rip of a lifetime is no hyperbole descriptor for the magical, musical history tour that took Cohen Velazquez and his trumpet from the French shore of Omaha Beach to the top of the Swiss Alps.
The young musician represented Tualatin High School in the 2022 Oregon Ambassadors of Music, a massive honors band and choir comprised of students from around the state that formed to play a series of European concerts.
“It was really cool to be a part of. You’re meeting so many people from your area because it’s all Oregon high school students,” he said. “We’re all really competitive and enjoy music. I feel like it made me a little bit more appreciative for where I’m at musically.”
Every other year the organization assembles a fresh group for a two-week adventure where they play five concerts in four countries – France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany – visiting historical and tourist sites along the way.
The trip kicked off with a 3-day band camp at Oregon State University and ended in the walled, medieval city of Rothenberg, Germany, where Velazquez met up with his family to continue traveling for an additional two weeks instead of returning home with the rest of the group.
Cohen fundraised about $7,000 to cover his expenses, hand addressing sponsorship appeals to more than 200 people to generate donations. He began musically preparing for the trip through a series of zoom and in-person meetings months before his flight taxied.
The payoff – touring Mozart’s home in Austria, attending Switzerland’s famed Montreux Jazz Festival, riding a funicular 12,000 feet up the Matterhorn, visiting a medieval city, wandering Paris’s Louvre Museum, and playing music on Omaha Beach during a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial with new friends from all over Oregon – was worth every moment of the fundraising and practice it took to get there.
He was one of 30 trumpet players in the massive 300-plus-person band. Back at school this fall, he’s playing trumpet in jazz band and French horn in the wind ensemble.
“It was crazy. It was so cool,” he said. “There were 30 trumpets, so the size of a normal band you’d be playing in was just trumpets.”
Along the way, Velazquez, who enjoyed the history as much as the music, earned three college credits in a Music Appreciation course offered through Oregon State University.
Ambassadors’ Choir and Co-tour director Steve Zielke, who also teaches at OSU, designed the class specifically for the trip, creating units to correspond to the sites they visited.
“Every destination we go to has incredible music history,” he told prospective members in a recorded Zoom info session last fall. “We’re able to emphasize that and create a really cool class that will make the trip better and will count toward college for these kids.”
Participants are nominated by their directors or teachers.
Velazquez, a multi-instrumentalist who played trumpet in the Ambassadors band, is one of three Tualatin students and alumni that made the trip in 2022. Alumni Katelyn Livermore, who graduated in 2021, and Simone Sienkiewicz, who graduated in 2022, traveled with the 150-member choir.
“He was just a kid that stood out to me as responsible, respectful, hardworking, mature,” Reggie Stegmeier, Tualatin’s band director, said. “We’re looking for kids who will represent our school and our program well.”
Stegmeier, who is directing about 80 students in Tualatin High School’s band classes this school year, keeps his eyes out for good Ambassador candidates from the time students enter as freshmen.
He nominates about 20 kids per trip, but the time commitment and price tag can make the biennial adventure a daunting prospect for most. He believes Velazquez is one of the only Tualatin band members to ever take it on.
When the Ambassadors invitation arrived, Cohen’s parents encouraged him to go for it.
“We sat down with him and said, ‘Cohen, if you are interested, it’s the perfect time,” his mom, Christy Velazquez, said. “You’re 17. It’s a great time in your life to go do something like this.”