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'How to meet suffering with creativity': Singing for Ukraine on a cold spring day in Vermont

A photo of people circled around on muddy, icy grass against a grey sky, holding sheets of music.
Erica Heilman
The Marshfield Slavic Singers and Farm Song choir sing at a benefit for Ukrainian refugees at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro.

A couple weeks ago, independent producer Erica Heilman attended a benefit for Ukrainian refugees at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro. It featured the Marshfield Slavic Singers and a small choir called Farm Song. The benefit was part-concert and part-singing workshop.

Editor’s note: We highly recommend listening to this story, if you can. We’ve also provided a transcript below.

Maria Schumann: “And I come in on this note?”

Božena Hrycyna: “Well, I was gonna do this first …”

That's Maria Schumann and her Ukrainian Canadian friend Božena Hrycyna. Maria, who lives in Greensboro, organized the benefit. She's a sheep farmer, cheese maker, apple grower and passionate singer of Slavic music. So last Saturday, she and Božena invited people to gather for a concert and Slavic music workshop to benefit the refugees of the Ukrainian war. It was a grim cold day in mud season. But people came, they stood on the ice and in the mud, they sat in chairs and on stumps, and they sang.

Maria Schumann: “I started a singing group in January. I hadn't been reading the news. And then one day, I got in front of my group and I was like, ‘Wait a second. Ukraine, Belarus and Russia … they're all in the news. And that's the exact places that we're singing.’ And it just feels like the exact right thing, to sing it. Like I don't know what else to do, you know?”

A photo looking up at two people holding a sheet of music and standing outside against a grey spring sky.
Erica Heilman
Maria Schumann, left, helped organized a benefit for Ukranian refugees that was part-concert, part-singing workshop.

This is Patricia Fontaine from Shelburne.

Erica: “You came a long way, why? Why'd you come all this way?”

Patricia Fontaine: “Because it's how to meet suffering with creativity, how to bring, in this case, music to a place where we can bear the pain of what is happening and put a voice to it and receive it in some other way than words.”

Erica: “What's the point of this?”

This is Jeff Fellinger of Craftsbury.

Jeff Fellinger: “Solidarity with Ukraine, in voice and music.”

Erica: “What does that do?”

Jeff Fellinger: “It pulls the heart, for me. And the harmonies, especially. And the cold, solidarity in the cold, thinking of people over there right now, trying to move their newborns to safety, of being in a dark basement trying to just survive. The only thing that might bring some hope in those moments is music.”

More from VPR: A Bennington College student on being home in Ukraine during Russia's invasion

Erica: “So you think there's utility in the fact that it's cold out?”

Jeff Fellinger: “I do. It puts the mind in an uncomfortable – or less comfortable place than you might really want to be. And that's, that's OK. It connects us to places in the world that are dealing with discomfort.”

Božena Hrycyna: “Spring is Vesna, so a spring calling song is a vesnianka. And these two are really strident calling songs. They're from the same region, where Chernobyl is. It’s the region that's mostly actually in Belarus and a little bit of northern Ukraine and then a tiny bit of northeastern Poland.

“Ah! The words are like, ‘Oh please God, let spring come!’ You can hear that, right?”

A photo of a person smiling in a hat and scarf and vest, standing on snowy grass with red and white flags strung overhead against a grey sky.
Erica Heilman
Božena Hrycyna, who is Ukranian Canadian, helped organize a part-concert, part-singing workshop benefit for Ukranian refugees at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro.

Erica: “What's special about this music?”

Maria Schumann: “It's just so beautiful and so powerful. There's special music all over the world. But to me it's special partly because I actually have Russian heritage. I met my great-grandmother in Russia when I was 3 years old. And she was a peasant. She didn’t – never learned how to read or write. She was from a totally different world. And I think about her life and how hard it was, like she had to work all day in the fields to feed her family and she had nine kids at home by herself. And I think of her and all the women before her. They're the composers of these songs – these brilliant jewels of songs – and these are the people who made them.

They hold all this sorrow and hardship of their lives. They hold all of that in them, but they also hold so much joy and beauty. I feel like they're like the sun and they shine on the world and they make you grow and want to be alive and that's what I want to do! That's what I want to live like. I just want this beauty to be in the world that has so much ugliness and violence and terrible things happening.”

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