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Music proves transformational during choirs' international tour

  • On tour
    On tour
    The W&M Choir poses for a photo on the steps of the Helsinki Cathedral in Finland.
    Photo by Emily Chrisman
  • On tour
    On tour
    The Botetourt Chamber Singers perform in the Turku Resurrection Chapel.
    Photo by Emily Chrisman
  • On tour
    On tour
    James Armstrong and Estonian composer Piret Rips-Laul pose for a photo together.
    Photo by Emily Chrisman
  • On tour
    On tour
    The Botetourt Chamber Singers rehearse in the basement of the Helsinki Cathedral in Finland.
    Photo by Emily Chrisman
  • On tour
    On tour
    The W&M Choir and Botetourt Chamber Singers pose for a photo together in Turku, Finland.
    Photo by Emily Chrisman

The restaurant owner didn’t speak much English, and the students didn’t speak Lithuanian. The professor suggested a song.

“[The owner] was immediately moved to tears by the music, and I think many of us shed a few as well,” said Sarah Schuessler ’14. “Though we couldn't communicate well with words, the music forged a strong connection between all of us. It was really powerful and was a perfect example of the benefits of traveling with a choir.”

That moment of connection was but one of many that occurred this summer as the William & Mary Choir and Botetourt Chamber Singers embarked on an international tour. Led by Directors James Armstrong and Jamie Bartlett, the 52 students traveled through Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland May 13-27, performing American music as well as a piece commissioned just for them.

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The W&M choral ensembles have been touring internationally every three years since 1978. Although led by Bartlett and Armstrong, students decide where each tour will go.

“I say, ‘The world is your oyster; let’s see where you want to go,’” said Armstrong. “It pays off in a whole variety of ways, but one of the ways is buy-in.”

This year, the students decided to tour the Baltic States and Russia. However, as the situation in Ukraine developed, the groups decided to replace the Russia portion of their tour – which was to include stops in St. Petersburg and Moscow – with Finland in order to avoid any issues with access to the country.

As the choirs began planning the trip, they contracted with tour company Classical Movements, Inc., and found themselves working with someone who understood precisely where they were coming from: W&M alumna Laura Smith Ettabbakh ’07, a former member of the Women's Chorus and Middle Eastern Music Ensemble who received a Fulbright scholarship to study Mediterranean music in Spain.

“She knew the group. She knew what would be of interest to people. That was a big plus for us,” said Bartlett.

With the planning process in good hands, Bartlett and Armstrong concentrated on developing the repertoire for the performances. They decided on a variety of American music, ranging from African-American spirituals to a modern piece based on a Latin poem.

“It sometimes is hard to say what American is, and then if you talk about American choral music it’s equally various,” said Armstrong, “but I wanted to bring something of us overseas.”

The groups also learned a unique piece for the tour: a double-choir piece composed specifically for them. “Salve Regina” was commissioned for Armstrong and Bartlett, the Choir of the College of William & Mary and the Botetourt Chamber Singers by Classical Movements, Inc. as part of the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Project. Estonian composer Piret Rips-Laul wrote the piece, which instantly became a favorite among the students.

“She somehow spoke a language that they understood immediately, and they felt it was theirs,” said Armstrong.

The Botetourt Chamber Singers perform in St. Casimir’s Cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo by Emily Chrisman.During the tour, the W&M ensembles performed most of their six concerts – including two with local choral groups – in cathedral or church settings, which provided the students with the unique opportunity to “sing pieces in spaces for which they were composed,” said Bartlett.

“We sing here in Phi Beta Kappa Hall, which is a fine space, but the satisfaction of singing in an incredibly resonant, Gothic cathedral is something that adds a final dimension to their music making that you can’t really experience here,” she said.

Although the groups received numerous compliments from their audiences, Armstrong said he was really looking for “evidence of human exchange” with music as the medium. The tour was an opportunity for students to learn what it means to “give of themselves,” he said.

“And to give of themselves to audiences who are not their parents, who are not those they know, but now to reach out to people they don’t know in foreign settings and perhaps to learn that people are kindly everywhere and that if you reach halfway, they will reach back,” he said. “We found that to be the case in a number of our concerts. Our students reached out more than halfway, gave of themselves -- and I mean not just in their singing but in their humanness -- and when they did that and did it generously, the blessing that came was tears on both sides really of joy.”

Ethan Roday ’14, who majored in linguistics and computer science, said that the groups “always relish the opportunity to share our music with those who probably wouldn't otherwise hear it -- and vice versa.”

But the tour also helped the students build and strengthen friendships, improve their musicianship and experience other cultures first-hand, said Roday, who also participated in the last tour to Italy, Greece and Turkey.

“It's deeper than surface-level tourism,” said Schuessler, who also participated in both tours. “Every culture has its own music, and it is so rewarding to bring music from home to an audience abroad, as well as try our hand at some of their music.”

Looking back at the tour, Bartlett and Armstrong said that it – like music itself -- was transformational.

“When all of the parts are placed together – when the space is right, when the people come with love wanting only to hear and the students are free to be who they are and share who they are – then magical things happen,” said Armstrong.