From Abu Dhabi to Vancouver: UBC alumnus builds international teaching career

By Michelle Keong

Chris Ward Photo: David Ward

Chris Ward
Photo: David Ward

Chris Ward (MMus’13) teaches one of two band programs in the United Arab Emirates. Despite the distance, he continually returns to his old stomping grounds at UBC. Ward, who holds a master’s degree in saxophone, recently participated in the 2015 UBC Summer Music Institute and helped Robert Taylor, director of bands, organize the third annual Wind Conducting Symposium.

In this issue of High Notes, Ward and Taylor reflect on international career building opportunities and the value of staying connected.

How was the Wind Conducting Symposium?

Robert Taylor: Chris was a graduate student here when we started the symposium in 2012, so he has been involved in the project since the beginning. The way it works is that we provide an ensemble, mostly of UBC students and alumni. Participants conduct the ensemble from the podium and they receive feedback live and on video. It’s a very intense environment, and Chris has been critical in his role to create a comfortable space for teachers to take risks and grow during the workshop.

Chris Ward: The sense of community this year was incredible. People said they felt so supported and felt comfortable to try new things. You can see that people were getting way out of the comfort zone and experimenting with new ways of moving and communicating.

What has it been like working at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi?

CW: From the classroom perspective, it’s similar to my first job as a music teacher in the state of Washington, except I’m not doing marching band or pep band. But one of the big differences is the opportunity to travel to really exotic locations all around the world, whether on holiday or for class trips. Service is a very big part of the school, so in my first year, I went on a service trip to Borneo and this last year during spring break, I went with students to Jordan for Habitat for Humanity. There are also conferences all around the Middle East, in Singapore, India, and other locations far from home. This upcoming year I have back-to-back trips, one to the Netherlands for an international jazz band and vocal jazz ensemble festival and the other to Qatar for an arts trip with my middle school band students.

What do you gain from these travel opportunities that are directly related to your job?

CW: Travel for personal and professional reasons has been a big part of my growth as an educator. Many music teachers can feel isolated because they are the only instrumental music specialist at their school. In Washington State, I took personal days to watch other band directors in the state teach so I could learn new rehearsal strategies. In Abu Dhabi, there’s no other band program in the city. The only other one is in Dubai, and those are the only two in the UAE. I have to fly somewhere else to speak with someone in person and share ideas about music and teaching. So getting the chance to go to Singapore or London for AMIS honor band festivals (Association for Music in International Schools) or to New Delhi to spend a week watching a friend teach and connect with these other international music teachers is amazing.

The international teaching experience is the perfect marriage of personal and professional goals. In my first year, I went to Vienna and saw the Vienna Philharmonic perform. It was unbelievable. When I was teaching in the states, you would never think to do something like that, to fly to another country during one of your breaks. But that’s the mindset for most of the teachers in the international scene. Here’s a three-day weekend, let’s go to New Delhi!

RT: If you’re teaching in North America, you have a lot of opportunities for professional development. Our symposium is one. But when you’re farther away, it’s a lot of effort to get to a professional conference. That’s one of the reasons it was really great that Chris brought me out to the UAE. I was able to spend a full week at each school working with the students and observing all of the classes, giving feedback to the teachers about the structure of their programs, doing several lessons, and maybe helping to send the program into some new directions or finding ways to support those teachers. Chris also set up evening sessions, and we had music teachers come from all over UAE for the professional development opportunity.

It was a very exciting trip for me. One of the most exciting things was to watch Chris in action and see how he was integrating—very thoughtfully—so many of the ideas we had explored during his UBC studies in his curriculum and classroom. It’s inspiring to see generations of students teaching their students!

Chris, how have your UBC studies prepared you for what you are doing now?

CW: When I taught after my undergraduate degree, I became frustrated because I didn’t know how to make my group better. I knew there were things I was doing that caused my students to not perform at their best, and I didn’t know why.

After working with Dr. Julia Nolan and Dr. Taylor, I feel like I have the skills to help my ensemble get better, but more importantly I have the knowledge to teach myself to continue my own growth without needing a teacher to guide me.

How important is it to have global experiences and connections with other musicians and peers in the field?

RT: Last year was a sabbatical year for me and I literally flew around the world doing 29 different residencies in four months. Several of them were in the UAE with Chris, then in Australia and New Zealand. I was able to reconnect with several UBC alumni who are out in the global community teaching, performing, making a difference. Going to those places offered incredible perspective and context that I can bring back and share with the other students here. So those global connections have influenced how I think about, plan, and deliver the curriculum in our program here at UBC.

CW: I look at it two ways: there’s the personal side where it recharges you, as well as the professional side. When I’m out of my city and in this entirely new (foreign) space, it allows more creativity to flow, and for me to continue growing and learning.

Banner image by Kin Szeto