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Meeting the masters in Spain

March 22, 2016

ASU grad Jaxon Williams is studying classical guitar during his Fulbright year in Seville

Jaxon Williams has spent years honing his skill in classical guitar.

And the best way to make the passion of his life become his career was to spend time in the hub of classical guitar, which is Seville, Spain.

Williams was awarded a Fulbright grant and is now pursuing his master’s degree in Spanish classical and flamenco guitar.

“I've always felt that to reach the next level as a musician, I need to live abroad and connect with the classical guitar's roots, which are in Spain,” said Williams, who is originally from Ashland, Ore. 

“Much of this music is passed on orally and in person, so it's very hard to learn these things outside of Spain.”

Williams, who earned a bachelor’s degree at ASU in music and guitar performancefrom the School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, has played concerts at historic venues in Seville, such as the Real Alcazar, an ancient palace built by Moorish kings.

“To be able to play concerts in places with such a rich history — and often playing music inspired by that very history — is an incredibly gratifying experience,” he said.

He answered a few questions about his year abroad:

Question: Can you give an overview of your project in Spain?

Answer: I study in an international master's program with five of the world's best international concert artists, and at a flamenco school with some of the best flamenco teachers in Seville. My goal is to take my knowledge of Spanish music to the USA, where there is a surprising lack of resources for learning it.

I live in Seville, which is in Andalusia, which is the heart of flamenco music and also is a classical guitar hub.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: On an average day, I practice guitar for a few hours in the morning, go to performance or flamenco classes in the afternoon, practice more in the evening, and then hang out with my roommates (who are Spaniards) or go out in the city with friends.

Q: What do you do on the weekends?

A: One day every weekend, we have a master teacher fly in from another country.  These are the most exciting classes because the guitarists are famous international concert artists. The other master’s students and I spend about 10 hours with them doing lessons, lectures and just talking. 

Besides that, I take advantage of weekends to travel to other parts of Andalusia, or I stay in town and spend time with friends I've made here.  One of my favorite activities is going to local flamenco bars in the Triana area of Seville.  These bars have live flamenco music that is never planned or publicized and it’s an organic, fun atmosphere with guitar, singing and dancing.  The audience often participates with clapping rhythm, shouting praises during exciting parts of songs, and even getting up and dancing!

Jaxon Williams playing the guitar

Jaxon Williams performs in Spain. He is studying flamenco and classical guitar in Seville after winning a Fulbright grant.

Q: Have there been any challenges?

A: Working out the visa was a big challenge, but once that was set, everything in Andalusia is so relaxed that life is great. Getting used to the siesta has also been interesting. The whole world shuts down in the afternoon for about three hours and you can't stop it, so you just have to accept it and learn to love it!

Q: Has anything funny happened during your adventure?

A: One of my favorite stories is of my first concert in Spain. I was playing in the Sala Joaquin Turina as part of the Sevilla Guitar festival. There were probably 200 people in attendance and the atmosphere was very professional since the festival is a big deal and the venue is one of the top classical venues in the city. 

I was not used to Spanish audiences, who are much more vocal and open than we are in the United States. Audience members will cheer, yell things when you do well, and even try to talk to performers while they're on stage.

I remember announcing my pieces and a group of older ladies were very impressed with my Spanish and yelled "Your Spanish is incredible!" I laughed and said thanks from the stage, and then another older lady, probably in her 70's yelled "Oh, if only I were still single!", to which I and the whole audience laughed. I think we can learn a lot from the fun and excited atmosphere of Spanish audiences!

Q: What will you bring back from your experience that will help you in your career — or your life?

A: I think the most important thing I'll take back from the experience is a knowledge of Spanish music that would've been impossible to acquire without this experience. My goal is to one day be a professor of guitar at the university level and I hope to be able to pass the knowledge I've gained on to my students. 

Since I'm heavily involved in performing while here, I think I've gained skills that will really improve my career as a concert artist as well.

Lastly, the experience of living abroad and really assimilating into a distinct culture has been incredible. I've learned and grown so much from really adopting the culture of Andalusia as my own and have a much more developed life and world perspective as a result.

Q: What’s next for you, after you return?

A: I will be starting a doctorate program in the fall, finishing my guitar studies. I'm also running an organization that helps find paid performances for ASU musicians called

I also plan to perform as much as possible and try to start building a name for myself as a concert artist.

Q: What would you tell someone who is contemplating applying for a Fulbright?

A: I would encourage everyone to look into it. There are so many possibilities of things to study for a Fulbright, and it's a great opportunity to combine your passion and your career!

Second, once you start the process, don't give up. The application process is so rigorous that not many make it through, but if you push through, diligently edit your drafts and keep getting feedback from ASU's scholarship office, you are very likely to succeed.

You can't possibly imagine what your Fulbright will be like (and you'll likely have to pivot from what you initially thought you'd be doing), but if you push through, it will be one of the greatest experiences of your life.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Learning to laugh instead of cry

March 22, 2016

ASU grad and Fulbright winner finds confidence while teaching English in South Korea

Living abroad can be fraught with awkward situations, but the experience also nurtures the confidence it takes to laugh instead of cry when you have to eat a octopus.

For Jenna Smith, the challenge of her Fulbright year in South Korea has revealed an inner strength and perseverance she didn’t know she had.

“I have done so many things this year that I look back on and think, ‘I can’t believe I did that and survived,’ “ said Smith, who is an English Teaching Assistant at a middle school in Gwangju this year.

Grappling with the language, a heavy workload of teaching and even chopsticks has been tough.

“You surprise yourself. I have found that my mind gives up way before my body is willing to cave,” she said.

Smith, who is from Scottsdale, earned a bachelor’s degree from ASUfrom the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2015, double majoring in classics and philosophy, with a minor in symbolic systems. She’ll attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School in the fall.

She answered a few questions about her Fulbright year:

Question: Can you give an overview of what you’re doing in South Korea?

Answer: I teach 24 English-as-a-second-language classes every week at Jangdeok Middle School in Gwangju. I live with my co-teacher and her family, so we have become really close. I also teach smaller after-school classes for teachers and some students who want to improve their English.

Jenna Smith

Jenna Smith, left, in South Korea.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: I wake up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast with my host dad, then head to school with my host mom around 8 a.m. The walk to my office from the parking lot in the morning is the highlight of my day. It’s a blur of “Hello Teacher!” shouts, bows, waves and the occasional hug tackle.

Class starts at 9 a.m. and I typically teach three 45-minute classes before lunch. Lunch is always a traditional Korean meal: rice, soup, kimchi. All the teachers sit together in the middle of the gender-segregated cafeteria so that we can monitor the students.

After lunch I teach two classes and then I walk home, which really helps me to decompress before I exercise at the gym in our building, plan lessons or finish writing my articles for the Fulbright Korea Alumni Newsletter. I eat dinner with my host family every evening before retiring to watch American TV in my room on my computer. It helps me combat homesickness. And sometimes there is a late-night knock on my door from my host dad, beckoning me to eat fried chicken with him on the floor of the living room.

Q: What do you do on the weekends?

A: I typically travel on the weekends to Seoul to hang out, explore, eat and relax with my English teaching assistant friends. We also enjoy hiking and traveling to other Korean cities such as Gyeongju, Busan, Sokcho and Sejong.

Q: What’s been the best part of your experience?

A: My students are definitely the highlight of my grant year. They challenge me every day to be more creative and excited. They never cease to bring a smile to my face as they navigate expressing themselves in English. Their willingness to try to use a foreign language makes it easier for me to laugh at myself and to not take myself super seriously as I simultaneously navigate living in a foreign country.

Q: Have there been any challenges?

A: In the beginning of my grant year, I was a fish out of water. The first time I heard Korean and ate Korean food was on the plane ride to my new home. I had never used chopsticks before, let alone taught an English class to 35 students or lived in a country where I couldn’t speak any of the language.

I think teaching poses its own set of challenges, but teaching English in a foreign country comes with its own unique difficulties. At first, it was hard to express myself at school given the language barrier and cultural differences, and even harder to eat lunch. But it gets a lot easier with time and patience. I would be nothing without the support and generosity of my host family, my students, my co-teachers, and the Fulbright Korea ETA network.

Q: Has anything funny happened during your adventure?

A: Two things:

Since I don’t speak Korean very well, I assumed that what my host mom called my host dad at home was his name, so I also starting using this name when I wanted to reference him or get his attention. Each time it was met with a strange and awkward look, which I chalked up to my poor pronunciation — until I realized after asking my students that I was calling him “sweetie” or “honey” in Korean. Oops.

At the beginning of the new school year, all the staff and faculty at my school went out to celebrate with special Korean soup. I had a seat at the table right in front of the pot where our soup was cooking. This also meant that I had a front-row seat as three live octopi were lowered into our soup pot one by one and cooked to death as their tentacles squirmed inside and out of the pot, begging for mercy. In Korea eating live octopus is a delicacy. I courageously tried a small piece in an effort to step out of my comfort zone. I ended up screaming and panicking when the suckers on one of these octopus's tentacles latched onto the inside of my cheek and wouldn’t release as I tried to swallow.

Q: What will you bring back from your experience that will help you in your career — or your life?

A: Take one day at a time. Don’t be too hard on yourself. When navigating unchartered territory you are bound to make mistakes, so laugh at yourself, learn from the experience and move on. Don’t dwell. When things aren’t going as planned and you want to give up, be brave. 

Q: What would you tell someone who is contemplating applying for a Fulbright?

A: Fulbright is a once-in-a lifetime experience, but you should understand what you are applying for and the nature of living and working in a foreign country. With that said be brave, take courage and apply. I have learned invaluable lessons about myself and what I am capable of doing this year. My perspective on the world, my American identity, and what it means to be human in this day and age have changed profoundly for the better. If it weren’t for this experience, I think I would be a much different person embarking on adulthood in America.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News