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Avery Davis was still in high school when he was first introduced to the sheng — a traditional Chinese instrument made of bamboo pipes that looks a little like a xylophone turned on its side.

Holes in the pipes allow the performer to change the pitch of the instrument, or one can use combinations of pipes to play chords, much like a flute or a clarinet.

When Avery first played the instrument, he was in love. “I just loved the sound,” he said.

In high school, Avery had played percussion, as well as the baritone and euphonium, but it was a visit from a Valparaiso University professor who changed the way Avery saw his future.

“Professor Meng came to my high school to teach Chinese music and Chinese language. He was looking to put together a Chinese ensemble and suggested I try the sheng,” he said.

Professor Jianyun Meng is the director of the Confucius Institute at Valparaiso University, which also sets up Confucius classrooms in local high schools where students can learn about Chinese language and culture.

“It’s a difficult instrument,” Meng said of the sheng. “Avery’s very good. He’s very talented. He’s also had some very good teachers,” Meng laughed.

The Confucius classrooms, which are now in three Northwest Indiana high schools, are designed to get students interested in cross-cultural exchanges through music.

“Confucius said music is the best way to bring people together,” said Meng. “That has also been my experience. There’s no language barrier in music. It’s a more direct exchange.”

It’s this cross-cultural exchange through music that Avery picked up on quickly. After joining the ensemble in high school, Avery got to travel to China with a group of students where they got the opportunity to study at the Shanghai Conservatory.

On the trip, Avery was struck by the universality of music — how despite language barriers, music notes were the same.

“Music is like a universal language. Even though we may not speak the same language, we all play the same thing. We can share music with people from all around the world,” he said.

The experience inspired Avery to come to Valparaiso University to study both music and Chinese studies. He’s also had the opportunity to go back to China again, this time with Valparaiso’s Concert Band. Now he dreams someday of teaching English to Chinese students, using music as a common denominator.

“I’ve just fallen in love with Chinese culture,” he said. “I’ve had a passion to teach forever. I’d like to teach English to Chinese students. It’s hard to transition from speaking Chinese to English.”

“But I also want to teach music lessons, whether it’s theory or brass instrument workshops,” he continued. “Music is something that’s universal and means a lot to everyone. I want to help expose people to it, so they can appreciate what music can do.”

This story appears in the Fall 2013 issue of the VALPO Magazine. Read the full magazine online at valpo.edu/valpomag.