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FSU Chamber Choir Enjoys Journey Through Music in China

by Becca Ramspott

Travel typically entails maps, guidebooks and structured itineraries as ways to find a sense of direction. But as the Frostburg State University Chamber Choir recently discovered during a tour in China March 6 through March 14, songs also serve as a compass that can guide you to where you want to be—whether it’s to a place of connection with people you’ve never met before or to a final destination of togetherness you’ve found as a group.

The Choir’s journey began as two great ideas united for a common purpose. In April 2007, three FSU administrators—Bill Mandicott, Assistant Vice President of Student and Community Involvement; Hank Bullamore, professor of geography; and Vice Provost John Bowman—stood on the Great Wall and wondered what it be like for FSU students to sing there. Years before, Karen Soderberg Sarnaker, the Chamber Choir's director, had heard a group of vocalists from Singapore perform the traditional Chinese "Usuli Boat Song,” and was so moved that she filed it away as something she wanted to teach singers someday.

“When I was approached by the University administration about taking the FSU Chamber Choir to China, I knew I had found the perfect opportunity,” she said.

Soderberg Sarnaker enlisted the expertise of FSU instructor Yanling Fan, who taught the 26 students the correct pronunciation for every word in “Usuli Boat Song” over five days of rigorous rehearsal. “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” was another meaningful selection made for the Choir’s China program, its lyrical description a compliment of friendship toward Chinese people.

When the trip finally arrived, the group was ready to go, complete with vaccinations, good walking shoes and just enough luggage not to go over the 44-lb. weight limit for their flight between Beijing, where they would spend several days, and Changsha, where they would enjoy the second half of their trip. They spent their days in China immersed in song—on the bus, where they shared their favorite tunes while en route to different sights and restaurants, and at scenic places, like the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall, where they made FSU’s dream a reality by giving an impromptu performance while bystanders nodded and clapped.

The Choir also sang for several schools—Beijing Chaoyang Xinghe Primary School, where children with shining faces gave them roses and construction paper collages; Hunan Normal University, where their rendition of “Usuli Boat Song” brought audience members to tears; and Hunan City University, where, as FSU sophomore Erin Drenning put it, “We were all joking around about how they should have been playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ when we walked in.” A roaring crowd of nearly 600 people, including military and Changsha officials, stood and cheered as soon as FSU’s students took their first steps inside the city auditorium and made their way down the aisle to perform.

Ask the Choir members what their favorite moment of the trip was, and several memories always surface: the afternoon they spent walking around with students from Hunan Normal University, several of whom Frostburg students continue to chat with via Facebook and can’t wait to have visit FSU at some point.

Others loved meeting little kids at the Primary School and watching them perform dances and songs for their American guests as part of a cultural exchange.

“I was there before, back in their shoes in the day. It was a memory of what I had to go through,” said FSU senior Brandon Strawther.

But perhaps the most powerful moment was the Choir’s last dinner together in China with their friends they had made at Hunan Normal University, when they sang “Usuli Boat Song” for the last time.

“The pride that the people of China have in their country, and how open, respectable, caring and nice they are not only to each other, but to people of foreign countries … leaving it brought tears to my eyes,” said FSU senior Arnold McNeal.

And like a refrain in music, the same feeling echoed through those at Hunan Normal University.

“Your beautiful songs remember my heart,” said Tang Jianwen (“Martin”), Deputy Director with Hunan Normal University’s Office of International Exchange and Cooperation, after the students finished singing that last night.

To learn more about the FSU Chamber Choir’s trip to China, visit

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