When the University of Southern Maine's Chamber Singers first glimpsed the streets in Hoi An, Vietnam — where they would participate alongside 21 other singing groups from 10 countries — they were amazed by the street decorations.
The USM singers' faces decorated some of the banners promoting the 6th Vietnam International Choir Competition.
"This was a main event," said Nicolás Dosman, USM's director of choral studies. "There were banners with us all over the city. This was a big deal for the area."
The chamber singers performed extraordinarily.
In the competition, the 16 student singers earned a gold diploma in the sacred category, first place in the youth category and were one of only three groups selected to perform in the Grand Prize finale round. Their outstanding performances also earned them an invitation to participate in the World Choir Games' Champions Round.
For the students, the experience was both affirming and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"There was a sense that we're in a foreign country singing about peace and friendship, and we are loving what we do," said Thomas McLaughlin, who sang bass. "We went in there and gave it all. We came out of it impressed with ourselves and impressed with our group."
The trip began on May 12th with a 13-hour flight from Boston to South Korea, before boarding another plane for Da Nang, Vietnam. When they arrived in Hoi An, they were stunned by the tropical air, having arrived from the chillier than normal Maine spring climate.
"It was so hot the second we stepped off the plane," said Megan Mayfield, an alto and a junior. "I don't think I realized just how hot 100 degrees would be, and there was a day when it reached 110."
They were equally stunned by the hospitality that greeted them at the hotel. "They all had watermelon juices waiting for everybody," Mayfield said.
McLaughlin nodded. "They were extraordinarily kind," he said.
After a day to explore a bit of the city, the group was the first to perform at the opening ceremonies, an event that was televised throughout Vietnam.
"This was a whole other level of performance," McLaughlin said. "Many of the groups were outstanding."
The USM Chamber Singers was the only American group. Others came from China, Poland, Estonia, Singapore, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
"We were there to have the experience of being there," McLaughlin said. "It's about pushing yourself to the greatest limit."
For the 16 students, who were sometimes covering as many as 12 different singing parts, there was little time during the performances to appreciate the large audiences and the grand scale stagecraft. Their focus was on Dosman, who directed them.
Over the competition, they sang American spirituals as well as such pieces as "Where the Seasons Take Us," composed by Maine resident Roger Ames, and "Carol of the Stranger," by Abbie Betinis.
"With 16 singers, there is no hiding," Dosman said. "If one student is out of tune, I know exactly who it is and so does the rest of the ensemble."
Audiences seemed impressed by their power and ability to sound like a much larger choir, they said.
During a performance at an orphanage, they were joined by USM's Malinda Haslett, the director of voice studies and a world-travelled soprano.
There, the students strayed from their rehearsed program to sing an impromptu version of Taylor Swift's "22." And they chatted with the children, one of whom gave an enthusiastic hug to Dosman.
The competition ended with a parade and grand finale. The chamber singers were the final group to take the stage.
"For every performance, we'd walk off the stage going, 'Yes!'" McLaughlin said of the competition.
"Every song we sang, it was the best we'd ever done it," Mayfield said.
They'd been getting better and better as the trip had approached, Dosman said.
"During the last batch of rehearsals, there was a growth spurt," he said. "And when we arrived, there was another growth spurt."
During the final performance, the singers "brought the house down," he said.
Before they were halfway done, people stood, applauded and cheered, Mayfield said.
The group returned home on May 21 already thinking about the future.
As the group goes forward, the bar will be higher, they said.
"The goal will be to create something new rather than chase what already happened," McLaughlin said. "Our stories will help the new people who come in to work and strive."
Dosman hopes the singers continue to show the caring they displayed throughout the trip.
"The students took care of each other," he said. "Everybody looked after everyone. Everybody was patient and kind. That's what made me the proudest, the way the students conducted themselves.
"They looked out for each other like they were really family," he said.
The 16 members of the USM Chamber Singers to make the trip were:
Olivia Christopher - Auburn, NH
Samantha Loomis - Warren, OH
Kathleen Oberholtzer - Cape Elizabeth, ME
Elizabeth Park - Old Orchard Beach, ME
Sarah Campbell - Canton, MA
Emma Hallundbaek - Linconville, ME
Megan Mayfield - Marlborough, MA
Christie Paul - Gorham, ME
Vanessa Twombly - Lincoln, ME
Ezri Donnangelo - South Portland, ME
Jonas Rimkunas - Gorham, ME
Daniel Lavierriere - Arundel, ME
Thomas McLaughlin - Freeport, ME
William Neubauer - Fairfield, ME
Tyler Soucy - Windsor, ME
Ian Yarnall - Burlington, VT
Story by Daniel Hartill, USM Public Affairs