Participating in high school music programs can take students to contests, performances and clinics all around the state of South Dakota and the United States. But a group of Mitchell students and their teacher recently expanded their horizons even further.

Fourteen Mitchell High School students and their band teacher took a recent excursion on a 15-day tour of Europe, taking in the sights and sharing musical performances with people from around the world.

The trip, part of a tour coordinated through Voyageurs International, took 270 students, parents and teachers from schools around South Dakota on a seven-country stop of historical landmarks that included visits to Windsor Castle and the Cliffs of Dover in England to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.

It was a chance for everyone to share their talents for music while simultaneously expanding their horizons by taking in experiences in countries far away from their homes in Mitchell, said Ryan Stahle, director of bands at Mitchell High School, who accompanied the group as one of the band directors and an overall chaperone for the trip.

“It really was a life-changing experience,” Stahle said after getting back from the trip last week. “The general consensus was that everyone really enjoyed it.”

The group, which includes music students from high schools throughout South Dakota, is chosen through nomination and selection by music directors every two years. Students take advantage of established band fundraising programs as well as their own efforts to raise money to cover the costs of the trip, and then prepare musical numbers for performances that will take place in various locations throughout the trip.

This year, one highlight was performing music at Windsor Castle in England. The castle dates to the 11th century and is one of the most-visited attractions in the country. The group’s performance took place at the entry gates to the castle and required special permission from the Queen of England.

“Our first performance was on the grounds of Windsor Castle. We set up our band performance in front of the front gates. They don’t just allow anyone to do that,” Stahle said.

It would be one of many performances and experiences that would leave a lasting impression on those who took part, Sathle said.

A stop at the Cliffs of Dover, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame in Paris would soon follow, as would a sobering stop at the Dachau concentration camp location, adding to the tour of historic locations the group would explore during their time overseas.

Seeing Notre Dame after the fire that caused extensive damage to the structure in April was an interesting experience, Stahle said.

“We got to check out the outside of Notre Dame. It was a matter of six or eight weeks when (the fire) happened and when we were there. Other than the spires, they have done a lot of work on it in a short amount of time,” Stahle said. “You could get in front and take pictures, and if you worked around the sides you could see a little closer the damage that happened.”

While the group got to take in historical landmarks in Europe, they, in turn, were able to share their musical skills with people half a world away.

“One thing that struck me on this trip is that it was really interesting to see the audience reaction. For instance, in Switzerland, we presented a concert and there were probably 300 or 400 people in attendance,” Stahle said. “And they were really receptive. They cheered and had a great time.”

A later reception that featured fondue helped bridge the gap between the students from the United States and the citizens of a far-away land.

“It was a cultural exchange to be able to show what America was like through our music, and they showed us through their music, as well,” Stahle said. “In today’s world with all the turmoil, what a neat opportunity to be conversing with people that don’t even necessarily speak the same language, but we can share the experiences through that common language of music.”

The large group continued on their tour with stops that included Switzerland, Austria and Germany before finally returning home Friday, July 12.

Tandis Bovee, who will be a senior at Mitchell High School next year, was one of the students who took part in the trip. She said the entire experience was one she had dreamed of for some time.

“It has always been my dream to go overseas and see that area. For me it was life-changing. I’ve never experienced anything other than South Dakota,” Bovee said.

The entire trip made a significant impression on her, she said, but some locations stood out more than others. She cited Switzerland, where the group was able to explore the Matterhorn, as a country that made her acutely aware of the differences and similarities between it and her home in South Dakota.

“It’s similar to home if you go out to the (Black Hills), but it’s so much bigger, so peaceful. I’ve never seen anything more amazing than that,” Bovee said.

There was a lot packed into the trip, she said, but it’s an experience she would repeat in a heartbeat.

“It’s definitely something I would recommend. If you’re in band, definitely take that adventure trip,” Bovee said.

She said she was still recovering from jet lag several days after returning home, but it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for the experience she and her fellow students shared. The cost of the trip may be pricey, but the value of the experience was more than worth it.

“I think going over there and experiencing the culture, it’s really good for people to see that. We come from such a small place, it’s so amazing to go out there and see how the world really is, for better or worse,” Bovee said. “People should definitely do that, whether you’re in band or not.”

The good behavior and previous travel experience of the Mitchell students on the trip made the journey especially pleasant for Stahle, he said.

“These fourteen kids that we took over there, they are really great travelers. That makes a huge difference. We travel for marching band, so thankfully my kids were used to doing this, though not quite at this level,” he said. “But it did make the trip enjoyable for me, because they were just so good.”

While Stahle said there will be another significant trip in 2021, this trip was likely his last for now. After two trips and family obligations rearing their head, he will most likely take a step back from future trips. But he hopes students will remain interested enough to continue their exploration of the world through programs like Voyageurs International and the benefits of studying music in general.

It’s too good an opportunity to pass up, he said.

“Music really does afford you to do some things that are unique to our activity. They got to witness that cultural exchange. I think that’s incredibly important,” Stahle said.