Music helps bridge cultural divide
December 18, 2012
HOHENFELS, Germany -- Like many Hohenfels community members, Dennis Bartow joined the Kontakt Club to make new friends and experience more of the German culture; he had no idea it would lead him to playing concerts with German and Czech Republic band members.
It all started over a beer.
Kontakt Club members enjoy a monthly "stammtisch," or regular dinner, at Joseph's Gasthaus in the town of Hohenfels. One night during the meeting, the Kolping Youth Brass Band Hohenfels (KYBBH) came in to play and Bartow recognized fellow Kontakt Club member Franz Rothbauer on the tuba.
"Music is in my heart," said Bartow. "When you hear it, you feel it, and the opportunity was there. So I asked Franz if they could use another trumpet player."
Bartow began playing the trumpet at age 9 and played consistently throughout junior high, high school and college. After college, he played intermittently for decades, but had barely touched the instrument in the past 10 years.
Bartow knew it would take some work if he was going to earn a spot in the band. He ordered the same trumpet he purchased 44 years ago and set about retraining himself.
"I started right at the beginning," he said. "I ordered some new books and literally started giving myself lessons."
Bartow practices at home up to an hour and a half each day in addition to the band's weekly practices, and apparently it's paying off. When he started with the band in August, he was playing second or third trumpet.
"Now, I'm playing first trumpet for most of the songs," he said.
Bartow performed his first concert with the band in November at the Hohenfels Volkstrauertag (National Day of Mourning). The band led a parade through town to the war memorial and back to the church, accompanied by city officials and the U.S. Army Garrison Hohenfels leadership.
"That was the first time I'd played marching in a really long time," he said. "And also the first time I'd played the German National Anthem."
Their next performance was a week later at the local high school. This time they were joined by a band out of Hohenfels' sister city, Strasice, in the Czech Republic.
"The connection is that Strasice also has a Czech Army base outside their town," said Bartow.
In December, the KYBBH returned the favor, traveling to Strasice to perform a concert there. Before the concert, band members were treated to a tour of the city's museum, located in former barracks of the Czech army.
As a retired lieutenant colonel with background in infantry, Special Forces and psychological operations, Bartow found the tour especially interesting.
"A large part of my military career was during the Cold War, so Czech was a 'target' country for me. It was really neat to have the opportunity to see this stuff live," he said.
The concert was a huge success with Strasice's Deputy Mayor Karel Snaiberk praising the KYBBH, and the audience giving a standing ovation.
Bartow said while applause is nice, the most rewarding part of his participation is the connection with his German counterparts.
"Basically, this old American comes in and says I want to play, and they could easily have said 'no, we don't want you," said Bartow, noting that approximately half of the band members are 21 years old or younger.
"But they literally welcomed me with open arms. I consider it a privilege to be with them."
Despite the considerable language barrier, Bartow said his bandmates are always accepting and inclusive with him, communicating with signs and smatterings of English.
"And I'm learning a few new German words," he laughed. "But really, just being there -- being with the German people in a German band -- it's really quite marvelous.
"They really have warm hearts towards us," Bartow said.