A group of Kansas University singers performed last summer in some of the world's largest and oldest cathedrals.
When Carrie Wilkerson and the 41 other members of the Kansas University Chamber Choir were flying over the Atlantic Ocean in May, they did not understand the importance of the singing tour they were about to start in England.
Not only did the tour teach them about being professional singers but their performances also benefited a poverty-stricken area of Africa.
"It didn't register until they got there why they were making the tour," said Jeff Carter, assistant conductor of the Chamber Choir and manager of the tour.
Wilkerson, a senior vocal performance major from Wichita, agreed: "I didn't understand the significance until I got there and started talking to the people."
The tour came about through the friendship of Simon Carrington, director of KU's choral activities, and Nick Maurice, a physician in Marlborough, England, who directs the Marlborough Brandt Group.
For many years, MBG has had a link with Gunjur, a Moslem community in The Gambia, West Africa. The organization coordinates an exchange of people between Marlborough and Gunjur and is currently trying to provide access to clean water for Gunjur.
While in England, the KU singers met Maurice as well as Gambia natives who were staying with their host families.
"It wasn't just a concert tour. It was a fund-raising philanthropic tour that had international implications," Carter said.
Wilkerson, who plans to go to Africa after her graduation to do missionary work, said the trip to England taught her a valuable lesson.
"How important it is to maintain your integrity and be culturally sensitive and open to learning," she said. "You can't go to another country closed-minded. You have to go with the intent to be taught. There's so much to learn."
Learning on the road
The decision for the Chamber Choir to tour England was made last fall, Carter said, and fund-raising began with a newsletter that was sent to former KU singers.
A donation from the late Charlie Oldfather provided seed money for the trip.
"Through the newsletter and individual contacts we raised tens of thousands of dollars," Carter said.
By February, the singers who were going had been confirmed and the itinerary was nearly complete. Only the songs were left to pick.
"Two-thirds of the music was specially learned after the regular semester ended," Carter said, adding that the choir rehearsed for three days during finals before boarding their plane on May 19, the day after graduation.
"We were learning the music on the go. That's a very professional way to do it," he said.
Once they arrived, the choir rehearsed two to four hours each day and performed concerts for 11 consecutive days. The music for each concert varied, with only about 50 percent remaining the same from concert to concert.
The tour's repertoire included 16th- to 20th-century music, from Spanish and English music of the Renaissance era to spirituals to vocal jazz to 20th-century music with an English connection.
Also included were compositions by Carter; Geoff Wilcken, a choral conducting graduate student; Andrew Bonacci, a doctoral composition student; and Kerry Marsh, an undergraduate music education major.
Carter said a highlight was the performance of "Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui," by Thomas Tallis, a 16th-century composition with 40 separate vocal parts.
Steeped in history
Wilkerson said performing in some of England's grandest cathedrals was truly awesome.
"They are acoustically designed for the music we were singing," she said. "The music came alive. It was (being performed) the way it was supposed to be. The voices would float out and fill the space. We saw a little bit of heaven."
The tour, which ended June 1, included performances at Marlborough College Chapel, Wiltshire; Edington Priory Church, Wiltshire; Salisbury Cathedral; Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire; Magdalen College, Oxford; St. George's Chapel, Windsor; St. John's Wood Church, London; and Canterbury Cathedral.
"We sang in places that were historically known," Carter said. "The youngest was 120 years old. The oldest was built in the 13th century."
The KU Chamber Choir will embark on another international tour next May. A group of 24 singers will undertake a two-week tour to Quercy, a historic area of southwest France.