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Making the Way

Opportunities at ONU lead music student down career-shaping pathway

Ohio Northern University will open up pathways and possibilities you never saw coming. Whether it’s a little-known career path or a far-off corner of the globe, there’s ample opportunity to discover and explore uncharted territory, and often, that can make all the difference. It certainly did for junior music major Lydia Smith.

Smith has been passionate about music from a young age. She’s played the violin since she was 10, and she also learned the cello five years ago. Over the years, she learned that music is the perfect vehicle to teach many valuable lessons, but it wasn’t until recently that she realized it’s also the perfect gateway to learning about other cultures. A two-week trip to China – made possible by the Ruth E. Weir Memorial Scholarship for Research – completely changed her viewpoint.

“If you travel somewhere, you come back and you’re not completely the same person you were before you left, so I experienced a lot of change,” she says. 

While in China, her research mission was to learn to play the sanxian, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. As she studied the instrument, she was able to see how important music is in Chinese culture and how learning music there differs from the way she was taught. Chinese musicians rely heavily on learning music by ear, rather than reading notes off a page, so she had to adapt the way she learned in order to truly grasp how to play the instrument. 

“The fact that I was able to study there also opened my mind more to how people learn and how they learn differently there,” she says. “I think one of the best ways that you can learn about a culture is through music.”

When Smith returned to ONU in the fall, she went from being student to teacher. She taught her classmates to play several of the instruments, and she assembled the “Polar Peking Orchestra,” consisting of students and faculty, to perform on Nov. 4 in Presser Hall. Talk about a proud teacher moment!

I wanted to share the beautiful culture of China with these people and make them realize that there’s more than just these Western instruments – the flute and the violin and everything. I thought it went really well,” she says. “The fact that they’d just learned these instruments in two months or so – they did an awesome job with it, and I was really proud of them in the end.

The concert brought Smith back to an influential chain of events set into motion two years earlier, back when she was a freshman music performance major with her sights set on a career as a concert violinist. It was a class called “Non-Western Music” that really opened her eyes – and her heart – to the field of ethnomusicology, the study of the music of different cultures. She became fascinated with Asian music especially, and when a group of Chinese musicians came to campus to perform, it was the perfect opportunity for her to dive deeper into her subject of interest. But it was more than just that – it was another one of the signposts to guide her path.

Among the Chinese performers was a man named Shengyuan Tong, whose son, Chang Tong, BM ’16, also attended ONU. After the concert, Smith met the elder Tong for the first time, and he taught her how to play the erhu, another type of stringed Chinese instrument. It was an auspicious meeting; although Smith had no idea at the time, their paths would soon cross again. 

Fast forward to two years later, when Smith embarked on her trip to China. Once there, she connected with Tong again; only this time, she saw him in a much different light.

“I didn’t know exactly how important he was until I actually got to China and saw, ‘Oh, he’s leading the Beijing Peking Opera Orchestra. That’s a big deal.’ I was like, ‘Oh my, I need to really respect this man.’”

Tong also has connections with many important and talented people, and as such, he was able to arrange lessons for Smith with one of the most skilled sanxian players he knew. She learned from a true master.

Now, as she tackles her junior year, Smith has set her sights on a new dream – to become an ethnomusicologist, traveling the world, learning about cultures through music, and sharing her insights with students as a college professor. 

“Music is a universal language, but it is so different from one country to another that I would argue that within that language, there are different dialects,” she says. “You definitely can express yourself through music and have people understand from one side of the world to the other. But there is still that barrier with the dialect, and I think we should try to break down that barrier and learn about it.”

To think – all the doors that had to open, all the dominoes that had to fall, all the forks in the road she had to choose between – they’d all led her to this moment, this experience, this epiphany to discover her passion and her calling. ONU made the way, from the connections she made to the opportunities placed before her. What more could any Polar Bear hope for?