The power of music 25 years later
By now the actual 25th year reunion for the members of New Richmond High School Marching Band’s historic trip to Russia in 1990 is over. Members of the band long since grown into interesting stories in their own right will have rekindled friendships and spent the evening reliving treasured stories that by all counts forever impacted 115 young musicians’ view of the world in dramatic fashion.
For one of those musicians, Matt Mealey, his journey has come full circle back to the place where it started.
“Two months ago, on tour in Chicago with our current high school band, I was so proud of our students as they performed at Northwestern University. As we sat listening to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I saw the look of amazement in the eyes of my students. I remember feeling that way on tour in Russia when we heard the Russian Army Band play,” said Mealey, who is Director of Bands for New Richmond High School. “I've had many incredible musical experiences in my life, but on that trip was the first time I experienced the power that music has on people. The image of tears in the eyes of the Russian people as we played their National Anthem sticks with me to this day.
“I feel very grateful to Rich Gregerson for providing the opportunities we had as members of the band. Yes, the Russian Trip is part of that, and just as incredible is the drive and determination he instilled in us. Any student of Rich Gregerson can close their eyes and hear him say, 'One more time!' I feel honored to be the director of the group I grew up in.”
Full family experience
One aspect of Mealey’s experience that made it unique amongst those on the trip was that he made the trip accompanied by all the members of his family. Both Scott and Debbie Mealey, Matt’s parents, accompanied the band as chaperones along with his younger sister, Katie.
“We had never been to Russia before and didn't know what to expect. We felt this trip was truly an experience of a lifetime and wanted to do it as a family so we also took our daughter, Katie, who was 12 at the time,” said Debbie.
“I remember feeling very glad that I was able to share the trip with my whole family. I appreciated it at the time, but now as a father, memories of my whole family being part of the trip means a lot more,” said Matt.
Preparing for the great adventure
As has been reported previously the planning and fundraising effort required to make this trip a reality was an immense undertaking. Both of Mealey’s parents were heavily involved from the very outset two years before wheels up in June of 1990.
“The cost per person was something like $2,500 at that time so an immense amount of money needed to be raised. The chaperones paid their own way but the students covered the majority of their costs through fundraising. We held song-a-thons in neighboring towns, bake sales, a back to the 50s dance, Green Bay Packer night at the Hudson House, hosted the University of Madison Marching Band for a special concert and many other events,” recalled Debbie.
She recalled the apprehension they were feeling prior to the trip given the turbulent events changing the face of the Soviet Union back into Russia.
“We had never been to Russia before and didn't know what to expect. In 1990 the cold war had just ended and we all felt a certain amount of anxiety going to a country we all thought was the enemy at one time. Our main concern was ‘safety’ for the students,” said Scott.
For the younger Mealey, the excitement outweighed the concern.
“No apprehension - just very excited,” recalled Matt.
The trip planners prepared for every aspect of the adventure thoroughly including the safety of the students. Each chaperone was assigned to four students and each student had a "buddy," a fellow student they traveled with. Everyone traveling was responsible for obtaining a valid passport and insuring their immunizations were up to date. Debbie Mealey was comforted by the fact that amongst the chaperones were Dr. Joe Powell and Chuck Mehls, experienced EMT, to provide healthcare for anyone who might need it.
Matt Mealey was one of several students who performed a solo as part of the bands touring repertoire. It was an emotional moment for both student and parent.
“There were several students who had solos and they all did a great job. Our son, Matt, was 15 at the time. As his parents, it was very exciting and emotional to hear him play his trumpet,” recalled Debbie.
“I had worked and practiced very hard, and I was just excited at the opportunity,” said Matt.
Like so many on the trip, the Mealeys were impressed by the hospitality, sincere enthusiasm and appreciation the Russian audiences expressed for them everywhere they performed.
“The favorable response was overwhelming. It was thrilling to see the band perform in all the historical places but Gorky Park really stood out. Our marching band put on a show there and ended it by raising a huge American flag. It really was emotional. The Red Army Band played a few songs for us and then both bands played together which was truly a highlight,” said Scott Mealey.
“My most memorable experience from the trip involved visiting a youth camp in Moscow, which I believe was a boarding school,” Matt said. “After our band performed at the camp, we were allowed to take tours and visit with the students. Several of us found our way to one of the Russian band rehearsals. After listening to them rehearse for a while, they motioned for us to join them. Soon, several members of the Russian Army Band trumpet section found us, and we spent the afternoon practicing trumpet together and playing jazz music. I couldn't understand anything that they were saying, but we could speak to each other through music, a truly universal language.”
All of the hype and circumstance that surrounded the trip certainly made it an exceptional moment in the lives of those who were fortunate enough to perform in Russia that magical summer in 1990. But in hindsight, what made the deepest and most lasting impression was the honesty, warmth and compassion expressed by the Russian audiences and musicians in face of difficult economic circumstances and an uncertain political future.
“We were being told that ‘food’ was scarce and that they had to plan a year in advance to have enough food to feed us all. We actually saw a grocery store in Moscow that was almost bare. We began to realize quickly how good we had it in the United States. The one thing that stood out the most was how truly blessed we are to live in the United States of America and that we should never take our freedom for granted. We are thankful to Rich Gregerson for having the vision and providing this wonderful opportunity for a trip of a lifetime,” said Debbie.