By Meghan Feir Walker

As a choral director for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) on Sigonella Naval Air Station outside of Catania, Sicily, Italy, Antone Leustek ’02 (music education) has a unique opportunity in his field of music education. His students are comprised of seventh through 12th graders, a mixture of children from American military and NATO families.

Since the coronavirus took the world by storm, forcing most nations to be in lockdown, videos taken from isolation have given a firsthand account of the hardships within each city’s borders. Amidst the devastation and loss, Italy, one of the earliest and hardest hit locations, has displayed resilience and hope, as seen through videos of songs sung in unison by neighbors from their balconies. Leustek’s students are no exception.

“Since the pandemic hit the country hard, we have been in complete lockdown,” Leustek said. “We’re not able to drive or walk anywhere. This, of course, makes it very difficult to connect with music students. After all, we were meant to be together to make music.” 

Before the instructor and his class were separated, his assignment for them was to learn individual parts for an arrangement of “Heavenly Father,” a song by Bon Iver. They were planning on a May concert, which would now inevitably be canceled. 

Although separated, Leustek knew he needed to get creative in order to showcase the hard work and time his students had invested into this project. He went ahead and instructed them on how to use technology to practice, perform, film, upload and share each of their singing parts for the piece. He then edited all of the submitted files to create one, cohesive recording.

“It turned out amazing,” Leustek said, “so amazing that it spread from my school’s Facebook page to now over 220,000 views across the world.” 

 Not long after their video went viral, Leustek’s students were called for a meeting with the director of DoDEA in Arlington, Va., to discuss the video, music, lockdown, and how their schooling was going. “This is basically unheard of,” Leustek said. “Most employees are never in contact with the director at headquarters.”

The choir students at Sigonella Middle High School have been taken aback by the attention their assignment has received, which has since been picked up by multiple news sources, including Stars and Stripes, the US Armed Forces newspaper, and locally in Leustek’s Minnesotan hometown newspaper, the Hibbing Tribune. The Naval Commander of Italy also shared the video with all naval stations across Europe and Africa, a testament to the strength and hope carried throughout each note. 

This, as Leustek put it, is “a story that could only be made in a pandemic.”

Listen to Sigonella Middle High School Choir’s rendition of “Heavenly Father.” 

This story is being featured as part of #GivingTuesdayNow. You can give to support MSU Moorhead programs and scholarships at www.mnstate.edu/givingday.