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The sound of music
Variations choral group's tour of Poland

How do you COMMUNICATE with someone who speaks a different language?

Gesturing with your hands might work. Or slowly, phonetically sounding out simple words in English. Language can be a communication barrier, but the sounds of music can form a bond among even the most diverse cultures. That’s what happened when Pellissippi State’s elite choral group, Variations, traveled to Poland recently.

poland students

The 36 young adults discovered that their music spoke volumes to audiences in historic places like Warsaw and Krakow and the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz.

After a warm reception at the Warsaw home of U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, former mayor of Knoxville, the singers spent one week traveling the country, accompanied by choir leader Bill Brewer, translator Elzbieta Tworek and six other chaperones. Tworek, a native of Poland, is an archery instructor at Pellissippi State.

The singers were warmly received everywhere and usually performed encores requested by enthusiastic audiences. The group sang compositions ranging from folksongs to spirituals to Broadway tunes along the way. Easily the most moving concert took place at Auschwitz.

“As we were singing, almost everyone was crying,” said tenor Alan Holt. “We could barely get through the song ourselves. I’ll never forget it.”

The single most powerful number in the repertoire, several members agree, was the composition “Earth Song.” Brewer says that the lyrics help to explain the power of music to heal.

“O war and power, You blast and blur. The torn heart cries out in pain. But music and singing have been my refuge….”

The choir sang “Earth Song” and a Benedictine chant from the 13th century a cappella on the grounds of Auschwitz.

“‘Earth Song’ represents every moment in your life—good or bad,” said tenor Michael Hurst, who has lived with his grandparents for the past 10 years.

“The song has personal meaning for me right now, because my grandfather was recently diagnosed with throat cancer and my grandmother has developed kidney problems.”

salt mine

Perhaps the most unusual venue for the group was the salt mine at Wieliczka near Krakow. The mine has been worked for 900 years.

“The salt mine was unbelievable,” Hurst said. “There are statues of historic figures, crystal chandeliers, chapels and chambers—all sculpted by miners—and an underground lake.”

Said Brewer, “I truly believe that the experiences afforded our students will have a continued profound effect on their lives.”