After just a few days on the road, Maia Toenies ’26 knew this would be no ordinary group trip.
Flute player and member of the University of St. Thomas Symphonic wind ensemble, Toenies jumped at the chance to join the ensemble’s 2023 international tour of Greece. She expected to perform at concerts and see iconic sites. What she didn’t expect, sandwiched between her trips to the Parthenon and three different Greek islands, was the opportunity to slow down and socialize with new Greek musician friends.
“Even though we come from countries incredibly far from each other, we share this love, this common passion for music,” Toenies said. “Having the chance to interact with them and discuss something we both love was special.”
These conversations did not happen by chance. The 10-day tour of Greece was built around four exchange concerts – where St. Thomas musicians performed behind a local Greek ensemble.
“It was obvious from the way they performed that they loved making music as much as we did,” Toenies said. “And then having the opportunity to socialize and talk to them about their work and how much they loved our work was awesome.”
Starting in Thessaloniki and ending near Athens, the journey took the symphonic wind ensemble through much of the country, some of it familiar to tourists and much of it off the beaten track.
Along the way, the ensemble members visited the country’s greatest cultural sites, climbed the Acropolis and explored the legendary theater of Delphi, but they also took time to meet locals, eat traditional dishes and learn learn basic language skills – every moment. deliberately organized to encourage students to serve and participate in the country’s culture instead of just “playing tourist.”
For director Matthew George, fostering this authentic cultural exchange is essential during any trip abroad.
“Unlike traveling as a tourist, I hoped these students would be seen as active participants, serving the culture through their music,” George said.
The trip took years to plan. Much of the process focused on logistics and finances, but for George the priority was always ensuring opportunities for cultural exchange. He spent months emailing Greek choirs and groups to plan the four exchange concerts.
“Having an international program like ours, where people go and actively do something for the communities that they’re visiting, I think is really important,” George said. “And I think that’s what makes it unique: serving the culture, giving back to it, rather than going and observing it.”
The Symphonic Wind Ensemble typically travels internationally every three years, rotating with the programs of the St. Thomas Choir and Orchestra. After putting his travels on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, George says it was great to get back on the road and share music with others.
“As soon as you start playing, there’s this connection,” George said. “Through this music you can communicate thoughts and emotions, and you create an immediate connection between whoever is playing and whoever is in the audience.”
The concerts were highlighted by alto saxophonist Michael Clements ’24, who said they were a highlight of the trip, one he won’t soon forget.
“Having the chance to perform alongside a foreign band and experience that kind of broadening of perspectives is something that doesn’t happen very often,” Clements said. “There were very few moments during the trip where I felt like just a tourist. We are almost part of the culture rather than being an outsider looking in. »
Beyond the music, Clements took the opportunity to feast on Greek cuisine daily, purchasing gyros from street vendors between tour stops.
“The gyroscopes were absolutely outstanding,” Clements said. “In fact, I’ve eaten so many that I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat tzatziki sauce for another year or so. I’ve had so many there because I love it so much.
But most of all, Clements will always appreciate the quality time spent with his fellow Tommies, building bonds that will last far beyond his time at St. Thomas.
“I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t appreciated the relationships that have been made on this journey,” Clements said. “By the end, everyone knew each other, it’s a really cool thing to see.”