A Musician’s Global Journey

by Christoph Hodel / Oct 29, 2013 / 0 comments

Traveling abroad can have many benefits, and educationally can be a million times more effective than opening a textbook. The perks of traveling abroad are not purely educational, of course. Martin Hodel, my father, is a professional musician and has had multiple international experiences because of concerts and tours with various programs. I was curious to find out how important all these trips had truly been to him, and why. He was more than happy to share some of his experiences with me. He is currently leading Global Term Abroad with St. Olaf College, traveling with fourteen college students.


Martin Hodel


Right now, you’re leading the St. Olaf term abroad. What are your roles and duties in regards to the students?

This job is very diverse and has many different components. First of all, I’m part tour guide. It’s my responsibility to find out where and when we’re going somewhere, and to assign the students background reading on the location. Secondly, I’m teaching a course on the music of each country we are visiting. Because I’m a performer and not an ethnomusicologist, I’m spending a lot of time researching the music of the culture and finding examples. Thirdly, my job is to make sure that the students are experiencing the country as students, rather than tourists. In other words, helping them to understand a cross-section of the culture in depth is a wonderful challenge. Here, talking to your hosts about going beyond tourism is vital. For example, in India, the tour company that we were working with didn’t understand why we would want to visit a small village. However, small village life would be very important to understanding all aspects of India. My job is also to make sure the students have the food, living arrangements, and cultural experiences that will benefit them the most. Even though the students are legal adults, my role is that of a parent. But it’s very gratifying, and surprises that come along the way make it all worth it.


What preparations have you made for your adventures abroad?

Most of my trips have been to Germany, so I’ve made a point to learn the German language. I took a class in German from St. Olaf College and I regularly practice with German language learning tapes. In addition, the five months I spent studying and teaching in China during college were fundamental to helping shape my understanding of what it is to understand other cultures.


What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from working abroad?

First of all, do as much preparation as possible before you leave. This type of preparation includes language-learning (even if it’s only the basics) and reading about the culture. Be prepared for your living situation to change. Toilets and sinks may be different. Beds may be very different. Eating times are often quite different. In addition, if something is important to you (I enjoy spicy foods), bring it with you. Overall, the most important thing is your ability to be flexible and roll with the punches. Getting to know your hosts is key to working in other cultures. Show interest in their lives, work, and families. In Germany, for example, I discovered that taking extra time after a concert just to talk has been where most of my meaningful interactions have taken place. In contrast, when I worked in China and India, I discovered that mealtimes are not necessarily the best place to get to know people. Rather, taking walks or talking on the bus ride to work tended to be where people opened up to me.


How have these trips impacted your worldview?

They’ve made me realize that people in other nations value work and time differently. For example, vacation time in Europe is a much bigger deal than it is in the United States. I’ve also learned to eat some foods that I never thought I would enjoy. Now, some of my favorite foods are dishes that I’ve discovered abroad. Another thing I’ve noticed is that people do just fine in other political systems, like China. The main discovery I’ve had is simply that most everyone wants the same things in this world.


Are there any final thoughts about working abroad?

I keep coming back to the idea of showing interest in what people do and how they think. They will accept you like one of your own if you show interest in their lives. This, of course, also improves and affects your own working life. It’s also important to expect the unexpected. Things will happen to you that you did not plan for. Sometimes, transportation does not work out like it should, a concert venue does not have the right type of piano, or a concert promoter will try and pay you less than you are contracted for. In that case, pull out the written contract that you brought with you, and show them their legal obligation to pay you. Try to stay positive, but be firm and assertive.


How can international experiences change people’s lives?

Well, your perspective greatly changes the way you relate to others. Traveling abroad alters and broadens your perspective. The breadth of that perspective opens up many doors in the ways you think about your life, work, and relationships. Learning to know others from other countries and cultures is excellent practice for relating to people in your own country who are very different from yourself. When I’ve traveled, I’ve discovered religious practices, food, and music that enrich my life even now on a weekly, if not daily, basis.





Christoph Hodel is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program


Photo courtesy and copyright Martin Hodel