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Anna Zittle: Moments and Memories through Music

Anna Zittle is a violinist, 
a pianist, a mathematician, a teacher and a composer. This year, she serves as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at the oldest general education high school in the city of Pardubice, Gymnázium Dašická. Before her Fulbright grant began, Anna took a summer language course to learn the basics of Czech language. This course has certainly helped with basic communication and navigation in the host country, but her Czech language skills are far from fluency that one would need in order to communicate with Czech native speakers smoothly and free of the fear of miscommunication. Luckily, Anna possesses another language, a more universal one, that does not need any translation - music. She says that: "Once we start to play, I get lost in the connection we have when moving through the music." Her motivation to spend a year in the Czech Republic was to explore and experience the home country of Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. Her Czech host school reflected on Anna's multidisciplinary profile, and found a community orchestra that Anna could join. In addition, Anna has worked with the school's choir, where she introduced and conducted American music. Her weekly 7 am choir rehearsals were rewarded by a Christmas concert on Monday, December 19th. In her free time, Anna seeks out opportunities to attend live music performances of all different genres from classical music to punk, happily discovering that: "Music exists everywhere."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person who does not speak the primary language of the country they live in must be in want of communication. While I am incredibly grateful to have participated in a language course at Charles University before beginning my work as an English Teaching Assistant, one month of language learning was certainly not enough to communicate fluently with the many native Czech speakers I now interact with daily. I’m very grateful to the students and colleagues who speak with me in English, and I enjoy the variety and depth of the conversations we have; but, whether speaking in English or in Czech, we still have inevitable miscommunications or misunderstandings. Though this is a challenge we always conquer, I often find myself wishing for a more immediate way to understand or convey exactly what I am hearing or speaking. Music, it turns out, has granted this wish.

Photo: ETAs (left to right) Lily Shorney, Megan Small, Katelyn Mehlhaus, Anna Zittle, and Scott Magid after graduating from Charles University’s Czech Language Summer School Program, August 2022.
When I first applied for the Czech Fulbright ETA scholarship, I was primarily interested in the country’s rich musical traditions. While in college, I studied Antonín Dvořák’s life and works, played violin repertoire from both Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, and fell in love with Central/Eastern European folk music traditions. Given this passion, the Czech Republic seemed like the perfect choice for a Fulbright destination. However, when I actually received the scholarship, I had no idea the adventure I was about to embark on, or how vital music would be to my experience. I have had the privilege of practicing and performing with our school’s choir and a community orchestra, as well as the chance to attend a variety of concerts. These opportunities have shown me how beautifully music can serve as a “universal communicator.”

Photo: Anna in Pardubice during Fulbright school visit, November 2022.

Early on, my mentor, Kateřina Ulbrichová, asked if I would be interested in working with the school choir alongside director Ivana Hrdinková. Thinking it would be a great opportunity to get to know some students and sing along, I was happy to say yes. However, when I got to school and met with Ivana, she informed me that, if I was interested, I would be able to choose and conduct some pieces myself. While I’d had experience working with vocal groups before, I had never taken on the task of selecting music to perform, teaching said music, and then leading the group during a concert. Despite my hesitations, the only answer that felt right was a resounding “Yes!.” Working with the choir every Thursday has become one of the highlights of my week, and the students and director make waking up for 7am rehearsals absolutely worth it. Over the past few months, I rehearsed “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (arr. Mark Hayes) and “Stopping by Woods” (Ruth Morris Gray), and conducted both pieces during our “Vánoční Koncert” on Monday, December 19th. Sharing this music with colleagues, students, and friends has been the most rewarding experience I’ve had so far, and I could not be more proud of the students for the work they put in, and for their willingness to share their talent and joy.

Photo: Gymnázium Pardubice Dašická Christmas choir concert at Kostel Panny Marie Bolestné in Pardubice on December 19th, 2022.
While I love working with our choir, my musical background is grounded in instrumental performance, particularly with strings. As a violinist, I’ve been playing in an orchestra since I was 13, and my first few months in the Czech Republic marked the first time I hadn’t been in some sort of string ensemble since 8th grade. Recently, another teacher found out that I play the violin, and asked if I would like to join the community orchestra she plays with, which rehearses in Lázně Bohdaneč, just a 20 minute bus ride from my town. I was, to put it lightly, ecstatic. The ensemble consists primarily of music teachers or former members of the philharmonic orchestra in Pardubice, but the atmosphere at rehearsal is one of causal comradery. These people come together to play music simply because they enjoy playing together, and, while everyone is immensely talented, their joy and passion for music are what make this ensemble great. Tuesday nights have become a time where I’m never concerned about communicating with people – once we start to play, I get lost in the connection we have when moving through the music. I’m looking forward to performing with them on January 7th and hopefully in many concerts to come.

Photo: Punk rock concert at wine festival in Pardubice on August 27th, 2022.
Working with these ensembles has certainly been one of the highlights of my time here, but equally as important have been the concerts and performances I’ve attended so far. My town has a philharmonic orchestra (Komorní filharmonie Pardubice), and as in most places in the Czech Republic, there are cheap, accessible tickets for young people. I was thrilled to see violinist Václav Hudeček play with the orchestra in September, and most recently cellist Emil Rovner perform in December. This last concert was a particularly special experience, as the composer of one of the pieces Rovner played (Baruch Berliner) was in attendance, celebrating his 80th birthday. Prior to the concert, I’d had a long day at work, and debated staying home and going to bed early. However, since I’d already bought the ticket, I convinced myself to get dressed up before trekking to the performance hall. This turned out to be the best decision I could’ve made – the composer’s piece, titled “Jacob’s Dream” was an immaculate orchestral work that was even more profound when performed live. Winter has been full of early nights since the sun goes down around 4pm, but I’m very glad that I chose to make this night one of the later ones. There is such magic in live performance, and this concert was no exception. I may not have been able to speak with the woman sitting next to me, but we both had a profound understanding of the beauty unfolding before us, without uttering a single word.

Photo: Drum for Fun concert in Lázně Bohdaneč on September 10, 2022.
In addition to the Philharmonic Orchestra concerts, I’ve had the chance to hear a variety of other musical genres at festivals, outdoor concerts, and a performance at the culture house in Pardubice. I was awestruck by Radůza at a concert in Chrudim with another ETA, Lily Shorney, and enjoyed some Czech punk rock at a wine festival in my own town. I’ve also enjoyed seeing performances by Drum for Fun and the Pardubice University Choir (featuring Lily Shorney). Additionally, I was amazed by the talent of one of my students, a violinist, who invited me to the culture house’s performance of various Christmas tales and traditions. The musicians, singers, and dancers ranged from 11-12 year olds (some of whom were also my students) up to maturita aged (18-19) students with some adults who planned and facilitated the program. Their performance gave me a chance to see more traditional folk dances and listen to some of the music that first drew me to the Czech Republic. Something I’ve noticed about these groups is that the members are not necessarily career musicians, but rather people interested in keeping music as an active part of their lives. It speaks volumes about the value of music in everyday life, and is a value I hope to carry with me.

Photo: Radůza concert in Chrudim on September 2nd, 2022.

From seeing concerts to participating in performances, I’ve experienced such rich musical involvement during my time in the Czech Republic so far. It has been a venue for fluent communication that I’ve come to deeply appreciate. My involvement has also brought to light another universal truth: music exists everywhere, whether you’re looking for it or not. Sure, the radio blasts through shops and bands jam along at Christmas markets, but there’s a different beat that lies beyond songs. It’s in the humming of the bus on my way home and the chirping of the birds outside my window. It’s in the satisfying ding when I clock into work or the soft crunch of snow when I walk to the store. It’s in the laughter and shouts and soft words exchanged between strangers, students, colleagues, and friends. While I’m certainly nowhere near fluent in Czech, I’m becoming familiar with the melodies and meanings that come from “jo jo jo” [yo yo yo] and “ne ne ne.” For me, it’s the music of everyday life that I’ve become enchanted with the most, and I cannot wait to continue to experience these melodies over the next six months.

Photo: With fellow Fulbrighters at the reception of the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Prague, September 27th, 2022. 

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