Burger to teach, perform as Fulbright Specialist in Malaysia

Dr. Cole Burger has gone to Southeast Asia for a few weeks each of the last two years, even traveling to Thailand unknowingly in the midst of a coup-albeit a "very peaceful" one-in 2014.

But the trip he will take this May, back to Malaysia for a third time, will be a little different.

The instructor of piano in the College of Musical Arts will teach piano and present recitals and master classes at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur as a Fulbright Specialist. Part of the U.S. State Department's prestigious Fulbright Scholar Program, the specialist program promotes short-term collaborative projects linking American scholars with counterparts at host institutions in more than 140 countries.

While he has also been in Cambodia and Indonesia, as well as in Thailand, recently, Malaysia was his desired destination because English is spoken "relatively well" there, plus roads and other infrastructure are better, he said.

In addition, about 10 percent of Malaysia's population is ethnic Chinese and, in a colleague's words, "it seems like half of the Chinese population wants to be a classical pianist," Burger related. So, he added, while many Chinese students are studying Western music, the Chinese don't have the history of teaching it that the U.S. does, offering an opportunity.

"We have a chance to share what it means to teach and learn classical piano music," said Burger, whose international trips to teach and perform have also included one to China, in 2007, and five to Europe. To go abroad, and to welcome international students to BGSU and elsewhere in America, and help change lives through music - "that's diplomacy at its best," he maintains.

Such new opportunities were among the attractions to apply for the Fulbright, as were the chance for professional development and a learning experience in general, Burger noted. "Just because I have a doctoral degree doesn't mean I don't have more to learn, and you learn a lot from travel," he pointed out.

But the fourth-year BGSU faculty member wasn't really aware of the availability of international travel through the Fulbright Program until his colleague, Dr. Elainie Lillios, spent the 2013-14 year as a Fulbright Scholar in Greece. Then, in Malaysia last summer, he heard about the specialist program at the U.S. embassy, with which he then communicated about a placement with a Malaysian university.

Burger credits two other colleagues, Drs. Robert Satterlee and Solungga Liu, for their help in establishing his connection in Southeast Asia. They spoke in his behalf with Mongkol Chayasirisobhon, a Thai "impresario," he said, who studied in the U.S., has both musical and business training, and sets up concerts and teaching opportunities for American musicians.

When "Mr. Mongkol" picked him up in Thailand for his visit in 2014, "he let me know there was a coup going on," complete with imposition of martial law and a curfew, Burger recalled. The experience turned out to be little more than "a history lesson" for him, he said-although it may have made attendance at his recital "a little smaller than I think it would have been otherwise."

The Fort Smith, Ark., native earned bachelor's degrees in both piano performance and economics from Northwestern University in 2002. "I've always had a wide range of interests," said Burger, who paired economics with music as an undergraduate because of his interests in numbers and, more broadly, in the liberal arts.

He considered both fields as possible career paths after graduation, but music, and piano in particular, "won out" when he received a teaching assistantship at the University of Texas. He completed master's and doctoral degrees in piano performance at the Austin campus in 2004 and 2009, respectively.

After earning his master's degree, and before starting his doctoral program, Burger took a year off from academia and, through his participation in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Milwaukee, Wis., worked at a homeless shelter for men, the Guest House of Milwaukee. Living with people who were doing similar work and helping the shelter's clients with housing, job training and other skills became another learning experience, and one that he has married with music.

He performed a benefit recital for the Guest House while still working there, and recently presented his 11th annual recital for the shelter. "I go back each year to see how they're helping people," said Burger, who has helped raise more than $55,000 for nonprofit organizations-over half of it for the Guest House-through such benefit performances.

Updated: 12/02/2017 12:32AM