and ethereal sound that still speaks to me in a way clearer than anything I have ever known.

“The same is true for the Chinese erhu,” he added. “Its pleasing, unique tone conjures a flood of notions and images in my mind of what it is like to live in China.”

In addition to learning to play the two instruments, Wallenfang intends to study the historical, cultural and spiritual roles of the intruments, examining such basic questions as how they are used today, their role in ceremony, meditation and professional concert, the traditions surrounding them and the regional variations of technique and style in both instruments.

His study will include intense practice time with both instruments, associations with musicians and performers at concerts and recitals as well as visits to temples and other sacred sites to evaluate the role of music in ceremony and spiritual life through direct observation and participation.

“I hope not only to answer these questions, but also carry the essense of these musical traditions and make them a permanent part of my life,” said Wallenfang, who has visited China twice in the past year as part of two separate Lawrence study tours supported by the Freeman Foundation grant. “The meaningful relationships I hope to build through music will help transform my comprehension of the East-West dichotomy as I work toward a new and insightful understanding of music, other peoples and myself.

“I realize this won’t be easy, but I’m ready for, and need the shock of, throwing myself into cultures that are wholly unlike my own for the sake of my evolution as a person and as a musician.”

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.