“Singing someone else’s song with authenticity and heart is one of the best bridge-building tools.”
Each year, all 150 or so boys of the Cincinnati Boychoir go on tour. If you are a brand new singer, that means a bus tour to three retirement homes in one day followed by a pizza party. For our intermediate level, it is a three-day tour to another city in the region. And our top guys follow a three-year rotation of small (bus, domestic), medium (plane, domestic), and large (international) tours.
From an internal perspective, travel is one of the three pillars of our educational philosophy. Being somewhat landlocked in the Midwest, we feel it is exceedingly important to leave our community and learn about how people live in different places, whether that is across town or across the world.
At the Boychoir, I talk often with the boys about their personal ‘orbit’. Your personal orbit is what your field of stimulus is taking in. For a ten-year-old, his orbit tends to be his immediate needs. Where is his music binder? Coat? Shoes? When touring, the primary focus can often be simply getting from one place to another with all of his personal items.
For a boy entering adolescence, his orbit expands, generally, to include interactions with friends. He will be hyper-aware of his friends’ emotions, and building close relationships is of prime importance.
For the older teen, we can, with work, ask boys to expand their orbit to include not only the needs of the younger students, but to handle personal interactions with perspective.
My goal, when we travel, is that each boy’s orbit expands at least a little bit – if not a lot. Furthermore, if we work to expand the orbit before we travel, then the trip itself can be that much more valuable.
This past June, the Cincinnati Boychoir Ambassadors traveled to South Africa and Swaziland. With the amazing gang at ACFEA, we developed a tour that invited us to experience these amazing countries from all angles: we were able to perform in Desmond Tutu’s church in Soweto, work with youth in Kliptown, and also enjoy the excessive beauty of Cape Town.
What made the tour exceptional, however, was the preparation that we did ahead of time. We cultivated a year-long relationship with an amazing human and scholar of South African choral music Dr. Mollie Stone, and she taught us about things as basic as appropriate movement while singing, and as challenging as issues of cultural appropriation. We discussed the history of the country, explored apartheid, and talked at length about how it was young people, in the end, that helped turn the country around.
South Africa changed us. By learning the songs of black South Africans – and not just Tshotsholoza, but music that American choirs rarely perform – we were able to build connections more immediately with our hosts, wherever we traveled. The simple act of singing someone else’s song with attention to authenticity, and, most importantly, heart, is one of the best bridge-building tools I know of.
Mostly, however, by preparing diligently for this trip, our boys’ orbits were primed to grow. What a waste if that ten-year-old spent all his time looking for his belt: It was much more important that he develop a new relationship with his counterpart at Drakensburg. Our teens may have expanded their orbits the most; I recall an end-of-day debrief which delved into cultural misconceptions relayed by the American media, and the culture of materialism they felt was harming our communities at home.
As Americans, we have a tendency to inflict ourselves on other cultures when we travel, rather than quietly absorb the vibe of our surroundings. Never does this feel more true than when we travel in large groups of young people. More than ever, learning to pick up on small cultural nuances is a critical skill for them. Therefore, the sooner we can help them expand their own personal orbit — and if we work hard to expand our own personal orbits before we land in a new place — the sooner they will develop the skills to build meaningful bridges with friends across the world, or, as importantly, across town.
By Christopher Eanes, Former Artistic Director, Cincinnati Boychoir
All photos by Steve Stricker