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All That Jazz: Band learns and plays in the Czech Republic

Members of the Georgia College Jazz Band went on a study abroad trip to the Czech Republic this summer touring castles and museums, seeing operas and performing with a Czech band.

“We got a lot of little gem experiences peppered throughout the trip,” said Gina Towner, lecturer in French, who co-chaperoned with her husband Dr. Clifford Towner, director of Band Activities.

“The students are thrilled from day one to see so many sites that connect with their Georgia College courses and pre-trip lectures,” she said.

After World War II, the Czech people were under Soviet Communist rule and all free expression was suppressed. Music lovers dealt with oppression by using jazz as a subversive counter-culture. Its freestyle, rhythmic notes became a way of showing rebellion and creating an underground movement. In the last 25 years as a free republic, Czechs have embraced jazz unreservedly.

Georgia College jazz students travel into this setting every four years. The Czech program was established in 2003 and is arranged through a joint partnership with the University of Hradec Králové, where students attend lectures.

The three-week itinerary included four locales—from the “fairytale” village of 300 in Kuks to the old-world city of Prague with more than a million residents. Students interacted with countrymen, navigated Prague’s subway system, reveled in the traditional music of Baroque operas and took juggling lessons. They watched a play in Czech and visited the Schwarzenberg Castle Theatre in Český Krumlov. They viewed natural rock formations at Adršpach-Teplice Rocks National Park and watched the sun set over Charles Bridge from a private balcony at St. Salvador Church in Prague.

Anthony Pacchioli plays the historic Baroque organ
in a Czech cathedral.

Some students had never been on an airplane before, like senior music education major Anthony Maxwell Pacchioli.

 “I’ve known about this trip, since my freshman year,” he said, “and it was one of the reasons I wanted to be in the jazz band. I wanted to see what was outside the United States and broaden my horizons.”

“The history of the country was extremely fascinating. When considering that our history spans a little over 500 years, the history of the Czech Republic is immense and goes all the way back to Celtic tribes,” Pacchioli said. “Just travelling through the country is like a history lesson, as you pass an astonishing blend of beautiful architecture and breathtaking nature.” 

In addition to performing at the Swingovy Festival in Týniště—students also played alongside a youth band in Jaromer. Afterwards, the two bands went to dinner. Meals in the Czech Republic include meat and potatoes, bread dumplings, cabbage, sweet sauerkraut—and sometimes things as exotic as ostrich medallions. 

Sobering lessons were learned in the town of Terezín, where a fortress was built in the late 1700s. The fort and town were used by Nazis in WWII as a prison camp and Jewish Ghetto. Propaganda proclaimed the site to be a “Jewish resort and spa.” But, in reality, many townspeople were transported to camps like Auschwitz and exterminated. Students also toured the Jewish Quarter in Prague and visited the Jewish Museum with its wall of Holocaust names.

These were “definitely the most impactful sights for me,” Pacchioli said.

Music therapy graduate student Mary-Claire Hill was also fascinated with Czech history. As jazz band pianist, she enjoyed testing the pipe organs in two Hradec Králové cathedrals. She also liked visiting the birthplace, burial site and museum of Antonín Dvořák—a romantic-era nationalist and the first Czech composer to achieve worldwide recognition.

“The only difficulty was sore feet from walking so much, but it was so worth it,” Hill said. “I really grew, because we had to keep a reflection journal every night. That helped me organize all the new information we were receiving. I learned to do more observing and absorbing, instead of just taking pictures.”

In addition to the journal, students did prior research about the country, its exports, cities and populations. They wrote essays on Czech geopolitical history and rehearsed.

GC Jazz Band travelers outside the historic Estates Theatre
in Prague.

New this year, the Towners also readied jazz students linguistically with the online program Duolingo. It paid off. Students were able to introduce themselves and order simple foods in Czech.

“Czech is a very difficult language,” Towner said. “I keep trying to stress to students the importance of being a good visitor in somebody else’s country. Even if you’re not fluent in another person’s language—the effort you bring will be paid back to you in terms of interactions with locals.”

These experiences—along with adapting quickly to new environments—helped Pacchioli become more independent and confident. In the future, he plans to conduct wind bands at the collegiate level.

“I’ve developed a higher appreciation for other artforms and Baroque tradition,” he said, “which will aid me in the future when studying music and finding new ways to teach music.”

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