Hickman grad returns with storied band

The St. Olaf Band has traveled worldwide to countries like Great Britain and Scandinavia, but a trip to Mexico was a new experience.
Sunday, February 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:02 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Elizabeth Virkler felt at home playing trombone in the Hickman High School auditorium Saturday. A Hickman alumna, Virkler is ajunior at St. Olaf College inNorthfield, Minn. She is in her second year as a member of the St. Olaf College band.

In its 112-year history, the band packed concert halls all over North America and Europe. Band parents like Carol Virkler,who lives in Columbia, are used to traveling long distances to see their children perform.

“I made five trips last year,” Carol Virkler said. “This year, they’re coming to me, so I don’t have to go anywhere.”

Other band parents are having similar luck. For the winter tour, many of the band members’ hometowns were tacked onto the performance cal-endar. These half-dozen hometown performances are a welcome change.

“This is sort of their hometown tour,” Carol Virkler said. “So that’s fun for them.”

By the tour’s end Tuesday, the band will have played in Benson, Minn., Grinnell, Iowa, Overland Park, Kan., West Plains, Mo., Houston, and An-keney, Iowa.

The comfort of familiar places is a change for a band accustomed to performing far and wide. In January 2004, the band did an interim study tour in Mexico. They traveled to the small village of San Miguel Tzinacapan to provide an invaluable gift to its villagers — music.

Richard Erickson, associate manager of music organizations at St. Olaf College, had the idea for the Mexico study tour. Erickson said the idea for the instrument presentation came from St. Olaf graduate David Brye, who has lived in the city of Puebla, near San Miguel, for many years.

“He knew the village had wanted a band for a long time, and he thought we could put this together,” Erickson said.

The band members responded to the request and started by gathering donated instruments.

“We sent out news releases in our town and in an alumni magazine,” Erickson said. “Instruments came from alumni, parents, current band members and townspeople of Northfield, 50 in total.”

It was a balanced set of instruments, including flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tubas andpercussion.

To prepare for the January interim study tour, the band did a week of on-campus academic study and music rehearsals. After that, Erickson, along with two professors and a throng of band students, spent two and a half weeks in Mexico for the study tour.

The band traveled the country, performing eight concerts. Its performance in a Mexico City opera house earned five standing ovations.

“That’s what Elizabeth remembers a lot about Mexico,” Carol Virkler said. “When they played, it was nationally broadcast on the radio and televi-sion. She said at the opera house, people just kept coming in, and by the end the house was packed.”

After performing in Mexico City, band members went to San Miguel, where they performed for the village and presented the instruments.

After the band’s departure, three music education graduate students stayed behind in San Miguel. They remained there for four months, teach-ing the villagers how to play the instruments.

Erickson said fundraising has continued. Since the tour in Mexico, alumni have donated music items such as reeds to keep things going in the small village.

“This was a first for us,” Erickson said. “This is really the first third-world country that we’ve toured. The need hasn’t appeared in other places we’ve traveled.”

After the hometown tour, the band’s next big trip is to Norway in June for that country’s centennial celebration.

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