While we talk about music being the international language, nothing brings that home more than participating in a music exchange program.
According to ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) staff, “the International Conductors Exchange Program (ICEP) is committed to leading the world in the creation of opportunities for intercultural and artistic dialogue with these choral communities from around the world. This dialogue is the key to creating connections and forging stronger relationships between ACDA and the rest of the world. It is an ongoing exchange program for emerging leaders from the U.S. and their international counterparts to interact with choruses and choral musicians from one another’s respective countries.”
I serve as Director of Music and Education for the Savannah Children’s Choir (SCC) in Savannah, Georgia, a non-profit community choir working with 125 K-8 children from over 30 public and private schools across our community. Last year, reading the Choral Journal, I noticed an application for an interesting program sponsored by ACDA that gave directors an opportunity to work with choirs in another country and in exchange, host a conductor from that country in their region of the US. I applied, and was ecstatic when I found out I was selected to participate in this prestigious international exchange program. Even more, that I was the only children’s choir director selected from a pool of collegiate, professional, and high school conductors. Best of all, the exchange included all lodging, transportation and meals once in Sweden.
The ACDA hosted fourteen Swedish choral conductors as part of the organization’s annual conference in Salt Lake City, UT in spring of 2015, and the conductors, either before or after the conference, dispersed around the country to get a real sense of the state of choral music in the U.S. Because of my organization’s experience in hosting Artists in Residence, I felt confident in hosting, and we put together an action-packed agenda for our exchange conductor. Ann-Sofi Stahl, a church music director from Falun, Sweden, came to Savannah to experience two SCC performances, a community music festival, a church choir, private and public high school and middle school choruses, and a college choir. We stay in touch through facebook regularly. Most recently, almost a year after her trip, she sent a message saying: “I talk about my trip everyday, it somehow manages to arise in conversation. What a life changing experience this created for me – thank you!!!!!”
I then traveled to Sweden in the fall of 2015. While there for two weeks, I explored the countryside, experienced the culture first hand, and had the pleasure of working with or observing a number of conductors and choirs of all ages and abilities. Living with host families and traveling the country with a native Swede opened my eyes to so much! At the end, I came back with numerous “flashbulb memories” that will impact me as a teacher and conductor, my community and singers, and future generations in both Sweden and the U.S..
Here’s how I immediately put my exchange experience to use in my own choir:
●Warm-ups, team building, and focus activities in rehearsal
○Sweden has a very rich choral history; ever heard of the Swedish Radio Choir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuXQjx3lnGU or famous conductor Eric Ericson.
●Adding folk songs and famous Swedish tunes into our repertoire
○If you haven’t thought about using Swedish folk music in your repertoire, check it out. Here is a YouTube link to my favorite one right now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAWUMCuHDb8. As we were driving along the countryside, my host taught me a number of catchy folk tunes!
●Cultural experiences that brought me closer to music and gave me new vehicles for sharing and exploring music with my singers
○Sometimes we get bogged down with the daily routine. This exchange rejuvenated my heart, soul and mind and reminded me how much fun we have and why we chose to teach music to children. We get to have an impact on the next generation, not matter where we are. Music is educational, music transmits culture, but overall, music is FUN!
Looking back, I realized my personal experience with the exchange also has an impact on the wider choral community:
1.Visibility – a great way to utilize social media!
Before I left, I wanted to find ways to involve the Savannah Children’s Choir singers in my trip. They were part of the application process, which included a sample video of a rehearsal. They also helped me select which “American” songs, rounds, and warm-ups I would take with me to Sweden from our repertoire of “fun stuff.”
While I was away, I kept the kids (and my community) involved in the travels through Facebook updates and emails. This way, the kids could follow my adventure, I could share new discoveries right away, and they got to see and catch up with the Swedish guest who came to visit us earlier in the year.
All this led to a lot of my new Swedish friends connecting with me on Facebook so they could share in the pictures and fun. Now those are connections I’ll have forever – so much more meaningful than just swapping business cards!
Finally, my hope is that this visibility will also encourage more people to apply and participate in future ICEP programs and use social media as a way to build relationships at home, nationally, and internationally.
Of course, my time abroad was fantastic and enjoyable. But I will never forget that first Saturday back. Once a month we hold a Saturday rehearsal, and I was thrilled to share my reignited passion and new material with the kids. We had so much fun at that four hour rehearsal, when it came time to leave and no one wanted to budge! The singers (and their parents) regularly tell me Saturday rehearsals, initially dreaded, are now a favorite.
One “flashbulb” memory was when I worked with several classes of Swedish 4th graders, and then joined them for lunch in their cafeteria. Swedish school food is delicious! One table of kids begged me to sit with them; they’d only had English for a few years, but they were wonderful to talk to and worked so hard to ask questions. I can’t wait to go back and see them, and look forward to taking my choir on tour to meet them.
The Savannah Children’s Choir tours internationally and will definitely be going to Sweden soon! While working with some of the “best of the best” conductors in Sweden, this topic came up and there were even discussions from the city officials about starting a festival….hopefully we will see this come to fruition soon!
I also hope this will lead to more Swedish choirs coming our way and wowing our American ears. It was humbling to hear them talk about our ACDA and how much they get from attending our conferences, and how they now plan their travel around our conventions. We are so blessed – I’m going to celebrate by having “Fika”!
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and I offer you these three take-away points:
1.Singing is forever (older ladies at outdoor concert singing along to every song)
2.Singing is universal and FUN (Here are some of the 4th graders I talked about earlier- “Selfie” is also a universal term!)
3.Singing allows you to learn more than the language of music. It is a way to immediately bond, connect, and share cultures. Meet some of my new friends!