The George Washington University Singers are no strangers to the stage. The 50-person choir has performed more than 15 times this year, showcasing their talents before crowds as big as 25,000 people. But the setting changed this summer when the group traveled to South Africa during a course supported by GW’s music department and the Office for Study Abroad that combined academics, service and song.
Competition to join the choir is stiff, and new singers audition for positions as altos, sopranos, tenors or bass vocalists. They perfect their repertoire through rehearsals and performances at university events. Every two years, they take their show on the road—and across seas—as part of Concert Tour and Cultural Exchange, a class that includes 10 days of traveling and performing. Students earn credit for the time spent overseas.
“When our students learn from outstanding professors and can do so with the benefits of traveling to another country, that combination is very powerful. Students never forget the experience—such an experience shapes their lives, careers and understanding long into the future,” said Donna Scarboro, associate provost for international programs.
Past USingers in the course have trekked through Brazil, Croatia, Italy and Slovenia. Robert Baker, director of performance studies and a professor of music, and Gisèle Becker, director of choral activities, organized a trip to South Africa a few years ago, and after the overwhelmingly positive experience, they thought it an ideal place to revisit. Dr. Baker was struck by the country’s rich culture and felt its unique relationship to music would offer students a chance to grow as performers and as individuals.
“People sing together in South Africa with immediacy and a lack of judgment. They sing in all the languages of the country that 20 years ago were part of apartheid. Now, there is wholeness to those moments,” Dr. Baker said.
Forty-three USingers boarded a plane in May with three faculty members and set off on a journey that took them from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Dr. Baker and Ms. Becker had arranged joint concerts with choirs from South African schools, like the University of the Witwatersrand and North-West University. After each show, the USingers enjoyed meals with the other choirs to learn a little about the lives of their South African peers.
Members of the choir are seasoned performers—for GW’s Commencement ceremony, they sang the national anthem for thousands of people. But just before a high-profile performance at the St. George’s Cathedral, junior and tenor Floyd Jones felt nerves fluttering in the pit of his stomach. A high-profile figure sat in the audience: Thabo Makgoba, the archbishop of Cape Town.
“It had to be perfect,” Mr. Jones remembered. “We’d been traveling and our voices were a little tired, but we were able to pull it off and make it a beautiful performance.”
In between concerts, the USingers took plenty of time for service projects. They spent a day playing kickball and singing with children at the Bokamoso Youth Centre in Winterveldt. The organization for at-risk young people arranges exchange programs in the U.S., and kids from their centers have even visited GW’s campus. The USingers also gave clothing, toys and a monetary donation to the Baphumelele Children’s Home and the Bokamoso Youth Center on behalf of the university.
“A lot of the kids we met were living in poverty, but music is something that really soothes them,” Mr. Jones said. “Visiting them taught me music really does have the power to change lives.”
Mr. Jones added that spending two weeks volunteering, rehearsing and performing together brought the USingers closer than ever before. They bonded through activities, which included touring Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years; spotting antelope species and other wildlife at Rhino & Lion Nature Preserve; and taking a scenic drive through the massive cliffs of Cape Peninsula. Their newly found friendships can help them onstage, Mr. Jones explained.
“There’s more to harmony than being able to sing on key. It’s about being on the same wavelength with a person,” he said. “You have to understand each other— like if someone’s voice gets tired, you can recognize when you need to step up and help the group. This really gave us that bond.”
Mr. Baker said the trip “stretched the students’ ideas about the world,” and that at its core, there was an unforgettable lesson about music.
“Through our travel and study, it’s great to find out that a lot of how we make and share music is the same across the world. But on these trips, our students also encounter the differences in how music is made and received, and they learn to embrace and value those differences,” Dr. Baker said. “Our students will be better musicians thanks to this trip and they will also be better citizens of the world.”