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Along with culture, Europe choir tour reveals power of shared music

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – This January, the Bethel College Concert Choir participated in the quadrennial European tour.

I and 44 other singers, under the guidance of Dr. Merle Schlabaugh and Dr. William Eash, traveled for 23 days throughout Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France, visiting more than 25 European cities and performing in 11 of them.

The format of the trip allowed for a good mixture of organized activity and free time for exploration. During our free time, the choir would often split up into smaller groups.

In Leipzig, some of us were able to experience a soccer game, tour Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s home and the Mendelssohn museum that now occupies the space, and visit the Stasi museum, where the secret police had their headquarters during the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany.

Several of us were also able to ice skate in Amsterdam, go to a cheese museum, visit the BMW museum in Munich, and see countless cathedrals, palaces and government buildings.

Other groups went to art museums that housed works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh, while yet others took a side trip to Salzburg, Austria, where The Sound of Music was filmed.

Collectively as a choir, our experiences included a tour of Horsch Industries (a producer of agricultural implements); participation in a youth worship service in Bielefeld, Germany; a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau; a boat tour through Amsterdam’s canals; a trek to the top of Trachselwald Castle in Switzerland; a walk across the Kapellbrücke (a covered wooden bridge) in Lucerne; and many an hour crammed into a bus. It is amazing how shared experiences can bring a group together.

Apart from the tourism, the connection to Mennonite history was a very interesting facet of the trip, especially for those of us with Mennonite heritage.

The choir visited historical Mennonite sites such as Pingjum and Witmarsum, where Menno Simons was involved during the early years of the Anabaptist movement. Seeing these, along with the cages that hang from the St. Lambert’s Church in Münster, Germany, was a powerful reminder of the messiness of the Reformation.

Likewise, visiting the Weierhof community and the Forschungsstelle Mennonite Library housed there made stories of martyrdom, persecution and steadfast faith come to life.

I was continually surprised (and delighted) by my peers’ desire to sing – indeed, perhaps one of the most memorable aspects of the trip was the impromptu singing. We were happy to fill any space we could with song, and we were constantly aware of the acoustical aptness of our surroundings.

From massive cathedrals, such as the Cologne Cathedral, to the Monument of Nations in Leipzig, to the small sanctuary of the Mennonitebrüdergemeinde Neuwied (Germany) – we sang.

Choir member Sarah Balzer, a junior from Inman, noted that “being able to make music with other people is something that brings us all joy, and we are so glad to have the opportunity to share music with others.”

Possibly the most impactful and emotional parts of our trip happened when we sang. I believe we connected with people the most during concerts.

Choir member Luke Unruh, a sophomore from Goessel, said, “I always love giving concerts because I am able to see the joy it brings to people. Sometimes people are struggling, and it is the power of music that helps them through their hard times. I’m glad I can be a part of that.”

As I suspect was the case for many choir members, I approached this tour selfishly. I was excited to see Europe, to try new foods and to make new friends. I was not thinking about the impact our music might have on others.

Yet choir members were repeatedly told just how much our music had touched people’s hearts. And our own hearts were repeatedly touched by the power of music.

In music we found perhaps the most unexpectedly and inexplicably beautiful experiences of our trip. This, beyond the architecture, food and culture, is what I will never forget. I feel privileged to have been a part of this beauty.

Austin Regier is a senior from Newton and a member of the Bethel College Concert Choir and the small men’s ensemble Open Road. During Bethel’s 2018 interterm, William Eash, professor of music, and Merle Schlabaugh, professor of German, took 45 singers on the every-four-years tour in Europe.

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