Ambassadors’ trek proves music to the ears

By Jonathan Cooper

Maybe it was London’s renown cosmopolitan atmosphere. Or the famous French cuisine. Or was it the astounding beauty of the Swiss Alps?

Whatever the reason, dozens of Kyrene Corridor students have come home from a two-week tour of not one but seven European countries a little bit wiser and anxious to return.

The Arizona Ambassadors of Music, a group of 248 students selected from high schools across Arizona for their musical strengths and strong character, returned July 6 from their trip across the Atlantic, which took them to England, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Italy and Germany.

The tour is directed by Bill Richardson, who retired in May as one of the band directors at Corona del Sol High School. About 60 of the ambassadors were Corona students. Richardson has been organizing the biannual trip, a 15-month process, since 1987.

“It’s so rewarding to see 250, 300 kids’ reaction to the Eiffel Tower,” Richardson said. “It’s one thing to go over there and appreciate what I’m seeing, but it’s another to see the reactions of all the other people.”

Students stayed for three days each in five core cities and villages: London; Paris; Champéry, Switzerland; Seefeld, Austria and Rothenburg, Germany. There was a two-hour stop in the tiny country of Liechtenstein and a day trip to Venice, Italy, allowing students to experience a multitude of countries, languages, customs, foods and cultures in a short 15 days.

In each of the five core locations, band and choir concerts were performed in town squares and public parks, in addition to choral concerts performed in some of Europe’s oldest churches.

Richardson said the concert attendees were a mix of local residents and American tourists traveling abroad. The students said the audience reaction was particularly notable.

“They were really nice and welcoming to our music,” said Audrey Rodriquez, a Corona ambassador. “It was really exciting. In London they (the audience) were dancing. They respond a lot differently than our concerts at school. They really wanted to hear us.”

The trip brought the ambassadors to some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations as well as some lesser known locations. They saw the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey in London. They visited the tiny village-like area of Montmartre and its peculiar Sacre Coeur church in addition to the obligatory trip to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

In Switzerland, the ambassadors sat beneath the famed Matterhorn deep within the Swiss Alps after touring the ancient Castle of Chillon. They saw the famous Golden Roof in Innsbruck, Austria, then spent a day amongst the gondolas and canals in Venice. The ambassadors’ fleet of five coach busses then rolled into Rhotenburg, Germany, a centuries-old town whose medieval protectorate wall still stands guard.

“I liked Switzerland because we were in a small town and we had a lot of freedom in that town,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really pretty there; it’s like a postcard.”

Despite the immense unpopularity of American foreign policy in Europe as of late, reaching a pinnacle just two months ago during the British elections in May, the students were graciously received by the Europeans, who were impressed by the students’ kind nature and positive attitudes.

“The Europeans and the Americans in Europe alike were just in awe of the kids and their commitment to music,” Richardson said. “So many people came up to me saying, ‘that’s what the news media should say about America; not all the stuff you see on the news.’ They keep coming up and they say, ‘that really makes me feel good about America.’”

Instead, Richardson said, the biggest challenge of the trip was “getting there and getting back,” as well as transporting all the band equipment through customs and across hundreds of miles in Europe. He said the language barrier was hardly an issue.

“The kids break the barriers with their music,” he said.

Yet, upon returning home, the students were reminded of far more powerful barriers that persist in this post-9/11 world. The Arizona Ambassadors awoke their first morning back on American soil to the news that four bombs had exploded on the mass-transit system in London, one on a double-decker bus, three in the city’s underground subway system.

“It was pretty scary,” said Katherine Deschamps, another Corona ambassador. “I was just there and I had used those stations. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, travelers could be there. I could have been there. I could have been killed. It could have happened to me.’”

This rare opportunity to explore a new culture and see the world will not soon be forgotten, the participants said.

“It was way more than I expected,” Deschamps said. “Europe was really vibrant and it had a history that extended past a couple hundred years. It was a history that actually meant old and important and majestic.”

The trip was more than just an opportunity for fun and a chance to perform for a different audience. The trip was an up-close-and-personal educational opportunity extending far beyond Arizona’s classroom walls.

“They gain a whole new concept of what the world’s all about,” Richardson said. “They get to see a lot of different customs that they’re not used to here in the United States. It opens their eyes to the world, and I hope they’ll want to go back.”