Choral Tour of Europe

By Colleen Holmes, VEP Tutor

My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind musical tour of three European cities:  Budapest, Hungary and Vienna and Salzburg, Austria.  The highlight of the trip was a concert in Budapest which featured a performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” accompanied by a Hungarian Orchestra and four international soloists.  There were five choral ensembles singing the Mass with over 250 musicians onstage at the Italian Cultural Center.  Our smaller ensemble, “Bucks County Women’s Chorus” also performed a community outreach concert in a small nursing home in Bruck an der Leitha, Austria and a full finale concert in the Residenzplaz palace in Salzburg, Austria.

With this kind of choral trip, a tour guide is assigned to the ensemble for the duration of the trip to coordinate everything from meals to touring to rehearsal schedules and venues.  In our experience with these kinds of trips, the tour guide either makes or breaks the trip.  This year, our guide David was the best guide that we ever had.  He was Austrian and in addition to his native German, he spoke English, French, Spanish and Hungarian.  He was a Fine Arts Major for both undergraduate and graduate studies and had knowledge and enthusiasm for all aspects of the culture including music, art, architecture and history.  Musicians can often be a tough crowd and although he was much younger than almost all of us, he was patient, understanding, prepared and professional.  He also was honest about his struggles with our language and asked for help with words and pronunciation when he needed assistance.

My husband and I have travelled internationally on many occasions, but this was the first time that we were in a country with no prior knowledge of the language.  It is also my first trip since I began the coursework for ESL certification and started tutoring for VEP.  These studies have changed the way that I look at language acquisition and communication.  Our guide quoted a Hungarian author who quipped that Hungary was like a rock in the middle of the European sea: no linguistic connection to anything around it.  It felt very true with letters that we didn’t know or understand and an incredibly confusing money system.  None of the words sounded like anything that we were familiar with even though as singers we know a little French, a little Italian, a little German and a little Spanish.  Hungarian had no observable connection to any Romantic language.   We had that unsettled feeling on several occasions (especially at restaurants with no translations) but could usually get assistance.  It probably helped that we were in the big city and looked like American tourists.  Many Hungarians also speak German and the older people speak Russian too.  Budapest impressed us as a beautiful, old (but clean) city whose residents were filled with national pride for their country, food, music and traditions.  We sang to a packed house who wanted encores after two hours of pretty heavy duty music.

Another fantastic and memorable experience that really highlighted language and communication was the stop at the nursing home to sing.  As a career music teacher, I know that the chatter and visiting mean as much as the music does to the residents.  We began with a fun, traditional German folk song which was the inspired idea of our director.  Language barrier and all, the ice was broken.  David translated all of the introductions for the residents (which could have been cumbersome, but was entertaining because of his delivery), and it was a lovely event.  We concluded with “The Sound of Music” as we were in the neighborhood, and they treated us to a local beverage and strudel. There are plenty of strudel flavors in Austria!  The residents wanted to talk and visit with us after the concert.  Although the nurses and aides kept reminding them that we did not speak German, they went on and on.  The message was not lost on us.  We got it from the gestures, enthusiasm and tone of voice.  As is often the case with musical connections, it was all good.

Vienna proved to be less of a communication challenge because we spent most of the time in the center of the city where the language was German and the currency was the euro.  Menus had translations and many shopkeepers had limited English.  After about two hours and a general city tour, we realized that we needed a whole week to see all of the musical sights of this great musical capital and that we could handle it on our own.  We have studied and heard about the Viennese Opera House, the Philharmonic, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and all of the great musical highlights of this city for our whole professional lives.  We will have to go back to really experience them all.  We did have a cooking class in Vienna with an international chef.  Cooking was easy with a language barrier.  It was all demonstration.  The food was memorable with my favorites being the trout mousse and the apple horseradish dip that I made!

Our last trip was to Salzburg where we sang our full concert in the Residenzplaz Palace.  A bus full of singers began with the “Sound of Music” tour in which our tour guide David proceeded to burst every balloon about Hollywood’s rendition of the Von Trapp Family story.  Apparently, Hollywood took a lot of artistic license in their version of events.  We did have an impromptu little chorus in the church where the wedding was filmed and visited many of the filming locations in Salzburg.

It was my first trip as an ESL tutor and a candidate for ESL certification and I have learned much in my studies about the challenges of communication and language.  It was a unique and wonderful chance for me to grow in my understanding of what my students need.  It reinforced my admiration and respect for their courage and determination as they work daily to learn and improve their skills in this difficult language that we speak.  For me, it was ten days of language challenges, for my students, it is daily and ongoing.  I have so much respect for their efforts.