Heather Berchtold may be an uneasy flyer, but she wasn't about to let that get in the way of the trip of a lifetime.
This past July, Berchtold, who lives in Galloway Township, and more than 100 student musicans from the mid-Atlantic states toured Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany as part of the American Music Abroad 2013 Gold Tour.
Berchtold said she couldn't wait for the trip despite her fear of flying.
"I counted down the days," she said. "I was nervous about it, because I don't really like to fly, but I got over it. I'm going to Europe, have to get over it."
American Music Abroad is a national organization that has sent more than 32,000 American students and adults on overseas musical tours since it was established 37 years ago. The gold tour is one of several the organization offers and is mostly made up of students from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Keith Hodgson, Mainland Regional High School's director of instrumental music, has been involved with the program for 15 years, and has been head director of the gold tour since 2009. He said the tour is a fantastic experience for those who participate.
"It's incredible. It's not only a musical experience but a social experience and a travel experience," Hodgson said. "They get a chance to travel about five countries in Central Europe, they get to perform in all five of those countries."
Berchtold, who graduated from Absegami High School in June, had never been to Europe before the trip. Her sister, 2006 graduate Lauren Berchtold, went on a similar musical tour in high school, and her father had performed in Europe as well.
Donna Marie Berchtold, Heather's mom and a music teacher at the William Davies Middle School in Mays Landing, said she wanted Heather to have the same opportunity her sister and father had.
"It was Heather's senior year, and I wanted to offer Heather the same opportunity that my older daughter had, so we decided to go to the meeting last October," said Donna Marie Berchtold, who also traveled on the tour as a piano accompanist. "She fell in love with it, especially because she found out we were going to go to Paris."
The application process was rigorous, and required Berchtold, who sings and plays trumpet, to secure a recommendation from a music teacher as well as put together an audition tape. Once accepted, she had to memorize her parts and rehearsed with the group for three days before departure.
While the road to the trip was challenging, Berchtold said she'd do it all again if she could.
"It's a great experience, especially for musicians, or anybody, really," she said. "It opens up your eyes to so much. I would do it in a heartbeat, I would do it again a million times."
Hodgson has begun conducting informational meetings at local schools for the 2013 gold tour, which will be held in July and will include stops in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. The tour usually fills by Thanksgiving, Hodgson said, so those interested should act quickly.
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