The view from the tour bus in Estonia was familiar. It was January and cold. The landscape was flat and snow-covered, making the grey sky merge into the horizon as though there was no difference between ground and atmosphere. Not too many trees on this road. Just the stark emptiness of a landscape that makes you wonder if Mother Nature gets lonely. It reminded me of driving through central Iowa at this time of year.  The chorus sat in silence and I wondered if they were also remembering home.

I was ignorant about Estonia, its people, its history, and its music only a few months earlier. Yet I learned that Estonia is the only former Soviet country to have left the Soviet Union without bloodshed. It has a tradition of giant song festivals -- every 5 years, tens of thousands join the choir and hundreds of thousands fill the song festival grounds. There’s a wonderful documentary called “The Singing Revolution” that tells the story of how during the Soviet occupation, the song 'Mu isamaa on minu arm' became a rallying point for the entire nation.  They would gather for the song festival, sing the required songs about Soviet Union, then refuse to leave until 'Mu isamaa' was intoned. The tune was written by a brave conductor/composer named Gustav Ernesaks in 1944 as an act of defiance. The 19th century text was written as an act of love by a woman with the pen name, Lydia Koidula.

My fatherland is my love,
To whom I've given my heart.
To you I sing, my greatest happiness,
My flowering Estonia!
Your pain boils in my heart,
Your pride and joy makes me happy,
My fatherland, my fatherland!

My fatherland is my love,
I shall never leave him,
Even if I must die a hundred deaths
Because of him!
Though foreign envy slander you,
You still live in my heart,
My fatherland, my fatherland!

My Fatherland is My Love,
And I want to rest,
To lay down into your arms,
My sacred Estonia!
Your birds will sing sleep to me,
Flowers will bloom from my ashes,
My fatherland, my fatherland!

You should go on YouTube to watch the Estonian people sing this song. Tens of thousands in the song festival grounds singing together. To me, a privileged American in 2018, it’s simply unbelievable.

I asked the students to learn “Mu isamaa” prior to our performance tour, thinking it might make a nice encore. (The Estonians who were helping me coordinate the tour assured me audiences would think it a nice touch.) So I sent the students the sheet music, worked out a pronunciation guide from YouTube videos, and asked for them to try and put everything together over the holiday break. I watched the videos multiple times because the Estonians seemed to add a few fermati to the third stanza that were not written in the music. We wanted to get it right.

Three weeks later we were all on a bus in Estonia, remembering Iowa.

Our guides told us stories about life under Soviet control. Stories that are not mine to tell and, by some perverted grace, not mine to live. But they are stories I hope I will remember and will sit with every now and then. Learning about the lives of the truly oppressed can make your insides feel like Mother Nature is lonely indeed. And they should call us to action. To do something, rather than just sit on the bus waiting for an audience to arrive.

Estonia played a magnificent host to the students from Iowa. They loved the food, the drink, and the town square. Old Tallinn is just big enough for an Iowan kid to feel like they’ve gone somewhere big, but small enough to learn your way around quickly. The Christmas Market was still up, inviting us to buy handmade sweaters, scarves, and stuffed animals for our loved ones back home. By 3:30pm each day the sun would begin to set, which meant that night life began early and students could catch their second wind by 8pm. It was a great time.

The concerts themselves were always well-received. The venues were beautiful, usually still decorated in evergreen and lights. The Estonians love singing, and so we were always greeted by standing room only audiences. Our singers have big voices and I encourage them to use them more than is in vogue these days. We sacrifice blend for power, which makes us clumsy at times but impressive at other times. We closed with a set of African American Spirituals. Europeans love hearing Americans sing spirituals, though sometimes I wonder if the irony of a nearly all-white choir singing spirituals somehow degrades the music and the stories of those who put pitch to words.

The inheritors of oppressors singing the songs of the oppressed. For applause.

Yet there we were, receiving enthusiastic receptions. Strangers in a foreign land that looked not-so-foreign.

And then the encore.

I was anxious about the encore on multiple levels. Would I remember where to add the fermati? Would our diction sound even close to Estonian? Do they want to hear Americans sing this song?

When Europeans want an encore they let you know by clapping in unison. It’s intoxicating. Within the moment, there is no doubt that you’ll keep performing. On our first encore of the tour the students and I shared wary looks, me trying to seem confident about my choice to sing “Mu isamaa,” and them looking at me with unreadable expressions. I like to think they were overcome by the unison clap.

I look at them and with my eyes say, “My isamaa,” and the students shuffle the music around in their folder. The audience settles back into their chairs, readying for more. There’s a cough or two that sounds behind me and a few members of the chorus adjust their posture, rocking side to side on their feet to redistribute their weight. I give the pitch from my tuning fork, an action that always seems to lighten the mood of the chorus (because I like to knock it on different parts of my body to make them smile).

And the room stills. It’s like when you remember to relax your shoulders after a long day.

I raise my hands, and we sing.

The first four pitches are in unison. One pitch for each syllable. “Mu i-sa-maa.” If you remember your solfege, the pitches are sol-la-ti-do. They serve as a pick-up into the music and we sing them at an easy, walking tempo. “Mu isamaa.”

Then my focus is broken because I hear a small commotion behind me. Short, surprised, staccato gasps from the audience. It felt like someone opened a big door at the back the room. Then the sounds of scraping wood against hard floors as the audience stood for the song.

The students got to see all of this. The surprise. The standing. And they must have seen more within the grey eyes of the audience, because suddenly I saw 40 college students from Iowa begin to process raw emotion. I don’t know what it was like for the audience to hear Americans singing their song of unity and revolution, but the energy of the room changed into something golden. It was communal alchemy and music was the cauldron. 

Looking at the singers themselves (I dared not turn around), I saw bewilderment, sadness, joy, and determination to fight back tears as the audience joined in the singing. All three stanzas. No doubts about how to say the words or where to pause. All the Americans had to do, was learn the first four pitches of someone else’s song, and then sing along.

This happened everywhere we went. The call for the encore. Four pitches. Collective singing. Communal alchemy. Locals actually began following the students from concert to concert, bringing gifts of flowers and handwritten thank you notes. The looks we began to share before the encore each night changed from wariness to resolution, convincing ourselves that we were going to give the audience something good in an almost cosmic way.

There is nothing like witnessing people you teach learn something new. And with those four notes, the audience taught the students and me about the power of music. The view from the tour bus in Estonia was indeed familiar, but the experience of actually making music was foreign, thrilling, heartbreaking, and exhausting. 

Among the many powers of music is the ability to sing our way through the worst of times. Witness the African American Spiritual. Witness Estonia. Witness the power of music. Sometimes I wonder what those students carry with them from that trip. I hope it is something that calls them to sit in silence every now and then. And I hope they have at least four notes to sing when they need to stand up and sing through their own hardships.

UNI Concert Chorale Singing Mu Isamaa at White Hall in Tallinn: