In honor of Gilman's 125th anniversary, throughout the month of October, we are reflecting on Gilman's global learning opportunities. In order to prepare our boys for the world they will inherit, we must educate them to be competent and confident problem solvers, communicators, and leaders in an ever-changing global environment. The challenge of building a better tomorrow is one that will be undertaken by those who see themselves as citizens of an international community, who are knowledgeable enough to understand their own perspective and appreciate that of others, and who can work across and through cultural barriers to bring about meaningful change.
Following a brief break due to COVID, we are excited for the return of international trips during the 2022-2023 school year and beyond. During spring break of 2023, Middle and Upper School choir students will travel to Portugal, while many eighth grade students will spend time in Italy. The excitement for these trips is palpable with students and faculty alike looking forward to their upcoming travels.
As we reflect and look ahead, we wanted to share an article that was originally published in the Summer 2017 Gilman Bulletin.
Middle and Upper School sing their way through Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague, and into the hearts of each other.
Perhaps the true success of a cross-division trip abroad manifests a few weeks after the boys return home and resume their usual school day routines. Students, appropriately, silo in their divisions, with minimal daily interaction among older and younger boys. An Upper School guy might go through an entire day without seeing a Middle or Lower School guy.
Yet this happened, a few weeks after spring break: a teacher witnesses what could have been in a movie, slow-motion, run up, hug each other, howya doing, how's it been greeting between sophomore Ben Levinson and sixth-grader Brody Schrepfer.
Not so long before, the boys were virtual strangers.
Ben and Brody, along with 41 other boys in grades six through 12, accompanied by six chaperones and led by Elizabeth Sesler-Beckman, Middle School music teacher and choral director, and Robby Ford, Upper School math teacher and choral director, spent eight days singing their way through Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague on a biennial choral trip abroad.
There's no disputing that field trips are a common and widely-accepted educational practice. Gilman seventh-grade boys visit Civil War battlefields. Miss Miller takes her first graders to visit Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Prep-one visits the Baltimore Zoo and joins first graders to attend a BSO performance. The fifth grade sets off to study Colonial history at Jamestown. This notion of firsthand witness and immersion expands into experiential learning opportunities, whether outdoor education at Echo Hill or the Mountain Institute, service learning afternoons at Pickersgill, or an Outward Bound Expedition along the Appalachian Trail for the entire freshman class.
This trip took experiential learning one step further, exposing 43 boys to the expected outcomes of a study abroad trip – historical and cross-cultural learning – as well as offering elements germane to young musicians – opportunities to perform and practice their craft. And, during a trip that features five performances in eight days, exposure to the frenetic life of a touring musician.
What's particularly unique about the Gilman trip is that different age groups combine. In fact, KIconcerts, the company that arranged the trip, hardly sees groups that meld ages so successfully.
"The interaction across the ages – this was genuine and it was caring and it occurred without teachers needing encourage it," wrote Oliver Scofield, the Klconcerts president, in an email to Sesler-Beckman and Ford. "Your students were as good ambassadors for their community and their country that we have ever toured. Individually they were a pleasure for others to meet and as a group they exuded great energy commented on by many in Austria and the Czech Republic."
"It's a bit awkward at first with the different ages," says Ford, who directs the Glee Club and the Traveling Men. Travelers are organized into pods of one chaperone and seven boys, mixing younger with older. Along the way, the older boys begin to look out for the younger. Ford recalls the last choral trip, in 2015 to the UK and London.
"We instructed the older boys, 'you have to take care of the younger boys, you have to make sure that they stick with you.' I can remember Jake Goodwin ('16) picking up one of our younger guys, holding him and just walking him onto the Tube. Finally, the younger boy says, 'You know, Jake, you could put me down now.'"
"Without us even saying anything this time, the older boys naturally took care of their younger Gilman brothers," says Sesler-Beckman. Many of the Upper School boys are seasoned performance travelers, as they were part of the UK trip. "In 2015, they were tiny middle schoolers singing soprano and now they're Traveling Men. I've seen them evolve as people and singers through voice parts, and I've also seen them go from being the young guys looking up to the older guys to becoming the older guys themselves."
During their travels, importantly, students learn independence and resilience. They learn to overcome tiredness and muster the strength to perform well. They learn flexibility and adaptability since performance logistics, such as how to get on and off the stage, how to stand, what's the set list, how to interact with another school's performers, even how to sing in a church that's only 50 degrees (apparently, Austrian churches aren't heated), can be finalized only in the performance space, just a few hours before the concert. They learn to communicate in an environment where not everyone may speak English. For some, this trip may be the first time they have traveled without their parents, or the first time they have been away from home at all. The older teens learn to be patient with the younger guys; the younger guys learn to relax, open up, and assert their sometimes new-found independence.
And, like Ben and Brody, they become buddies and brothers.
Working with KIconcerts, Ford and Sesler-Beckman designed a trip that would take the boys to places they might not normally travel on family holiday. They also ensured opportunities for the boys to interact with students from the countries and cultures they visit. The tour included sites of particular interest to students of music, and the boys gave four 1.5 hour concerts, plus a mini-concert, in during the eight-day period, performing in various types of venues to audiences of varying sizes.
"We were literally in some of the most music-enriched environments in the world. You cannot walk through the cemetery in Vienna and see Beethoven's grave and see these landmark places without having a shiver go down your spine," remarks Sesler-Beckman. "Just walking around these cities shows how much the arts are venerated and permeate every part of the culture."
In contrast to the sort of music appreciation field trips most students take at some point during their school years—for example, that first grade trip to the BSO—instead of consuming music, the boys create it. They rise to the occasion and "up their game" when they sing in spaces, especially churches, with magnificent acoustics. The performance experience spurs some boys to realize they may want to travel more as a singer, which attracts them to college programs where they may have the opportunity to sing.
During the trip, the chaperones asked the boys to write daily reflections, which were, in turn, sent home to parents in a group email. The quotes below are taken from the boys' posts.
In Salzburg, the boys visited Mozart's birthplace, where they saw a lock of his hair and an original score in his handwriting. "As young musicians, I feel that it is very necessary that we make trips like this one to places and landmarks of musical importance, in order to contextualize the lives of those other musicians who have come before us," wrote Barrett Crawford '18.
Their first concert later that day took place at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, the site of the first performance of "Silent Night" in 1818. At that point, the group had been in Europe for a little more than 24 hours. The choirs performed in a shared concert with the Jugendensenble Lamprechtshausen vom Musikum Oberndorf.
"After an hour-long rehearsal to warm up and get back up to speed, the concert began with both groups performing 'Swing Low,' followed by the middle school, and then the upper school. I was very lucky to be able to conduct the upper school piece 'Ubi Caritas' during the performance, and I could not think of a place I would rather make my conducting debut," relayed John Ball '17.
When the group reached Vienna, they toured sights from "The Sound of Music," visiting the house used for the Von Trapp's home in the 1964 movie, as well as the gazebo where the "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" scene was filmed, as well as Mondee Abbey, where Maria was married in the movie. The gazebo visit, recalled Owen Kleis '20, "resulted in quite a lot of singing."
They also visited Mozart's "Figaro House," the only one of Mozart's residences still in existence. A visit to the city's Central Cemetery reveals Ludwig van Beethoven's monument and the graves of Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, and Johann Strauss, among other distinguished composers, musicians, and vocalists.
The second performance was a service-learning outreach concert at Mareinheim Senior Home in Vienna.
"It's always cheering to be reminded of the joy music brings to many people," remarked Ben Levinson '19 after the group performed for approximately 40 residents. "Despite having a language barrier with the audience, the residents seemed to have genuinely enjoyed our visit."
The next day, the boys shared a concert with Chor des Musischen Realgymnasiums Perchtolsdorf Castle, located a half-hour outside of Vienna. The Gilman boys and the Austrian teen choir rehearsed and performed "Swinging with the Saints" jointly.
"It was truly delightful to see our boys meeting and talking with their Austrian singing counterparts after the concert," says Sesler-Beckman. "There have been people living continuously where we sang since 6,000 B.C., and the venue was built into a castle that was 1,000 years old. It's hard for us to comprehend."
The final concert, in Prague the day before departure, was shared with the Jazz Rock Band from the PORG School, with which Gilman shares an exchange program. PORG is the first independent school founded in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. Earlier in the day, the boys sang for PORG students in the school's courtyard.
The Gilman boys also met with a PORG English class, which gave the boys one-on-one interaction with peers. Working in pairs, the Czech students answered open-ended questions (for example, what kinds of music do you like? What would the world be like without music?) in writing. The Gilman students helped correct their answers. "My group had a wonderful conversation about the many differences between our two countries," remarked Chase Baker '19.
"The trip has been an incredible adventure," Sesler-Beckman wrote in a final email to parents before departure to the States. "You should be very proud of your sons' accomplishments and their contributions throughout this trip. We certainly feel privileged to have shared this experience with them."
The Semmes G. (Buck) Walsh Fund at Gilman helped subsidize the cost of the trip. Buck Walsh, past parent and former Traveling Men director, created the fund to support male a cappella singing through a bequest.