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Music connects two cultures

A little music can go a long way.

At least, that’s what the members of the Suffolk Sister Cities band and chorus will tell you.

The group of 32 high school students, along with band and chorus leaders, returned last month from a 10-day trip to England, which featured several performances in Suffolk County, Suffolk’s British sister city. The trip was in return for a trip a group of students from England made to Suffolk, Va. last summer.

“I really believe exchanges are really important,” said Grace Saunders, a rising senior at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy and alto in the chorus. “It’s just valuable to make those connections with people from all over, around the world.”

The students from all four of Suffolk’s high schools tried out in blind auditions in May 2008. After being selected, the group raised funds and practiced vigorously for more than a year to be able to make the trip. After the students got out of school for the summer, they practiced for three hours every day — but it was worth it.

“It definitely paid off,” Saunders said. “You don’t want to go off to another country and not know your songs.”

The group left Suffolk, Va., on July 6 and arrived in London, England on July 7. The students and leaders had two full days of sightseeing in London before leaving for Suffolk County, visiting the Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Parliament and a performance of “Les Miserables” in Piccadilly Square.

The group then set off for the town of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk County, visiting King’s College in Cambridge, the ruins of an old abbey and other sights along the way.

When they arrived at Bury St. Edmunds, the real reason for their trip began. The students gave three performances in the county, which drew hundreds of locals to listen.

“We tried to do something that was all American music,” Toni Cotturone, one of the chorus leaders, said. “We tried to get as much in as possible.”

The students performed music ranging from spiritual songs and Broadway show tunes to pop and folk songs, Cotturone said.

Mary Jane Naismith, a Suffolk Sister Cities leader who accompanied the group on the trip, said the students blew her away.

“The final performance was just outstanding,” she said. “They gave so much for the past year, rehearsing every day … so many families had to put their vacations on hold.”

“I think all of them just grew and gained a lot of knowledge.”

The students stayed with host families in Bury St. Edmunds, and the students bonded well with their “host siblings” as well as with their own group.

“The friendships that they developed, many could very well be long-lasting,” Naismith said. “They’re already talking about when they’re going to go back. The door has been opened that allows that access to another culture.”

Kelly Dunne, a rising senior at Lakeland High School who plays the flute and piccolo, said she enjoyed the sightseeing in London, but she said Bury St. Edmunds was the best part of the trip.

“It was really cool,” she said. “It was different, but after a while I kind of got used to it.”

Dunne wanted to go on the trip because she loves music and always has wanted to go to England, she said.

“I’m glad I got to get that experience,” she said. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Steven Ange, a rising sophomore at Nansemond River High School, said he tried out for the trip hoping for a cultural experience, and was not disappointed.

“Wherever we went, we tried to soak up as much culture as we could,” he said. “Just to have that bond in music … it’s cool for it to be there.”

Naismith said Suffolk County already is organizing a group to return to Suffolk, Va., next year, and she hopes to continue the relationship.

“It’s great to share cultures with America and England,” she said. “Hopefully, it will pique their interest in other cultures.”