Saturday, July 05, 2014

Shotgunning; or, How to Neurotically Channel Your Fears Into Inquiry Emails

It's all very well and good to submit a proposal to explore new and far-flung places for a year, but if you say you're going to find a ghijek master teacher to work with in Urumqi, and by some miracle some person or organization decides yours is a worthy cause to fund, then, well, you had better find yourself a ghijek master teacher in Urumqi. Believe it or not, this is somewhat trickier than perusing the yellow pages--looking for Yelp in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region does not, in my experience, yield a successful result.

In fact, besides not having any idea how I would secure housing in rural outlying villages in Azerbaijan or Indonesia, one of the most daunting aspects of this project was trying to conceive of my day-to-day existence, how I would pursue my project on a practical level.
Just to clarify, I still don't know exactly how I'm going to find a place to live in the fringe villages of Azerbaijan or Indonesia, but my current tactic of active avoidance, denial, and blind faith has proven comforting so far.
My initial approach to the latter concern was to blindly google such phrases as, "mugham Azerbaijan," "cimbalom band Czech Republic," "Uyghur music Xinjiang," etc. and hope that the resulting links and articles would immediately reveal the keys to the musical kingdom. Get it? Keys? Like musical keys? Actually, most of the musical styles I hope to study don't adhere to a harmonic system that uses the Western music concept of key signatures, but I digress. My nebulous googling did produce some useful tidbits; for instance, I noticed that the Chinese government had announced construction of Uyghur music centers around Xinjiang, and that there was an international mugham festival in Baku every March. I slowly refined my searches, looking for music conservatories, cultural centers, local festivals, as well as ensembles, composers, and researchers in my places of interest. Everything was fair game, from Facebook to the Fulbright Scholar database. I compiled a tangled list of names and contact details for anyone who seemed like they might have any remote insight on the musical cultures I wanted to explore, and created a massive spreadsheet. Rotary Clubs and radio DJs made it on this list. So did prep school music teachers and crossover violinists and many, many corpulent gentlemen in traditional Moravian folk costumes.

And then came the inquiry emails. Emails upon emails. Tens, dozens of emails every which way, each one sent with the hope that some aspect of my self-introduction and ambiguous description of my project would resonate with the recipient. (This is a technique my mom refers to as 'shotgunning.') A lot of the messages bounced right away, and even more went unanswered into cyberspace. And who could blame them?

Here was the gist of my message:
Dear Madam/Sir, 
Mucho gusto! I'm an American student and violinist *hoping* to win a lot of money to study traditional music styles in your area. I don't really know anything about them, but it appears you might. Is that true? Can you hook me up?  
Rock on! 
Most sincerely, 
Audrey "Andrew"* Wozniak
*In my experience, "Audrey" can be a difficult name for some non-native English speakers to wrap their heads around--I frequently have an unwitting alter-ego named Andrew, or if I'm lucky, Andrei.

But then a handful garnered a response. In some cases, it was merely a suggestion of someone else to contact who would be more qualified or knowledgeable. (Cue more emails.) In a few cases, I stumbled upon people who were genuinely interested in my project because it so closely related to their own work. Among these were Jesse and Elise, Fulbright Scholars studying music and doing ethnomusicology research in the Czech Republic and Xinjiang, respectively, who patiently answered my questions about the local music scene, connecting with musicians in the area, language learning, housing options, traditional customs, and more. Jesse gave me tips about cultural festivals in Brno, while Elise offered to set up music lessons at the university where she studies.

After this first round of shotgunning, I continued to solicit help in finding contacts for my Watson project--often inadvertently. I didn't necessarily go around to every person I knew asking if they had a pal in Hungary; however, as word of my travel plans inevitably got around to my friends, professors, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers, people began volunteering information that could help--whether it be that they had friends in Indonesia, or that there is an sheet music app that would basically eliminate my need to bring stacks of paper on my journey. My violin teacher warned me about stringent import/export laws regarding instruments and ivory (found in some violin bows), and offered to lend me her carbon fiber bow for the year. My professional jazz pianist friend hooked me up with his pals in the embassies in Azerbaijan and a Czech military wind band conductor. I was invited to visit Macau, Tibet, India, and Burma on my journey, and have had the chance to discuss my project with world-class musicians, composers, and scholars in the States and abroad. I mentioned this in an earlier post, but it's fascinating how the world seems to organize itself around mugham musicians when that's what you need--in fact it hasn't. Observing a niche network reveal itself to you when you previously had no idea that it even existed is a source of awe. It's also a reassurance that you don't need to weave a new web, per say, but can allow yourself to tap into something much bigger than yourself.

At this point, old worries about not knowing how to go about "doing" my project have dulled to a low roar in my head, to be replaced by more pressing matters. For your reference and mine, I have compiled lists of some of my previous worries, as well as some that have arisen.

  • Is it possible to die of loneliness?
  • How do you find housing in Azerbaijan/Indonesia/every place I'm going? 
  • What am I actually going to do on a daily basis?
  • How weird is it to ask people to teach you their traditional music styles for adaptation to a non-traditional instrument (aka my violin)? 
  • How do I find said people?
  • How do I know what places to go, in what order, and for how long? And how do I arrange visas?
  • Is it worth it to try to learn a language for just two months?
  • How am I going to work out in each place?
  • I can cook eggs three ways, and steam vegetables. Will I starve?


  • Will I wreck myself if I'm on anti-malaria antibiotics for four months? Is it better to just contract malaria, and take antibiotics then?
  • [Related: Will daily doses of Deet for months have adverse consequences for my well-being? Am I getting the right bug spray brand to ward off Indonesian mosquitoes?]
  • Will my parents constantly worry about my well-being, as they have told me daily for months now? If so, can they handle it? Will my little sister applying for college be enough to distract them?
  • Can I form and maintain meaningful relationships with others when I am going to be on the move for a year, if not two or three or more?
  • Who am I? What am I doing? What does it all mean? [This is actually an old worry, but it always arrives fresh when I least expect it.]
  • What the hell am I going to pack? Can I pack efficiently without condemning myself to the zip-off pants look? Is this the time to start experimenting with natural regulation of body oils and stop washing my hair? [Answer: it is not.]
These, dear readers, are the questions that keep me up tossing and turning these nights. If you have the answers to any of them, by God, don't hold back.

[Six days until I hit the road!]