OU singers serenade overseas

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The Zielinski Singers, a choir consisting of 38 University of Oklahoma students, faculty and alumni, traveled to Poland and performed eight concerts in the span of 13 days.

Thirty-eight University of Oklahoma School of Music students, faculty and alumni waved 'goodbye' to Norman and said 'cześć' to Poland.

The Zielinksi Singers, led by OU choral director Richard Zielinski, arrived in Poland May 20 then performed eight concerts in 13 days.

"To do something like that in two weeks was just so much culture, so much music, so much friendship," singer Chancelor Barabee said. "I could not have asked for a better first time in Europe or out of this country in general."

Zielinski knew he was of Polish descent, but did not explore the culture and music of Poland until meeting his mentor while studying at the University of Illinois 29 years ago.

"I got to meet this amazing conductor, educator, motivator, Jan Szyrocki, and he changed the course of my life," Zielinski said. "[He] turned me onto Polish music, Polish history, Polish literature, and then I started going over there 28 years ago."

Zielinski originally formed his choir in Tampa, Florida in 2005, but today it has significant Norman influences.

"Probably three-fourths of the choir is now from Oklahoma and from the Norman area," Zielinski said. "It really was a representation of Oklahoma."

Zielinski handpicks his singers, not only for their musical talent, but also for their commitment to the choir.

"It's a very personal thing with the Zielinski Singers," he said. "They have to be willing to work hard musically, but also be able to make sure that they're always working for the betterment of the group."

After meeting up in Poland, the signers only had two days to prepare for their first concert, 'AGE of SING,' where they collaborated with two Polish choirs, three Polish soloists, a beat-boxer and international star Katie Melua.

"We knew all the music, but we had never met any of the singers," Barabee said. "The day we actually performed, it was the first day we ran it with some of those people, and that was absolutely insane. It was a blast though."

Zielinski said the tour was an opportunity to place America in a positive light overseas.

"Europeans and people from other countries are watching us, and they're wondering what's going on in our country, and they're not sure they understand all of it," Zielinski said. "But when we sing pieces of music in Polish, or we sing American folk songs, they just embrace it."

Zielinski said the Polish people still see the U.S. as a beacon of hope and a place where people live out their dreams, but he believes America has a thing or two it could learn from Europe, as well.

"We put everybody in this country in categories," Zielinski said in reference to American culture. "In Europe, I think they're much more open to just beautiful music. If there's a beautiful message, they don't care if it's rock, pop, contemporary, Christian or folk."

Zielinski made sure to give his choir a repertoire that varied from rock and roll songs to classical music.

"Many people don't reach out, and they do pop concerts for pop people, and they do classical concerts for classical people," Zielinski said. "That ain't Zielinksi Singers and that ain't me. Music is music."

Over the course of the tour, the singers traveled through southern Poland performing in historical landmarks, including the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul and Castle Książ.

"I had never been out of America until this summer," singer Emma Bayne said. "Singing in castles and churches all across Poland with my best friends was more amazing than I could ever have imagined."

Although the singers had a packed performance schedule, they still found time to sightsee.

"It's not just about us singing American music at a church or performing arts center and then getting on a bus and leaving," Zielinski said. "We're in the community trying to learn about their history."

Zielinski said that included a visit to Auschwitz.

"It was very quiet on the bus after, and it should be," Zielinski said. "It's one of the tragedies we can never ever forget, and we can't ever let happen again."

Zielinski said he has toured Poland three times with his choir and doesn't see himself slowing down anytime soon.

His hope, he said, is that the Zielinski Singers will continue to spread a much needed message, both at home and abroad.

"We would be a more civil and caring United States of America if we just started singing together, reading poetry together, doing theater together and experiencing the arts together," Zielinski said. "That's what I want to do with the Zielinski singers."

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