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Matt Busch: Taking Western Music To China

November 01, 2018 - 4 minute read

Matt Busch

“There’s no real network of western musicians here,” he says from Hainan. “It’s taken a good amount of sweat and tears to get musicians together, find places to play and educate people about the value of western music. Just finding a bass player to play a basic jazz line took us four or five months, but I’m learning to be a better educator by teaching people and performing. It’s definitely an adventure.”

Busch had been teaching music and performing in Las Vegas and California, including with the Las Vegas Philharmonic, when one day the phone rang. It was a former mentor saying he had the perfect job for Busch—in China. “I laughed and thought he was joking,” Busch recalls.

But after investigating it, and realizing he would have freedom to hire other positions around him, he warmed to the prospect. Within six months he and his handpicked team were headed to Hainan to help introduce playing principles that have shaped the western jazz and orchestral traditions.

“I had no idea what the culture or language were like in China, but I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants guy,” Busch says.

He found himself one of just a handful of foreigners on a campus of 22,000, in the city of Haikou, which at 2.5 million residents is small by Chinese standards. Busch leads the wind ensemble at the conservatory.

“Part of what we’re doing is training teachers and performers so they can teach primary and high school and participate in local orchestras or wind bands,” he says.

The first year held plenty of lessons on how to work successfully within a foreign culture. A year later, Busch and his team teach fully in Mandarin Chinese, though deeper conversations remain a challenge.

Busch grew up in a musician’s home, his father Dr. Michael Busch working as an organist at church and professor of music and director of choral activities at Concordia University Irvine.

“Every Sunday I sat in the pew and was completely enveloped by the sound of the organ,” Matthew remembers. “That really moved me as a child. One time when Dad finished playing something in a service, I stood up on the pew and said, ’That’s my dad!’”

Matthew chose the trumpet and warmed to the idea of being a musician, then realized he had skill as an educator as well.

“I feel most fulfilled when I’m teaching as well as performing,” he says.

For four years he studied music at Concordia University Irvine, becoming familiar with the piano, woodwinds, and percussion and string instruments.

“What was great about Concordia was I took each of those varied pursuits and applied them to my instrument,” he says.

I feel most fulfilled when I’m teaching as well as performing.

Another key building block was playing and singing in various venues on tours in different states as part of the Concordia Choir and instrumental ensembles.

“Playing in the same place is one thing, but experiencing different halls and challenges and meeting new people was such a joy,” he says. “I was given so many opportunities to grow as a player. That was excellent for me.”

Not to mention having his dad as his professor in choir and music theory.

“Seeing him in the role of an educator was such a huge inspiration for me,” Matthew says. “I value so highly the liberal arts education I received at Concordia. I learned to write, to speak and to solve problems. That became so invaluable not just here but in my master’s education and everywhere I go.”

Busch graduated from Concordia Irvine with a BA in music performance in trumpet, then continued to the University of Redlands, earning a master’s degree in trumpet performance. Today he plays four different trumpets in different keys depending on the piece of music. The smallest is used in baroque music such as Bach or Vivaldi. The big B-flat trumpet he uses for everything from jazz to orchestra.

His main non-musical hobby is Brazilian jujitsu, in which he has attained his blue belt. The wrestling sport, which Busch describes humorously as “uncooperative yoga in pajamas,” focuses and clears his mind in the midst of a foreign culture which can at times be overwhelming.

“The studio is a great place to go unwind,” he says. “I get to drop in at different academies and gyms when I travel, and study with different people. When you’re sparring with a partner or drilling a technique, you can only think about that or you’ll react late.”

The other benefits of living in southern China are the food and travel. Busch says he hasn’t had one bad meal since being there, and that the food is diverse — and spicy. Travel to nearby Asian countries has been “a huge positive.”

Busch aims to earn a doctorate in music at some point, becoming a conductor and a performing artist. For now, the China adventure continues.

“I hope to be at the conservatory another two years, building a program and starting a culture to pass on to the next batch of teachers,” Busch says.

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