My Touring Story
Chorus America members share personal stories about touring experiences that made a big impact.
No matter how different our surroundings or circumstances may be, there’s something about singing that unites us all. That’s what these Chorus America members learned traveling with their choral groups. Their stories show how touring can have a transformative effect on both people and organizations.
Chicago Children’s Choir
1996 Tour to South Africa
In 1996, my life was forever changed when I went on tour to South Africa as a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir. Apartheid had fallen a few years before, and the country was basking in the glow of its new identity as “the Rainbow Nation” after Mandela’s victory in the country’s first Democratic election in 1994.
During our pre-tour rehearsals, our conductors told us of the powerful role that black South African choral music played in the anti-apartheid struggle. They told us stories of how people sang in four-part harmony as they burned their passbooks and stood in front of the bulldozers that tore down their homes during the forced removals. They told us of schoolchildren who sang in harmony as they marched to protest the implementation of Afrikaans (the language of the apartheid government) as the language of instruction in black schools, even as they were shot down by the police. They taught us the new national anthem, and showed us how these same songs were being used to bring people together from different backgrounds.
In addition to preparing an extensive concert program of American, classical, and world music for the tour, we learned a few South African songs that had been transcribed and published in the U.S. Although we had heard about the power of South African music, we couldn’t quite get a feel for it from the written page. The rhythms had been simplified to make the song fit better into western notation, and there were no clues given in terms of vocal tone. One of the most essential aspects of the music—the dance movements—couldn’t be conveyed through a score.
When we arrived in Cape Town, our bus headed to a school in one of the impoverished townships. We ascended the stage as hundreds of Xhosa students filed into the gymnasium. The walls were bare, and the building was falling apart. There were not enough chairs, but the students crowded in nonetheless. We began to perform, and they applauded and smiled after every piece.
When it came time to sing the South African songs, we became nervous. We were worried we were going to make fools of ourselves, or even worse—that we would offend the South Africans by performing their songs with such little understanding of them. We knew that the simplified versions of these songs that we had learned from the written page could not accurately convey how powerfully they were sung to overthrow a government.
When we finished singing the South African songs, the audience politely applauded. Then our conductor, Bill Chin, did the unthinkable. He turned to the schoolchildren and said “we hear that everyone in South Africa knows these songs. Now—would you please sing them for us the right way?”
We couldn’t believe he expected the audience to spontaneously jump up and start singing in four-part harmony—but that is exactly what they did. Before we could take a breath, a young male in the audience belted out the call of a song, filling the room with his voice. The rest of the students stood and began singing in harmony.
They didn’t even look old enough to have changed voices, and yet the few basses in the room sounded like an army, with the strength and pride they felt in sharing their song with us. There was no conductor, and yet they all began dancing, and moving together, perfectly synchronized. The smallest children came up to the edge of the stage and reached their hands up to us. They helped us down into the large crowd of singing, dancing bodies.
We sang and danced together for nearly an hour. We watched how they moved, and they helped us to figure out the different dance steps. We watched their mouths as they pronounced the text, and we shaped our mouths similarly. We listened to the darker, more powerful vocal tone they used and matched our own voices to their sound. We looked into their eyes and smiled, and they smiled back. We had to be pulled out of the auditorium when it was time to leave. We didn’t ever want to leave.
I have been going back ever since. This one performance made me devote my life to trying to understand best practices for learning and teaching music from other cultures as authentically as possible. I go back to this township often, over 18 years later, studying how South Africans are using these same songs in the current struggle against HIV/AIDS.
Mollie Stone is director of world music at Chicago Children’s Choir.
Distinguished Concerts International, New York
June 2013 Tour of Turkey
I had been to Turkey once before and fell in love with the culture, the people, and wonderful food, so I jumped at the chance to join the DCINY trip with the Jonathan Griffith Singers. We had all immersed ourselves in learning the music, a lyrical and powerful oratorio named “Yunus Emre” by Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun. We learned that Yunus Emre was a beloved Turkish poet, Sufi mystic, and humanist. The language was challenging as we were performing the piece in Turkish.
In addition, we were presenting a world premiere by the young American composer Christopher Tin, who toured with us. His piece, in Arabic, was to be a gift from the American people to the Turkish people and took on great significance by the end of the tour.
When I was able to check my email for the first time after arriving in Ankara, I could not understand why my friends and family were sending me so many exhortations to “be safe!” We turned on CNN only to discover that there was a large and growing protest happening back in Istanbul in Taksim Square. [Editor’s note: In the spring of 2013, Turkey experienced its largest and most violent riots in decades as protests over development plans for Taksim Gezi Park turned into waves of demonstrations against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic and socially conservative government.] Things were quiet in Ankara as we thankfully fell into our beds, so we thought little about it.
We rehearsed the next day in the beautiful concert hall in Ankara, and when we returned to our hotel, we saw hundreds of people streaming up to the main city square. The mood was upbeat and festive and the crowd was mixed in age, with grandmothers drumming on pots and pans and fathers with children on their shoulders. However, the news from Istanbul was that the protests had been met with violence and we saw some disturbing images on the TV.
About two hours later, we heard noise and shouting in the streets. From our window, we could see all those same people running in the other direction, with police behind them firing tear gas and using clubs. The smell of tear gas wafted through the room, and we realized that we had come to Turkey at a very crucial moment. I never felt in danger at any time during the trip, but did feel that I was watching history happen in front of me.
Protests continued across the country while we refined our music, getting better and better with each concert. We arrived back in Istanbul not entirely sure that our concert there would go on, as the venue was very close to the continuing protests in Taksim.
When we got the green light, I believe we were all determined to present this beautiful oratorio and deliver the musical message of humanism that Yunus Emre embraced. The concert that night was a highlight of the tour—we felt that we were giving the audience a message of our support of their country and culture. The real culmination, however, was the Christopher Tin piece, “Haktan Gelen Serbeti (The Drink from God).” The wild, euphoric ending was the best gift we could have given the people listening and the reception was long and gracious.
The rest of the trip was a time to restore and reflect as we visited sites around Istanbul. Many of us went up to Taksim to show solidarity with the protesters, as the mood during our time there was peaceful and calm. Unfortunately that changed right after we left, but the spirit of thousands of people left their mark on us.
Linda Luke is a member of the Dedham Choral Society.
Don Matlock and Debra Kehoe
Montana A Cappella Society
2013 Tour to the International Choral Festival in Cork, Ireland
The Montana A Cappella Society is a small, community-based, non-auditioned, a cappella group of around 20 members. We were founded in 2003 and are completely volunteer, including our artistic director. Our annual budget is approximately $2,400.
In 2011 we were contacted by the International Choral Festival in Cork, Ireland and invited to apply for the 2012 Festival. We responded that we were honored—stunned, actually—but that we must regretfully decline because there was not sufficient time to raise the funds needed for such a trip. The Festival then asked if we would apply for 2013 and promised that, if we were not juried into the competition, we would be invited for the non-competitive strand. We met, discussed, and then, taking a very deep breath, committed to raising the $110,000 needed for such a trip.
One of the founding principles of the society is that no one should be denied the pleasure of singing. Therefore, there are no dues or assessments for music, and we maintain a costume department for members that cannot provide their own. Because many of our members did not have the resources to commit any funds to the trip, we had to raise the entire amount so that everyone could go. In the end, only two members were unable to make the trip: one because of work and one because of family.
We had 18 months to raise $110,000—$6,000 per month. To put this in perspective, our home base, Ravalli County, Montana, only has a population of 40,000 people. What were we thinking?
Our fundraising philosophy was simple: never just ask for money. Always give something in return, even if that “something” was just a chuckle in the letter sent to our mailing list. Our biggest fundraising activity was a raffle for two people to join us for the trip to Ireland. We also presented two dinner auctions that were wildly successful thanks to support from the community. In addition to these three functions, we raised money every way we could imagine. We took a booth at the local farmers market and sold baked goods made by the members. Irish soda bread was very popular. We are proud that every fundraising activity was profitable—even the sock hop and car show held in a late spring blizzard that netted a grand total of $8.00.
The support and pride from our community was astounding. Without that, we would never have made it. And in the end, we did make it. We had to borrow $25,000 for a two-month period to meet our payment schedule with the travel agent, but the loan was repaid before we left on the trip. The entire amount was raised from our fans. We were unsuccessful in obtaining any grants from state or local agencies.
We had never traveled as a group—some of us had never left the valley in which we live—and we wanted to make this trip as close to perfect as possible for our singers and our concert attendees at the "other end" in Ireland. American Classic Tours helped us book our flights and make contact with Moloney & Kelly Travel in Ireland. Moloney & Kelly booked our concerts, our hotels and our coach travel, and helped with the advance publicity for the concerts we performed. As we collected bids and estimates we found that we were actually paying less by using these professional services than if we booked all these detailed services on our own.
The impact on our group has been immeasurable. We come from such a small area, so far from major population centers that we are officially classified as “rural-frontier.” To step onto an international stage and hold our own as a performance group is a bonding memory that will last a lifetime for each member. Yes, we did have a couple of naysayers. Yes, we did lose members for various life reasons when we returned. But most of the members who made the trip are still active with our group, are stronger musically, and will never be the same personally. We have been home for 18 months and the frequent question now is “Where are we going next?”
The connections we made with the people of Ireland will always stay with each and every one of us. We may sing beautifully, technically, and with energy, but sharing the song’s story—the heart of the song— is the most important aspect of what we do. Sharing these stories through song with the people of Ireland connected us as human beings with the same emotions and often the same life experiences. We could see their smiles and their tears as we sang, revealing that we are all of a similar heart no matter where we call home.
The Montana A Cappella Society has developed into not just choristers but storytellers who use song as a connection to the heart and mind of the listener. After our trip to Ireland we formally adopted this as our core belief. Our philosophy is simple: we invite the audience to join with us emotionally in the magic of stories that make up the fabric of us all.
Don Matlock is artistic director of the Montana A Cappella Society. Debra Kehoe is the society’s president.
Keystone State Boychoir
2009 Tour to Chile and Antarctica
Last April Fool's Day, a tour company played a joke on the choral community with a hoax email that announced a choral festival in Antarctica. The Keystone State Boychoir (KSB) thought it was funny indeed, but for a very unique reason. On December 23, 2009 the Boychoir made history as the first choir to travel to the seventh continent. During a concert tour of Chile, we spent exactly seven hours of frigid bliss on Frei Base on King George’s Island, Antarctica.
You might be wondering what kind of tour company arranges trips to Antarctica. Actually, we’ve never used one! I plan each concert tour from scratch by embarking on a planning trip up to two years before the actual tour. My staff and I do the research and make the connections (easy with the internet!), work directly with the airlines, secure the homestays, hotels, and venues, and book all the buses and “sightsinging” excursions. It allows me to tailor the trip to exactly what I know will be meaningful for my singers—musically, culturally, and socially. And we could never do the half of all the cool stuff that’s on our itinerary if we were also paying fees to a tour company.
In 2007, we checked off our sixth continent when we completed a concert tour of Australia. One of the boys laughingly suggested we go to the seventh continent next. My response was “Why not?” I soon found. While it’s fairly easy to boat to Antarctica on a cruise ship, it’s almost impossible for civilians to set foot on the continent. For one, there are no commercial flights there. But I knew there had to be a way. Long story short, I eventually found a private airline that agreed to charter a flight for us in the southernmost Chilean town of Punta Arenas.
The next challenge was convincing the parents. We would have to travel during Hannukah, Christmas, and New Year’s since you can’t fly into Antarctica except during the southern hemisphere’s summer months. Then there was the extra fee for the Antarctica flight on top of the expense of touring Chile. And then there was that little leap of faith for parents to send their children to Antarctica. But leap they did! We had 65 boys raring to make history.
There was always the chance the weather would not cooperate. We arrived at the airport that morning with all systems go. But then, at the last minute, takeoff was aborted due to snow. The boys were devastated. We were told to standby but that it didn’t look good. Luckily there was a food court nearby the airport. How easily boys can be cheered up with food! Then, just after the boys ordered, we got a call to come immediately. The weather pattern had changed and we had a small window to take off for, fly to, and land in Antarctica.
There were a hundred remarkable moments, but a few stand out. The Antarctic scientists were in the middle of their holiday party when we arrived, and you had to see their faces when these American choir boys crashed their celebration. We were all in shock. After the performance, we had a snow ball fight, boated to nearby glaciers, and even sang for a colony of Antarctic penguins. I think the most special moment was when, upon touching down, the boys spontaneously broke out into song. For the first time, choral music rang across the continent of Antarctica.
There’s no doubt that the promise of touring and exotic sightseeing has been key to our recruitment and retention. We began this season with 190 boys from age 8 to 18, and I’m quite sure our healthy membership is connected to touring. Over the last 14 years, the boys have snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef and climbed Ayres Rock, swam in the Black Sea, been on safari, been to Paris Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland, and glimpsed the top of Mt. McKinley at sunrise. For sure, these excursions are key to getting the boys to want to tour. But what they remember, what has the most profound impact on their lives is the people they meet, live with, sing for, and touch with the power of their song. Today, anyone can get on a plane and go anywhere—even Antarctica! So it’s not that we travel. It’s what we do when we travel. How we connect with people once we’re there determines the power of the experience. And nothing makes travel more powerful than song.
Steve Fisher is associate music director of the Keystone State Boychoir.
Boston Gay Men’s Chorus
2005 European Tour to Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic
How did the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus find itself in the middle of Poland and the subject of an international news story? ACFEA, our tour consultants, recommended Wroclaw to us for its beauty, its reputation as an intellectual center, and its terrific concert hall. Located in the southwestern region of Poland, it is also known by its formerly German name, Breslau. It was the perfect midway stop for us between Berlin and Prague.
After we arrived in Berlin, we heard reports that a gay pride march in Warsaw had been violent and that there were rumors of a protest brewing about our concert. Some of our German hosts thought we were crazy to go to Poland. Regardless, we left Berlin for a slow six-hour bus ride and arrived in Wroclaw on Sunday evening. As the Chorus descended on the historic town square for a late dinner, we marveled at the architecture and had no idea what was in store for us the next day.
An extreme right-wing group named the League of Polish Families had issued a press release stating that they would purchase all remaining concert tickets in order to occupy the concert hall and force cancellation of the concert. The League had spent a week pressuring the Philharmonic to cancel our concert; failing that, they were determined to stop it any way they could. They also threatened to form a human chain around the hall to prohibit the chorus from entering and to throw eggs at us. We weren’t sure if the concert would go on or if there would be anybody there to hear it.
With a dress rehearsal scheduled for 3:00 pm, music director Reuben Reynolds, tour manager Tony Hastings, and I headed to the hall early at about noon to see the situation for ourselves. We arrived not to protesters but to TV crews, radio stations, and newspaper reporters. Reuben and I gave more than 25 interviews to the media, explaining our mission and reacting to the controversy. Nearly every question was a variant of “why do you have to have the word “gay” in your name?” The concept of being “out” was new to them. One well-meaning reporter said to me, “We Poles love music and we want your concert to be successful, we just don’t understand why you want people to know you are homosexual.”
Although the concert hall was only four blocks away from the hotel, the police insisted that for our safety, we be transported to the rehearsal in our unmarked tour buses. Only one bus at a time was allowed to travel and each had a police escort. TV crews from Wroclaw, Warsaw, Katowice, Poznan, and other cities were set up in the hall, waiting to film our rehearsal for the evening news reports. Reuben and I tried to hide our anxiety, but the guys knew that the situation was potentially volatile. We talked about standing and singing with dignity even if the concert were interrupted by protests and about following Reuben’s instructions if we needed to leave the stage. Once rehearsal began, singers began to relax into the music and enjoy the nearly perfect acoustics of the hall.
While the Chorus was rehearsing, the protesters arrived. They began shouting through bullhorns and unfurled signs and banners with crude anti-gay cartoons and black flags with their logo. Only about 20 of them showed up, and a phalanx of police stood between them and the entrance to the hall. Translators told us that they chanted that we carried disease, that we were pedophiles, and that we were there to destroy the Polish family. It was very Fred Phelps!
Much to our surprise, a counter demonstration made up of mostly college-age kids began on the other side of the hall. When we saw a pride flag go up, we knew they were on our side! Each side yelled at the other for an hour, with the police firmly in the middle. A crowd of about 200 people watched from across the street. Armed police were posted on nearby roofs. Chorus members peeked through the lobby windows and took photos.
It was finally time for the concert, and our 120 singers entered the hall to a full house. More than 300 tickets had been sold during the protest! Just to be safe, plainclothes security guards provided by the hall were stationed about strategically. TV cameras were positioned in the aisles. Warm but formal applause followed our opening number “Free to Love.” Then the chorus began to sing “Gaude Mater Polonia,” a hymn that has been the unofficial anthem of Poland for hundreds of years. The crowd immediately jumped from their seats and stood silently while the guys sang. Some of the older people in the audience began to cry. We could only imagine how it felt to hear that song, with Poland’s long and complicated history, being sung by a gay chorus. After each number, the applause grew louder and longer.
At the end of the concert, the audience leapt to its feet and began a 10-minute standing ovation, all clapping in rhythm. The guys left the stage, came back for an encore, the ovation continued, and Reuben brought them back to sing two more pieces. Nearly everyone—singers and audience alike—were crying tears of joy and relief.
The next morning, the entire front page of the newspaper was devoted to our concert and the protest. At the end of the article, the reporter made the personal comment that on behalf of his countrymen, he was embarrassed by the behavior of the protesters and said that “music triumphed over intolerance.”
Steve Smith is the former executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.
This article was adapted from The Voice, Winter 2014-2015.