World of music: Oregon students ambassadors in a universal language

October 2017 Posted in Music & Band, School

By Eric Quinones

It brought together 350 high school students from across Oregon. It took them half way across the globe. It allowed them to share joy and hope with strangers who spoke different languages. The simple yet powerful “it”? Music.

In July, 22 choir and band students from Silverton High School, and one from Mount Angel left the United States for the busy streets of London, England. They traveled through the vibrancy of Paris, France. They played on the mountains of Crans-Montana, Switzerland, catching sight of the sun as it passed behind the Alps. The trip was capped off in Rothenburg, Germany with a performance of America, The Beautiful.

As part of The Oregon Ambassadors of Music the teens performed in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy; The Wilten Basilica in Innsbruck, Austria; at The Castle of Chillon in Switzerland, after which they were treated to a fondue dinner and tried out native Alpenhorns.

Some performances like America, The Beautiful drew crowds of hundreds, while a small impromptu performance in a quaint London park had a just over 10. No matter where they went, someone was there to listen.

The students’ enthusiasm for being in Europe was rivaled, even surpassed, by the people they met, despite the tense political climate around the world.

“I was received with open arms. They were happy to have us there,” Silverton senior Ross Mackinnon said.

“I think being an ambassador of music helped that attitude towards us. The music and idea of us sharing with them added to their kindness.”

“When we went, we sang and we played. We were no longer only American kids. We were there for the sake of music,” Ross’ friend and fellow traveler Jason Orr said. “It’s a thing that crosses borders. Everybody loves music.”

Each Oregon “ambassador” is nominated by their school music director. Then it’s off to meetings where they learn about the trip and collect the music to be performed.

The real challenge is the cost of $6,000-7,000. To cover his portion, Ross took a job at Roth’s gas station. In addition he had help from family members and the Kiwanis Club.

“Raising the money was the biggest challenge,” Ross said.

Jason concurred, “We put in a lot of work.”  Both made it clear that the challenge paled in comparison with the value and the impact of the trip. Silverton High band director Frank Petrik and his wife Amanda, chaperones for the trip, agree.

“For the money that we paid, I don’t think we could have gotten that kind of trip on our own. Not even close,” Amanda said.

Though Ross could imagine abstract scenarios of scheming con artists and pickpockets in the shadows, he said those were “really unrealistic.”

Nerves were quelled by enthusiasm and all in the care of the trip’s expertly crafted preparation.

This is the 47th year for Voyageurs International Ltd., “Voyageurs” for short. It has broad experience organizing 16-day, seven-country musical “ambassador” tours of Europe for band and choir students from 32 states.

“I didn’t feel unsafe at any time. It felt really safe and really well planned,” the Petriks agreed. Every city toured had a city coordinator, experienced drivers and a doctor. When one student lost medication, another a passport, both issues were resolved within the day.

“The trip is so well coordinated, you maximize your 2 ½ weeks over there,” Amanda said.

There was more than just displaying their talents to the world. The students were also there to let the world teach them.

Before the trip, each student was given a booklet entitled Thresholds. This was no idle title, but a declaration of the challenges and magnitude of their undertaking. On its cover a quote from Mark Twain said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

The group went to Dachau, Germany, site of a Nazi-era concentration camp, and returned silent to buses, some crying from the intense visit. They toured Westminster Abbey at Evensong, and visited the gravesite of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who composed many of the songs they were singing. It proved a reverent connection to a man who created music they love today.

Nothing was lost on them.

“The kids weren’t apprehensive at all. They embraced everything.” Amanda said. “The trip was an investment, so they wanted to make the most of it.”

In the end the music was what mattered. It wasn’t the struggle to get there. It wasn’t the intensity of early mornings and late hotel returns. It wasn’t the differences in culture or language.

“You can’t talk to each other, but you’re singing along. That connection, that bond, is really impactful,” Frank said.

“Music is a universal language,” Amanda agreed.

“Broadening your horizons and your knowledge never hurts,” Ross said. “I feel better about the things that I do now.”

“I would put it like this,” Jason said, “we live in very crazy times these days, and it really meant a lot to me to be, as the name says, ‘Ambassadors’ for the U.S., for Oregon. We’re all human, we all love music, we can all appreciate simple beauty.”

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