After only a few days on the road, Maia Toenies ’26 knew this wasn’t going to be your average run-of-the-mill band trip.
A 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 in concerts and see the iconic sights. What she did not expect, wedged between trips to the Parthenon and three different Greek isles, was the chance to slow down and socialize with new Greek musician friends.
“Even if we're from countries that are so incredibly far apart, we share this love, this common passion for music,” Toenies said. “Getting a chance to interact with them and to discuss something we both love was special.”
Those conversations didn’t happen by accident. The 10-day tour of Greece was built around four exchange concerts – where St. Thomas musicians performed after a local Greek ensemble.
“It was obvious from the way they performed that they enjoy making music just as much as we do,” Toenies said. “And then afterward getting a chance to socialize, and talk to them about their work, and how much they liked our work, was awesome.”
Starting in Thessaloniki and ending near Athens, the trip took the Symphonic Wind Ensemble across a large chunk of the country, some of it familiar to the tourist crowd, and much of it well off the beaten path.
Along the way, ensemble members did check off the country’s biggest cultural sights, climbing the Acropolis and exploring the legendary Theater at Delphi, but they also took the time to meet with locals, eat traditional dishes, and learn bits of the language – each moment deliberately curated to encourage students to serve and participate in the nation’s culture instead of simply “playing tourist.”
For Director Matthew George, fostering that authentic cultural exchange is paramount to any trip abroad.
“Unlike going somewhere as a tourist, my hope for these students was to see them 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 on securing opportunities for cultural exchange. He spent months emailing with Greek choirs and band to plan the four exchange concerts.
“Having an international program like ours where people are going out and actively doing something for the communities in which they're visiting, I think is really significant,” George said. “And I think that's what makes it a standout – serving the culture, giving back to it, as opposed to going to observe it.”
The Symphonic Wind Ensemble generally takes an international trip every three years, rotating with the St. Thomas Choir and Orchestra programs. After suspending trips due to the COVID-19 pandemic, George says it was great to get back on the road, sharing music with others.
“As soon as you start playing, there's that connection,” George said. “Through that music, you can communicate thoughts and emotions, and you have an immediate bond between whoever's performing and whoever's in the audience.”
The concerts stood out for alto saxophonist Michael Clements ’24, who said they were a highlight of the trip, one he won’t forget anytime soon.
“Getting the chance to perform alongside a foreign group and experience that kind of broadening of perspectives is something that doesn’t happen very often,” Clements said. “There were very few points during the trip where I felt like just a tourist. We almost become a part of the culture rather than being an outsider looking in.”
Beyond the music, Clements took advantage of the opportunity to feast daily on Greek cuisine, grabbing gyros from street vendors between tour stops.
“The gyros were absolutely outstanding,” Clements said. “In fact, I had so many that I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat tzatziki sauce for about a year. I just had so much over there because I love it so much.”
But above all, Clements will always value the quality time spent with his fellow Tommies, forging bonds that will last far beyond his time at St. Thomas.
“I don’t think there was a single person who didn’t appreciate the relationships that were built on this trip,” Clements said. “Everybody knew everybody by the end, that’s something that was truly cool to see.”