Camp Atterbury

The following is the stirring email I received from my eldest son, Eric Stark:

Dear friends,

I followed up on an invitation by International Violin Competition President Glen Kwok for live musicians from Butler University to consider traveling to Camp Atterbury (near Columbus, IN) to perform a bit of music for the approximately 6,000 Afghans that are residing there while awaiting transfer to their eventual final US destinations. Knowing that the choirs had just completed their fall concert a week ago with mostly a cappella repertoire it seemed a perfect opportunity for our students to observe first-hand how their own talents and training could make a difference in the life of someone from a vastly different circumstance than ours. So, I followed up with Glen, and we set our performance for Friday, October 22. There would be a total of 19 student singers, including members of the Butler University Chorale and Chamber Singers.

As we pulled our cars into the parking area, we could see a number of large, brick dorms where the Afghan guests have been staying. We could see Afghans of all ages walking about, heading to and from the meal hall. There were adult men in small or large groups, numerous women pushing strollers, and sooo many children…everywhere. Dressed in a mix of clothing—some elegant robes from their homeland, some wearing donated brightly branded American sweatshirts, jackets and hats—we felt curious eyes upon us as we walked to our “stage,” the porch of the dining hall.

Once the Butler students were assembled, it was just a matter of waiting for the official “thumbs up” from the organizer, and then we could begin our “concert.” Members of the Chorale were first, singing “In Time of Silver Rain,” by Rollo Dilworth and text by Langston Hughes. Normally accompanied by a dramatically flourishing piano part, I wondered how the kids would do singing it completely a cappella, outdoors, in such an unusual circumstance. I needn’t have worried. Once soloist Luke Barath began his rather lengthy opening solo, I could see the students immediately settle into the groove of the piece, and away we went. As we began singing, there were probably 50-60 Afghans close by, watching since it was obvious something was going to happen, but not exactly knowing what it would be. When it became clear it was a concert, they pulled in close to us, and when others saw the growing crowd, it became a constantly growing group of Afghan spectators through the whole performance.

By the time we finished the first song, the crowd had grown dramatically. And while they were completely respectful as we sang, the guests were unable to hold back their appreciation during the performance, with audible vocal cheers, cries of “thank you,” “beautiful,” and even some singing along as we performed.

During one number, the members of the Chorale spontaneously started snapping their fingers…something we never rehearsed, but was an immediate crowd pleaser, as some of the Afghans tried snapping in time with us. As I conducted, I turned several times to the guests nearest me, inviting them to snap along with us. And the looks on the faces as we made eye contact was simply amazing…beautiful, deep gazing eyes, brown, blue, and green, unabashed smiles (and even some giggles) as we attempted snapping in tempo together (not always successfully, but ALWAYS fun to try!). Those moments of human connection were humbling…folks who have braved such horrors as we may never know, yet here they are smiling, clapping, snapping and enjoying the moment along with the rest of us.

I mentioned the children before…as we sang, it was like we were kid magnets….dozens and dozens of them thronged into the group, pushing through one another, and often pushing me aside to squeeze toward the front of the crowd. Kids were all ages, from elementary through and beyond high school. Many of them approached me as I conducted, peering curiously at the music on my music stand, looking intently at my face as I conducted, then bursting into huge smiles when I smiled at them.

And during all this, I witnessed a transformation on the faces of our students. As they could see the joyous reaction of the Afghans, their own expressions broadened and became more animated. Even those students who often remain a bit stoic when performing had melted into beaming, pulsing musical “jumbo-trons,” sharing their voices, their spirits and their hearts with the constantly growing crowds. I was already so proud of them for coming with me today (I made it an optional activity), but as I watched their faces my admiration grew, as did the awareness that today is a day that none of us will soon forget.

We sang for about 40 minutes, alternating between the Chorale and Chamber Singers, and as we sang, the crowd continued to grow. Eventually, the children in the front of the crowd were seated on the porch pavement right up next to our students, so that there was no longer any open space between performer and listener. And while we were instructed not to take any photos, tons of the Afghans had their phones out the whole time, taking pictures and videos of us as we performed. (Sadly, the photo concern is for the safety of any family members who remain in Afghanistan…and the threat potentially posed to them by the current Afghan rulers who are constantly scouring social media to ascertain the status of those citizens who have fled.)

The crowd continue to grow, as did their applause, their snapping/clapping, and their voices! When we announced our final song, “Water Fountain” which has a fun clapping and jumping part in the music, we invited the audience to clap and jump with us, to all our great amusement and laughter.

As we finished our performance and started to gather our things, we all were approached by small groups and individuals seeking photos with us, wanting to practice a little English, asking us questions, and in some cases giving and getting hugs. I had a tear in my eye as I observed so many of our students…many of whom are future music educators…animatedly engaged with youngsters from the other side of the planet, bonding over their mutual love of music and sharing. I can’t imagine two more different demographics—Butler undergraduate students and those who’ve literally left everything behind as they fled their war-torn homeland for a chance at a better life in an unknown place. And yet, for a moment at least, all those differences fell away, and these beautiful young humans interacted with each other aware only of their enthusiasm for the moment shared, a moment made possible by music.

It took a while to gather all the Butler kids back together and get in our cars. And even then, it was sort of a parade exit with folks waving and shouting goodbyes as we drove toward the camp exit. Eventually, we did get on our way back to Indy and to Butler. But I daresay none of us felt the same as we had just an hour before when we drove up to the camp. It was a life changing experience, made possible by music, and by the uniquely generous spirits of the students whom we are lucky to teach every day.


Eric Stark, DM

Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities, Butler University

Artistic Director, Indianapolis Symphonic Choir                                                                                                         

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