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McLean orchestra travels to Germany

Philharmonic orchestra students visit Germany to participate in exchange program

The McLean orchestra poses in Germany. The trip is part of an annual exchange program between the two countries' orchestras. (Photo courtesy of Bilen Essayas)

The McLean orchestra poses in Germany. The trip is part of an annual exchange program between the two countries' orchestras. (Photo courtesy of Bilen Essayas)

The McLean orchestra poses in Germany. The trip is part of an annual exchange program between the two countries' orchestras. (Photo courtesy of Bilen Essayas)

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From Jan. 25 to Feb. 2, the McLean Philharmonic Orchestra travelled to Germany to practice and play with the Detmold Youth Orchestra from a German high school. Students had the opportunity to visit two German cities, Detmold and Berlin, while abroad. This trip is not the first of its kind—in fact, it is an annual event within the program and has been in place for over 25 years.

“A friend of the [McLean] director connected [the orchestra] to the Detmold jugendorchester,” junior Aaron Fan said. “We alternate travelling to America and Germany every year.”

The German jugendorchester, or youth orchestra, provides a new and challenging opportunity for the McLean orchestra; both groups have the potential to learn a lot from the other during the experience.

“With the same passion for music and the goal of putting on a superb performance, the American and German students bond in a way unlike other exchange programs,” said Starlet Smith, McLean Orchestra Director.

Each student is hosted by a German family, which adds a cultural aspect to the experience.

“Students stay in the homes of German families, so they get to know what everyday life is like for a standard German high school student,” Smith said.

The amount of practice required during the trip is tedious for students, but the work and off-time is relatively balanced each day.

McLean orchestra students practice during their stay in Germany. The program is in Germany until Feb. 3. (Photo courtesy of Bilen Essayas)

“A lot of the trip is orchestra-related,” junior Bilen Essayas said. “We have three to five hour rehearsals every day and two concerts—one in Detmold, one in Berlin—but we still have a lot of free time with our hosts to go in the town and do some sightseeing.”

The orchestra visited a variety of tourist spots and cultural attractions, including touring the Castle of Lippe, meeting a local violin maker, and learning about reverberation lengths’ affect on musical performance in concert halls at the University of Music in Detmold.

This year, the group travelled to Berlin during the trip for the first time. Students were able to play at a high school, as well as learn about German government.

“In Berlin we put on a concert at the JFK Schoolmade up of approximately 50 percent American students and 50 percent German studentstook a tour of the Reichstag…visited the United States Embassy and interim ambassador, and the German Federal Foreign Office,” Smith said.

The program has even been noticed by German news outlets. One day, the students’ trip was covered by a local German station.

“The Detmold news station was interested in the exchange, so they made a documentary on us and followed us around for the day,” Essayas said.

Fan, who was one of the three students the news outlet focused on in their documentary, described the experience of being filmed.

“[The documentary] was to show a host family’s point of view of the exchange,” Fan said. “[There was] bright light in the face and we tried our best to be natural.”

Students gather around a worktable to listen to a local Detmold luthier (violin maker) on Jan. 30. The orchestra also visited a variety of other cultural attractions during the trip. (Photo obtained with permission from the McLean High School Orchestra Facebook page)


Despite missing over a week of school, the students who participated in the program have fully enjoyed their time in Germany.

“I chose to go because I went two years ago and I really liked it: the culture, the small European town lifestyle,” Fan said. “[I’m] hoping to keep a lot of German friends, stay connected.”

While spending so much time away from usual surroundings, students are able to engage in new experiences and grow as individuals.

“The most interesting part about the trip was being able to meet new people and play music together,” Essayas said. “Out of this experience, I’m hoping to improve as a musician and learn to be more independent.”

McLean Orchestra returned to the United States on Feb. 3. These students have experienced a rewarding time in Germany that not only improved their skills as an orchestra, but fostered new friendships and cross-cultural experiences.

“I really want my students to see that even though Germany might be halfway across the world from the USA, the people there are just like us,” Smith said. “In today’s world, I feel that it is important for youth to break social boundaries and see all humans as one, without focus being drawn towards racism [and] classism…An exchange trip like ours is a great way for students to bond and create lifelong friends, as well as mature musically.”

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