Surprising Symphonic Sleepover in Philadelphia

In my last blog post, I mentioned certain weather surprises that tried to prevent our travels to Baltimore for the ACDA Eastern Division conference. Unfortunately, the weather got the best of the Symphonic Choir during our preparation for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s The Bells with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski. After several snow days, our long awaited piano dress rehearsal with Jurowski came, where the vigorous and detailed conductor exacted every amount of emotional energy from the ensemble. It was such a beautifully energized rehearsal that allowed us to tap into the “Russian energy” needed to perform this gifted work.

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The next couple days brought along some surprises…

On Wednesday, February 12th, Symphonic Choir left Westminster Choir College with overnight bags and performance attire prepared to stay and meet the approaching snowstorm in Philadelphia. After another great rehearsal with the orchestra, all were warned of the storm’s impact on the mid-Atlantic and rumor spread about a forthcoming second night stay in Philadelphia. As time passed into later evening, we were all told that we were staying Thursday night as well, although no storm had hit yet. Imagine 165 students staying in the Doubletree Hilton hotel in Philadelphia. An evening of friendly encounters and supportive conversations gave way to an early morning of long-awaited answers.

We had performances scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of February 13th, 14th, and 15th. Due to the weather’s impact on the mid-Atlantic, our first performance was cancelled and we were stranded in Philadelphia for another night. Many students ran to a nearby Macy’s to acquire necessities (including clean underwear) for our second night’s stay. The hotel staff was wonderfully accommodating, as well as our staff and graduate assistants, who helped facilitate all of our surprise sleepover needs. Our Thursday agenda including a 45 minute detail rehearsal with Dr. Miller at the Kimmel Center, then we were left to our own devices.

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Many went out to dinner, others stayed in and watched movies and socialized.

Friday gave way to a brief run-through of the work and our first performance. Spending Valentine’s Day locked away inside a hotel with 165 of your closest classmates is an experience I will never forget. After spending a day working on schoolwork and preparing for the performance, we finally donned attire and took to the Verizon Hall stage. A successful first performance after such a variety of surprises made the trip extremely worth it. This is an experience I will never forget!

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ACDA Eastern Division Conference

One cannot survive in a career without a support system. The greatest aspect about being a choral conductor is the family that surrounds you throughout the world. The American Choral Director’s Association (ACDA for short) is an incredibly vibrant organization throughout North America, which offers tons of professional development experience, from intriguing interest sessions to concerts by choirs across the nation. The annual conference is an incredible time to get together with colleagues who share the same exciting passion as you for the choral art. This year, the ACDA conventions were held throughout different divisions. The Eastern Division ACDA conference was in Baltimore, Md., and featured several Westminster faculty members presented or performed. Here are photos of Amanda Quist and Westminster Katorei, who presented a program titled Building Sound and Spirit, and Tom Shelton, who presented a session “Getting Out of the Rut…Ideas for Introducing a New Song to Young Singers.”

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This past week carried a lot of surprises. We had two snow days in a row, which prevented classes from occurring. Traveling to Baltimore was much less of a hassle than we had expected. The Student Government Association at Westminster Choir College covered the conference registration for 60 student members.  We had to take care of our food and travel expenses. What an opportunity to reap the benefits of the convention’s offerings! I attended many great interest sessions.  One, presented by the American Boychoir School, focused on teaching of musical literacy. They went into great detail about how they teach music literacy and demonstrated some useful methods. It’s beautiful to see such young students making music at the same level as collegiate musicians.

Several great concert sessions led to inspiring talks with colleagues. The two invited concerts – Seraphic Fire from Miami, Fla. and TENET with the Sebastians – were particularly beautiful. I left both concerts feeling fulfilled and inspired to make beautiful music all over again. The greatest aspect of these conventions is walking out with the urge to change the world through musical inspiration. I always love watching concerts and discussing exactly what made them great.

The convention certainly provided great inspiration for me to press forward into my last semester of graduate school. I’m fortunate to have gone, met new people and rekindled wonderful connections, and represent a great choral school. This only makes me more excited for the next national convention! Up next on our docket is a Symphonic Choir performance of Rachmaninoff’s The Bells with Philadelphia Orchestra.

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Ode to Joy – William H. Scheide 100th Birthday Concert

If I could sum up my experiences thus far at Westminster Choir College, it could be described in one word: Freude! Since I’ve come to graduate school, the Westminster Symphonic Choir has performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on three separate occasions. The first was with Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in January of 2013. The second was last semester with Yannick-Nézet Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The third time was this past weekend with Maestro Mark Laycock and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra for a benefit concert celebrating the 100th birthday of William Scheide.

This past Thursday afternoon brought a slew of rehearsals to prepare the choir for the upcoming performance on Saturday. Westminster Choir members had just three short days of relaxation before we jumped into our next project. Our rehearsal began strongly, as we jumped head first into our repertoire. Other than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Symphonic Choir also performed “Gloria sei dir gesungen,” the final chorale from Bach’s cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, and a premiere of “Gaudeamus igitur” from Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The Brahms’ piece is based off “collegiate drinking songs,” so we sang the text of the famous theme that appears multiple times in the overture. Both pieces were great to learn and carried with them important weight for the honoree of this concert. After a quick dinner break, the maestro and the four soloists for the Ninth Symphony joined us. A detailed rehearsal ensued, which offered us insight into the conductor’s interpretation. The choir delivered joy and fervency with every detail. I left the rehearsal amazed at how 100 singers can come back from a long break and sing together as if they’ve never left!

Friday’s schedule was similar to Thursday’s: we met at Richardson Auditorium on Princeton University’s campus to rehearse with the orchestra. We did a couple of runs of each piece, and we were on our way to a delightful performance. Squished like sardines on the stage, the Symphonic Choir acted professional in their actions and delivered intention in every note. After rehearsal finished on Friday, Performance Management and Dean Annis showed us the promotional video that was to be displayed during the concert. Students cheered and applauded each other as we watched the legacy of Westminster’s famed teaching unfold before us.

We arrived early on Saturday for a dress rehearsal that was observed by a small audience. We had a great run through of all piece, and we departed until the evening performance. William Scheide was in the audience, and he beamed with joy throughout the entire concert. A spectacular performance was given by all performers and it culminated in a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Scheide. Symphonic Choir delivered a great, joyful message that delightfully rang in the new school semester. 

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Tour 2014: Houston and Return to Princeton

The end of our tour is nigh! After a night filled with exciting stories from our home stays, we boarded the bus the next morning to head to the Galleria in downtown Houston. Our final installment of “Prairie Home Stay Companion” brought tons of laughs, envy, and overall enthusiasm for our friends’ evenings. We have never been so happy to come together than we were this morning! After spending some downtime at the large mall, we rode to our hotel for a brief period before we returned to Clearlake United Methodist for our final rehearsal and performance.
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Our rehearsal went quickly and dinner came before we knew it. Barbecue was our last hosted meal, with many light appetizers, sides, and peach cobbler with ice cream to cap it all off.
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Our stomachs filled, we ran upstairs to dress and came back down for our brief pow-wow before the concert began. Dr. Miller read no poetry, nor did he give us a motivational speech. He shared his love for us and his appreciation for such a successful tour, and we were brimming with gratitude. The performance was finished before we knew it.
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At the end, the women of Westminster Choir greeted Dr. Miller with smooches on his cheeks, leaving a delightfully placed mark.

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This concert brought an incredible surprise to me: a friend of my from my undergraduate days, whom I haven’t seen in about three years, surprised me at the concert. It’s amazing how music can bring us back together and friendships begin right where they left off.

We loaded the bus to go back to the hotel where we quickly changed for our annual end-of-tour banquet. This banquet consists of the Paper Plate Awards and the Westminster Choir toast. The Paper Plate Awards are voted by members of the choir and consist of categories like “Rookie of the Year,” “Most Likely to Sleep through a Zombie Apocalypse,” and “Choir Mom or Dad.”
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These are just a few of the many categories given to Westminster Choir members voted on by the choir. Tenor Justin Su’esu’e presented the awards and provided great laughs for the choir. After the presentation of the Paper Plate Awards, the toast came to cherish the memories made on tour. This is when members of the choir say what they’re thankful for, toast the choir, and express their gratitude for one another. Many tears are shed for the memories made during tour and throughout our time at Westminster Choir College. Our appreciation for one another burns brightly and spreads like wildfire. The joyful weeping is greeted with pleasant smiles and overflowing love for one another. This is what family is all about.

After the toast was finished, many of us celebrated the end of tour at a local spot with pleasant conversation and great drinks. The next morning brought an afternoon call to the bus where our bus driver Rich told us that, in all the years he’s driven for tours, he was incredibly thankful for this group of people. We knew he was a teddy bear at heart! We arrived the George W. Bush International Airport and began our travels back with acceptance and reflection.

As I sit on the plane and write this post, I’m reflecting on the successes this tour brought to all of us. Sure, the performances were magical, the memories unforgettable, but it’s not about traveling to distant lands or promoting the school’s name. It’s about refreshing the soul through the power of music. It’s about the beauty found in all walks of life, through every home stay and concert, through every interaction and social event. It’s about an appreciation for the opportunities given to us and a love for what we do as artists. I will never forget the family that I love and the reasons for why I sing. This tour has been a success because the choir has developed strong bonds with each other and our music, as have the members in the past. This is why we sing; these are the shoulders on which we stand. Thank you, readers, for taking this journey with us and accepting our song with open arms. Until next time.

 

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Tour 2014: Final Workshop and Travel to Houston

Our home stays brought us back to University Presbyterian Church at 9:00 a.m. sharp for us to load the bus. Our next adventure on tour was our third and final high school workshop at James Bowie High School. We arrived with plenty of time to run a brief warm up and sing through some music. The choral director at James Bowie High School is Ben May, one of Dr. Miller’s first choral conducting master’s students when he came to Westminster Choir College. Another one of the family!
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We sang a bit for them, they returned the favor, and we were dazzled with questions afterwards. The booster club hosted a delectable lunch of soup, salad, and desserts to send us on our way. I think it’s safe to say that the Westminster Choir came and “left Austin weird.”

We got on the road to Houston, our last destination on tour, when we were finished at the high school. With only a couple of stops and a movie to entertain us, we arrived in Houston and met our host families. Tonight was a unique circumstance. We usually leave with our host families after a concert, but tonight was the complete opposite. Many were worried about the amount of time we would spend with them. It will certainly make for interesting stories on the bus later. Tenor Alex Underwood and I met up with our hosts and departed almost as quickly as we arrived. Delightful conversation in the car, when we arrived at home, and during dinner is what makes home stays exciting. It brings such a special dimension to the tour experience that it’s hard not to connect with them on a personal level. Tonight was no different. Tomorrow morning brings some free activities in Houston, our final concert, and our ending banquet.

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Tour 2014: Austin

Yet another lazy morning starts out our ninth day of tour in Austin. Many Westminster Choir members meandered home from our social gathering very late at night. All I can say of that is that we came and “left Austin weird.”

Like every other lazy morning, Westminster Choir members separated and did what they felt like doing. Late comers to the morning breakfast like me chatted about the previous night’s activities and our day’s schedule. Yours truly came back to the room and read more until our call. We had to load the bus early, so I went to lunch with alto Arielle Klein, tenor Max Nolin, alto Paige Kenley, and soprano Jorie Moss. A delicious lunch at a local restaurant and great conversation started the afternoon off right. We boarded the bus for a five-minute ride to University Presbyterian Church. Our brief logistics rehearsal ran smoothly and went straight to a delicious, homemade dinner of pork tamales, Mexican salad, and Mexican rice complete with chips and queso, two different types of salsas, and wonderful guacamole. An incredible dinner left us complete and happy.

Our concert began, and we were fully enveloped by our audience. It was our most emotional, spiritually revitalizing concert of the year. The audience was truly touched, which only infused our music making with more spirit. As artists, the connection we have with our audience is the most important part of our process. This connection was more prevalent tonight than ever before. The foundation of this connection cannot be explained nor can it be recreated. It can only be captured in the moment. This is what makes music necessary.
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 We left with our home stays after a beautifully conceived and performed concert. Tomorrow brings our third and final workshop.

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Tour 2014: Workshops and Travel to Austin

This morning was the earliest call of our tour so far. We finally got to work with high schools. This got our energy soaring through the roof, as the first two that were supposed to happen on tour didn’t because half the choir was stuck in Chicago. We made our way down to the bus at 7:45 a.m. and drove to Birdville High School.

It was such a pleasure to sing for these wonderful students. We sang a few hits from our program – Shenandoah, In Your Light, My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord, just to name a few – and Westminster Choir students introduced the pieces. During these workshops, Dr. Miller showcases the school in a variety of ways: describing the demographic of the students, the amount of undergraduates and graduate students in the choir, what majors are represented within the ensemble, and he introduces students from unique locations. Alto Magdalena Delgado was introduced because she’s from the Dominican Republic. Baritone Dominic Lam and soprano Vivian Suen were introduced because they’re both from Hong Kong. Our diversity is what brings us together as a community. A wonderful highlight for me during the first workshop was when Dr. Miller invited the students up to sing with us during Elder’s Ballade to the Moon. Their director began to weep as we all soaked up the beautiful moment together. Sharing music like this is equally as important as displaying our art to each other. The choir also sang for us, and what a sound it was! I’m absolutely enamored with the level of choral singing found in Texas. What a joy it is to be in a state that appreciates choral singing as much as Texas does.

Here’s a photo of some of the Birdville students singing Ballade to the Moon with us.
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We departed Birdville for Flower Mound High School, which was about 30 minutes away. The school hosted a delicious lunch for us: a variety of sandwich options with chips, drink, and a cookie. Choir members mingled with the high-school students who joined us, making this experience more meaningful in more than just a musical way. Tenor Justin Su’esu’e bonded with a group of Flower Mound students and created a trend they called “#jagnation,”  since the school mascot is a jaguar.  We sang for the ensemble and they returned the favor.   Here’s a photo of Justin with some of his new Jag Nation friends.

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Their choir lit up with true collegial fashion as they sang, which is something Westminster Choir College treasures. After a great question and answer session with the ensemble, we wrapped up and went to the bus to depart for Austin.

A three and a half hour bus ride led us to our next location in our Texas tour. Our resident Texan, baritone John Irving, relayed pertinent food information to all of the section leaders to plan our traditional sectional dinners. It’s a tradition on tour and in Charleston for our residency at the Spoleto Festival to go out and eat a meal as a section. We chose Austin as our destination for this tradition. Tenor Justin Su’esu’e planned a social gathering after dinner. Delicious meals ensued in four different locations and a fun time was had after dinner. Tomorrow brings another morning off and our fifth performance.

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Tour 2014: Dallas

This morning was yet another morning off for the Westminster Choir. These mornings are always lazy for me. I treat them as good times to recharge the mental and physical batteries. After breakfast at the hotel, I went back to the room, caught up with my significant other via FaceTime, and read a bit to prepare for my orals. As a graduate student, the final requirement for my degree is the orals examination, where I’m to display my knowledge verbally to a faculty panel that I select for about an hour. It’s pretty intimidating, but I’m determined to enter the semester ready for my studies. About two hours of reading propelled me to finally shower and go out and grab a quick bite for lunch. A nearby Smashburger satisfied my food craving before we boarded the bus to go to the Church of the Incarnation.
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A short drive brought us to our destination – A beautiful cathedral that reminded me of my church job back at Princeton.  We jumped into rehearsal mode and ran through our program with ease. As I’ve mentioned, we’re pretty good at adapting to the flow of the rehearsal process. We rely on the trust of the ensemble, the support of our section, and we provide comfort to each other. A two-hour rehearsal flew by and we were directed to dinner hosted by the church. I would say this meal was closest to the definition of comfort food: barbecue brisket with rice pilaf and green beans reminded me of my grandparent’s cooking on Sunday afternoons. After dinner, choir members scattered around the church to explore, relax, and take quick maps before our performance. Dr. Miller read two beautiful poems – one of Neruda and another of Dickinson – that put us into the mood of the program. We took to the stage with shining hearts and warm spirits to a completely packed house. The energy of the audience is just as important as the energy of the ensemble. I believe we truly fed off the audience’s energy last night.
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I’ve often heard the quote that silence is the canvas on which the musician paints his art. I don’t know who said it, but I couldn’t agree more with the intention. It’s incredibly powerful to watch the souls of the audience settle into our storytelling. Some are uncomfortable; others are completely enamored with our music. These performances give both performers and audience members a chance to remove themselves from the rush of the world. This concert was no different.

After another wonderful concert, we returned to the hotel for a night in. Some of us ran to Taco Bell to grab a late-night snack before bedtime. Tomorrow morning brings the first two high-school workshops!

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Tour 2014: Fort Worth to Dallas

Our home stays brought us back to Arborlawn United Methodist Church, where the choir gathered to hear the beautifully crafted organ in the sanctuary.
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After a brief demonstration, we boarded the bus to go to the Fort Worth Stock Yards. Groups perused the old, country western style markets filled with rich cowboy memorabilia. The stock yard is also home to one of the oldest running cattle drives in the United States. We watched as cowboys and cowgirls walked the cattle from one end of the street to the next. We went to lunch in groups, where many stopped at neighboring burger joints and barbecue houses. We finally boarded the bus and left for Dallas, but not before I measured reach against the size of a longhorn cow’s horns.
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We arrived at the Holiday Inn around 1:30pm, giving us the whole day and night to ourselves. Many people, including myself, took well-needed naps to ward off feeling tired. Others ran around the city, explored, and worked on graduate audition assignments. After a lovely nap, I met up with tenor Justin Su’esu’e and baritone Trevor Sands for a quick dinner at a neighboring shopping plaza. We planned for another social outing  that had karaoke and line dancing. A great group of us went out, enjoyed each other’s company, and laughed until morning. Days off are much needed on tours. This one was no exception. Tomorrow morning brings a relaxing morning and the fourth performance in Dallas.   

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2014 Tour: Fort Worth

We arrived in droves back at the Wanda L. Bass School of Music where Maestro Miller, the staff and bus driver were waiting for us. Home stays wished kind farewell ,and we boarded the bus to travel into the heart of Texas. Before our departure, the executive director of the American Choral Directors Association, Tim Sharp, greeted us and spoke  about our performance at the National ACDA convention in Dallas last March. What an incredible pleasure to be greeted by the leader of this esteemed organization and have him wish us well!

A three-hour drive, a well-rounded rendition of “Prairie Home Stay Companion,” and watching a DVD of “Little Miss Sunshine” provided the comic relief for our travels. We stopped for lunch at a shopping plaza, where our dining choices included Chipotle, Corner Bakery, Panda Express, and select others. A group of us went to Chipotle and followed suit with some light dessert at Marble Slab Creamery. Tenor Justin Su’esu’e, baritone Trevor Sands, and I went to a local market and grabbed supplies for our paper plate awards at the end of tour (more on that to come later). A few hilarious moments ensued, which is commonplace when great friends get together.

We arrived at the stunning sanctuary of Arborlawn United Methodist Church. This beautiful church provided an impressive venue for our third performance. Our rehearsal went quickly, with more choir members fitting into the groove of tour procedures more readily than our earlier rehearsals.

Our concert was performed with ecstatic energy, beautiful intention, and delivered with a poise and strength that hasn’t been present in our concerts thus far. In my opinion, this concert was the best concert of our tour. What made it so? I firmly believe that we have finally fit into the mold of the ensemble, found our collective singing spirits, and completely trusted one another last night. It’s remarkable what a little bit of trust can do to heighten a performance. Afterwards, we met our home stays for a third night in a row.
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Pleasurable experiences like these only add to the trunk of memories that Westminster Choir tour builds. In our hearts, an artistic creativity yearns for release. Each and every moment, whether it be an impromptu dance in the middle of a grocery store or four games of pool with a host family, adds a different layer to our music-making. The music we make every night isn’t for our own benefit;it’s an artistic outpouring that longs to sooth the wayward soul. We are transformed because of these gifts and forever changed by sharing this music with all the earth. Tomorrow brings a free day in Dallas!

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