#2 - A Week of Firsts

Updated: 3 days ago

This week we celebrated our first month in Brazil. The time is indeed flying. Many other firsts also happened this week.


Monday, May 2, was the first day of in-person classes at UFU in over two years. Some students had only been studying online for the past two years. The first day of classes marked the first time this group set foot in a classroom at their own university, the first day they were seeing their teachers in person, and the first day they were finally having the college experience they had signed up for. On the other hand, students whose in-person studies were interrupted by the pandemic in March of 2020 were finally returning to classes on campus after two years of online study. This is essentially the scene across Brazil.

With my UFU colleague, Daniel, on UFU's first day of in-person classes in two years. Note the long line of students behind us waiting to get into the cafeteria. We skipped it, and Daniel took me to a tasty restaurant across the street.


Sandwiched into all of this was my first day teaching at the university. While I was trying to acclimate to my new duties, students were processing the range of emotions that come with finally being able to set foot on campus after years away due to a pandemic. I admit, it really hadn’t occurred to me that this was happening until one of my students pointed it out. I was so preoccupied with processing my own emotions, that I hadn’t noticed what the students were feeling. So I spent a little time talking with them about it. They seemed to need it, independent of what I was feeling. This is what teaching is about: putting your students at the center of the learning environment, even on your first day teaching in a foreign country.

Sala 7 (Room 7), where I teach most of my classes in the Instituto de Artes building.


There were ups and downs in my first week. One up was definitely the excitement of actually getting to do what I came here to do: teach music at a Brazilian university. After my own two-year wait, I was finally doing it. My colleagues Daniel and Carlos came to introduce me to my first two classes, Pratica de Conjunto 1 and 2, music ensemble 1 and 2. These classes meet at 8:00am and 9:50am. I’ve been convinced most of my life that no good music is made at 8:00am, so here’s hoping I’ve been wrong all these years.


After some introductions that went faster than I thought they would, Daniel and Carlos turned the time over to me. I'm not sure I was ready, but I thought, “Ok, here we go. This is it. This is what you've been waiting for all this time." Now, if I’m being honest, I had rehearsed what I would say on my first day of classes in Brazil so many times back in the U.S. that it had almost become a script. But when the moment finally came, ironically, it didn’t feel right. There, staring back at me, were a dozen masked Brazilian music students, waiting to hear what this American gringo had to say. I just wanted to talk with them naturally, so I did.


It was tricky to get going at first, but after some time, I loosened up and things flowed more naturally. I asked the students to introduce themselves and say why they had enrolled in my course. As I got to know them, I saw similarities between them and my students in the U.S. They had the same goals and dreams about a career in music. One distinct difference was that most of my students in the U.S. are between the ages of 18-22. The occasional 25 year-old comes along, but it’s rare. Here in Brazil, there were quite a number of “non-traditional” students, adults close to my age or older returning to school later in life for career advancement. Some were even considering a move to the U.S. or Canada. That surprised me.


My difficulties in understanding people persisted. There were multiple instances of, "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Can you repeat that please?" Around in circles we'd go until I finally understood… I think. Sometimes I wonder at what point, if any, I’ll be able to understand the natural pace of speakers. I really get lost when a group talks amongst themselves. It can be frustrating. As I write these words seated at the desk in Sala 7 (see photo), I can hear the gentle strains of two guitarists jamming in the hallway, playing chords and scales that are familiar to me. In this sense, it almost feels like home… except that also floating into the classroom is a hallway conversation in Portuguese that is unfamiliar to me. It’s amazing how three years of studying a language still isn’t enough to pick up what people are saying in an everyday conversation. My difficulties in understanding people in public spaces have become so commonplace that my son has now developed a less-than flattering impression of me leaning in to the speaker with eyes wide and mouth open in a look of bewildered stupidity. I'm not sure how I feel about this.


Later in the week, I had two pairs of guitar students in private lessons, four students in total. Teaching students in pairs is a new experience for me, but I have some ideas about how to make it work. What caught me off guard, however, was that only one of the four students showed up... without his guitar. The three students who didn’t come had a variety of reasons for not coming, all of which would probably not fly in the U.S. The student who did come without his guitar arrived quite late. His reason for not bringing his guitar is one I think I’ve never heard before. I did say it was a week of firsts, didn’t I? But I taught anyway and even gave an assignment.


Throughout the week, I ran into colleagues who asked me how things were going. When I told them about the debacle with my private guitar students, they all gave me the same knowing look and said, “Yup. This is normal. It’s the first week of classes. It’ll get better.” In truth, they had warned me beforehand that it might be this way, but I underestimated the scale of it, because there were also a number of students in my music ensemble classes that didn’t show up with what might be considered flimsy reasons. In the U.S., we use the weeks and even months leading up to "day one" of classes to prepare for that first day. In Brazil, the first week of classes is sort of a grace period where people organize themselves and prepare for the rest of the semester. I'm learning that part of this experience is not judging one culture by the standards of another.


The other big first was that I had my first performances in Brazil. I performed in Uberaba, a city about 1 hour and 15 minutes away, at a place called Cuba Jazz with a quartet of saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums. We played a mix of Brazilian and jazz standards and one of my original pieces. The next day I performed in Uberlandia, where we live and where UFU is located, at a placed called Libertas. Instead of a bassist, there was a second guitarist, my UFU colleague Daniel, who excels at Brazilian music styles. My Brazilian guitar playing pales in comparison to his, and I spent much of the evening observing his playing and mentally stealing ideas.

At Cuba Jazz Club in Uberaba, my very first gig in Brazil


By contrast, on the jazz songs we played, there was a definite difference in interpretation. There are certain patterns I expect to hear when I play jazz, but I didn't always hear them on these gigs. This is not to say that the musicians weren’t excellent, because they were. What I think is happening is that in the U.S. jazz musicians focus on American jazz styles with a nod to Brazilian jazz. In Brazil, it’s the opposite— they focus on Brazilian jazz with a nod to American jazz. In turn, the indigenous style tends to emerge as the more prominent one-- I’m sure I was not fulfilling the Brazilian musicians’ expectations of what they wanted to hear from a guitarist in a musical style in which the guitar is central. Daniel and I resolved that we would get together and trade ideas on how to improve in the other’s style. This is the beauty of international exchange.


One notable difference is that on both gigs, people sat in, that is, guests from the audience joined the band to play a song. This is not unheard of in the U.S., but it usually by invitation and generally not on the kind of gig where the band has rehearsed for a “concert” type performance. In Brazil, however, it seems more or less expected. In addition, the two guitarists that sat in at Cuba Jazz played my guitar. Now I didn’t mind, but in the U.S., I have found this to be uncommon. First, the "house" guitarist might not want anyone to play his guitar. American musicians can be protective of their instruments. Second, it can be disconcerting to play someone else’s instrument. It feels different, and you might not perform at your best. For this reason, most guitarists bring their own guitar. But the Brazilian guitarists didn’t seem to mind playing my guitar at all. Sitting in is just very much a part of the culture in Brazil, and as one of the guitarists said to me, “I’m always ready to sit in at any time, at any place.”


Cuba Jazz had a respectable number of people for a Monday night, all very friendly and into the music. But the crowd at Libertas was something else. It. was. PACKED! Hundreds of people lined every inch of that place, inside, out on the patio, on the sidewalk, and even in the unlit adjoining parking lot, where tables were set up. By the time guests sat in, there was a literal wall of people converging in on the band. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The crowd was a mix of local musicians, lots of music students from UFU, people the band had invited, and a ton of community folks. Many sang along with the more well-known Brazilian songs, and the applause at the end of each number was thunderous. It was a real party atmosphere. Of course, the alcohol flowing helped the festivities, but the food was also good. The band got fed several traditional Mineiro dishes after we packed up.


I would be remiss if I didn't mention that both performances started late, about 40 minutes. No one seemed to mind. In fact, I think they expected it. This aligns with the attendance issues I observed at UFU. If I said to a student, "Your tardiness is unacceptable. What if you showed up 30 minutes late to a gig?" then that student would probably laugh at me, because showing up 30 minutes late is exactly what happens on a gig in Brazil. It's a matter of cultural difference.

At Libertas in Uberlandia. Good thing this photo was taken early in the evening, before the sea of humanity that filled the room later in the night would have completely blocked the band from view.


On the leisure front, my UFU colleague, Elder and his wife, Gilhi, took us to an incredible place on the outskirts of Uberlandia called Recanto Das Aguas. The countryside was breathtaking, and we traversed some seriously rugged roads to get there. I was grateful we had a Jeep! Recanto Das Aguas is a kind of nature preserve located next to an institute of agriculture. It houses a restaurant that serves traditional Mineiro fare, and it offers recreational water activities.

A roadrunner strutting its stuff in a rural area of Uberlandia near the Recanto Das Aguas recreation area


Two of our kids kayaked, and we all took a boat ride out on the lake. The vegetation was beautiful, similar to photos I’ve seen of the Amazon, but it also looked eerily like a lake we went to last summer with our church young mens group. I don't know how this happened, but it was oddly reassuring. The last thing I thought I’d think while in Brazil is, “This reminds me of central Illinois.” Ha!

With my UFU colleague Elder and his wife Gilhi at Recanto Das Aguas

Out on the lake at Recanto Das Aguas


I’m starting to develop a little routine each day, driving back and forth to work. I finally did it for the first time in both directions without Siri. I can see how lonely it would be to come home each day to an empty apartment. But my family is there when I get home, and that truly makes it warm and comforting, including some great Brazilian dishes Shaunna has started to prepare.

Homemade pao de queijo, among the most traditional of Brazilian dishes. Yum!


I love watching my family respond to new situations and helping them adapt. I’m adapting right along with them, so we are truly having this experience together.

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