Spain! July 21 – 24

Saludos desde España! Hello from Spain! After 11 months of waiting, we’re finally here! It has been completely surreal to arrive at our final project of the year, something we have been looking forward to and planning since our first rehearsal back in September. We are honored and wholly excited not only to represent the United States at the World Symposium for Choral Music, but also to have many other performance and exploration opportunities along the way. So far, we’ve had an amazing first three days dipping our feet in this beautiful country.

Have you even been awake, more or less continuously, for 31 hours? Everyone in Westminster Choir can now say that they have! On July 21 excited singers woke up around 8 or 9 a.m. had the strange experience of a six-hour flight that lasted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. (due to time change), and didn’t get to bed until roughly 10 p.m. local time on July 22. You can imagine the exhaustion upon arriving in Madrid, but this didn’t do anything to mute the excitement of finally being in Spain! When we got off the flight we met our guide, Enrique (“Quique”), and he is simply wonderful — an energetic, hilarious, and easy-going Spanish native who hasn’t lost his youthful energy. He led us on a tour of the city and then took us to our first tapas dinner in Spain. It was a long and exhausting, but very fun first day that ended with the majority of the choir immediately crashing upon getting back to the hotel. The rest was much needed because the following day brought our two concerts.

A blue, cloudless Spanish sky greeted us in the morning as we embarked on a trip into the mountains. Our destination was the Convento de Santo Domingo y San Pablo, a 16th-century convent in Las Navas del Marquez that sits atop a 1,800 meter mountain. The winding drive was magnificent – panoramic views of the layered, tan mountainside abounded. One could be reminded of the American Southwest. Our concert was part of the Festival de Música Vocal de Navas del Márquez, and it was one of the many different programs we’ll do; same music from the year, but varying orders and combinations according to the venue. One of the fun parts of this particular concert was sharing the American folksongs from our program — Dr. Miller specifically selected these pieces at the beginning of the year with our trip to Spain in mind, in order to share the music of the United States. _DSC1311_DSC1339_DSC1366

It was a wonderful, engaged audience, and shout-out to graduate conducting student Francisco Ortiz-Ramos for translating Dr. Miller’s words of welcome into Spanish very effectively!

Our next location for the second concert of our day brought us down along another mountainside to the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial. Words can’t do it justice. It is a profoundly magnificent structure that looks out over the mountain, complemented by artfully precise hedges in the courtyard. The basilica, our performance space, is itself an awesome structure, and it is something of a choral singer’s dream acoustically. Bass Matt Marinelli joked, “Don’t mess up, because if you do it’ll last for eight seconds!” Such a joy to sing in an unforgettable space, and we were fortunate to have a large, receptive audience again.

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Now it’s day four and most people are caught up on sleep. This has been a day off from performing, so we traveled to “Holy Toledo” where we saw a beautiful panoramic view of the city and took a tour, then went back to Madrid for a little R&R. Some people are seeing museums or doing some shopping, some people stuck around in Toledo and are riding the train back tonight — it’s nice to just enjoy Spain for the evening! Tomorrow we’re back at it with a concert in Segovia, and then the following day we’re off to Barcelona for the Symposium!

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As a way of remaining present throughout this wonderful experience in Spain, here is a closing Today I will… from recently graduated vocal performance student, Kelsey Lewis (who is on to her M.M. at WCC next year!): Today I will stop and plant a seed of love every place I go.

— Scott
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Spring and Spoleto USA

Somehow, it is June. I’m sitting in a café in Charleston, S.C., drinking a particularly delicious iced latte. The choir is hired here as choristers for the Spoleto Festival USA, and this is where we are living for a few weeks. Also somehow, I have graduated from Westminster Choir College with a master’s degree in Choral Conducting. This all seemed so intangibly far away only months ago, yet here we are! The semester was a challenge; I’m grateful to the teachers and friends who were there for me, be it through encouragement or tough love. There is much to process from the last two years; it is a relief to be here in Charleston, with time to think, as well as time to relax and unwind.

As part of this festival, we perform in a variety of concerts and performances, including an orchestral concert of Mozart and Vaughan Williams, performances of our tour repertoire, and our largest project, performing as chorus members in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. A few of the gentlemen in the choir, including my fellow blogger Scott, are on double opera duty, also performing in Vivaldi’s Farnace. My heart goes out to their workload, but they look incredible in their costumes and they sound just terrific! It had been on the cards that we would perform Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at Spoleto, but sadly this was not meant to be. In April, we performed this piece in an abandoned factory in Trenton, complete with the musicians of Bang on a Can All-Stars, beautiful choreography from Doug Varone and a wonderful dancer Whitney Dufrene. The piece explores the lives and losses of the coal miners of Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. She brings together a variety of sources that tell these stories and brings them together into a refreshing multimedia creation. The first movement uses the names of the men who lost their lives in the mines: at least, that was her initial intention. However, the sheer number of names was so overwhelming, that she instead used only men named John, with one-syllable surnames. Noticing the name ‘John Hughes,’ I did a little research, just in case there happened to be any connection to my lineage. Alas, my line of Hughes’ were predominantly Welsh sheep farmers. But I digress… I loved being a part of this project, and I would highly recommend looking into this piece if you are not already aware of it.
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The State of the Arts television program devoted a segment to the project.  You can view the video here.

On to the present! We’ve had a wonderful time in Charleston so far; the gardens, the history, the food, the bay, the weather. This is certainly a charming part of the world. In terms of our role in the festival, we have performed two nights of opera, our first choir concert, and a collaborative celebration concert. Our first week was all about the opera, as we attended daily rehearsals, bringing together music, staging, principals, lighting, orchestra, costumes etc. It’s been a blast getting to know the other performers and the production team, and getting a chance to do some acting (as a female chorus member, one must master pointing at things with excitement, giggling about male principals, and looking around with a ‘what on earth is going on here?’ expression). The costumes are a lot of fun, from peasant to aristocrat, and as a short-haired woman, I had the added pleasure of wearing a wig on stage. If you do happen to come to one of the performances, I will be the short one with the flowing curly red hair. It helps to get into character when you look nothing like yourself.  Here are some photos of my transformation.

Two members of our choir, Andrew Stack and Grant Farmer, play small principal roles in the show. They are both approaching the roles with utmost professionalism, and absolutely holding their own. Very proud!

As participants in the festival, we are permitted to attend any events that we can make, and there is simply too much to choose from. I hope to attend as much as I can, whether it’s chamber music, dance, or theatre. Over the span of three nights, I attended three plays: I feel culturally spoilt! One night, a one-woman monologue depicting the life of a brave, funny, brilliant woman’s life, and her experience in a 2014 siege in Northern Syria. I cannot stop thinking about this play, how beautiful, devastating and real it was. If you ever get the chance to see Angel by Henry Naylor, please, do it. The next night, I was at a production of Waiting for Godot, and again, thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m hoping to watch it a second time while I’m here if I can. Wonderfully executed, thought provoking, funny, dark, quirky. The third night was a mostly wordless production called Murmurs. Using illusion, puppetry, and dance, we were taken into a surreal and intriguing world, where beauty and insanity seemed to be in delicate balance. I think I’ll leave you on that ambiguous note… We are over the moon to be here, to experience Charleston and to be a part of the festival. Thank you to anybody who has come or is hoping to come to any of our performances: as always, we appreciate your support!

Today I will go to the beach!

— Claire
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Fort Lauderdale and going home

Ed. Note:  This post was mislaid in cyberspace for a few months.  It’s too good to miss publishing, even at this late date.  Thanks for sharing this, Claire.


As I write my final post about tour, I am back in the cold of Princeton, New Jersey, so it is with wistful nostalgia that I think of the summery temperatures in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, our final destination. I had a lovely homestay with Craig and Anne, who had a beautiful home with a pool and a dock backing onto the water. Soon it became a crossover homestay, with two other families coming to visit; Mike and Jacob (both tenors in the choir), arrived in style, rocking up by boat. As we had all the voice parts on the dock, we were able to give them a mini concert, which progressed into a sing-song by their piano. Andrew (fellow alto) and I both played a little, and Craig asked if we could sing his favourite song, Lenard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Funnily enough I’d just been playing that song on the ukulele at my first homestay so I had it covered: it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift…easy enough really. It made him so happy and they were all so thankful. He was initially not going to come to the concert the next day as there was a game on that night, but after the evening we had, he decided he would come after all. Success! Performing to hundreds of people with the whole choir is one thing, but there is something special about making those small connections through music like we did that night. Noel, Emily, Chelsea, Kelsey, Andrew, Alex, Mike and Jacob: what a wonderful homestay we had!

Also I may or may not have walked head on into a door. They have the clear windows with netting so it looked like it was not a door. Alas, I can confirm that it was in fact a door.

The next morning was the day of our last performance, but first we had the morning off. We spent much of that morning at the beach. Some people played (American) football but most of us just enjoyed the waves. With an intense semester on the horizon, the time to relax on the beach is very much appreciated.
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After some wandering, some lunch and ice cream, we returned to the bus and took our stuff to our hotel. We took an hour to de-beachify ourselves and headed on to the church for rehearsal. As a thanks to Louise Beard for inviting us over back in Birmingham, Dr Miller asked us to bring our tiny pigs that she had given us to the rehearsal, so that we could record a performance of I got a Hog and a Pig complete with tiny pigs. You can find it on our YouTube Channel.  It’s hard to tell, but if you saw that video out of context, that’s what we are holding in the video!

At this point in the tour, we know our tour program very well, so in rehearsal we were working on logistics and on details in the music. I’ve found that one of the dangers with spending so much time with one program is of falling into complacency. Yes we know the music but we can never afford to go into autopilot, as that would be doing the audiences who have not heard the program an injustice. I thought about each performance as its own entity, rather than a repeat of the previous performance.

The First Presbyterian Church treated us wonderfully, and I must say the churches throughout this tour have been greatly accommodating and have fed us very well. It is no small feat to feed a choir, so thank you! In the time we had before the performance, I took a moment to go for a wander and sit by the water for a bit. I love working with people but I also need time alone. I thought about how I came to be where I was at that point in time, how strange it all is and how lucky I am. As it started to rain, I headed back, refreshed and ready for our final performance. That performance felt more emotionally charged than any other we had done before. From us, to Dr. Miller, to the audience, we all felt connected. Mistakes were made it’s true, it was not by any means a perfect performance (fellow alto 1’s you know what I’m talking about!), but in the end that didn’t matter. I saw many with tears in their eyes, choir and audience members alike; I even felt myself welling up a little bit…
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Elated with post-performance adrenaline, we headed back to the hotel, and after sprucing up, we all came together for the end of tour banquet. Banquet is a misleading name, as the refreshments consisted of champagne (for anyone over 21 who wanted to imbibe), sparkling cider and emotions. Our social chair Jacob Truby (side note: such a trooper this tour, he got pretty sick but handled it like a pro!), hosted an awards ceremony of sorts, with the help of Chelsea, Emily and Brett. Each of us was given an expertly illustrated award on a paper plate (photos of this can be seen on the Facebook page, subtle plug). Mine was the ‘bubble and squeak’ award for the small humorous comments I tend to make. I’ll gladly accept such an honour!
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We then distributed liquid refreshment and began to give toasts, sharing our experiences, and our gratitude to each other. My only regret of the entire tour was that I did not step forward and give my own toast. I certainly had people to thank and my own story to tell, but I didn’t quite have the courage. I’m proud of the people who did step forward and to spoke openly in front of the choir. Emotions were running high and after the toasts, we had had our own conversations (and many many hugs), expressing our appreciation for each other. A younger, pre-Westminster version of myself would have found that experience uncomfortable and a little sappy, but one of the lessons I’ve learnt through my time here and especially through our ‘Today I will’ program, is to be more comfortable with expressing emotion, it’s part of living in the moment.

We had a 7:30 a.m. bus call the next morning, which was not fun at all. I apologise to my roomies, Xiaosha and Liska, for being so grumpy and unresponsive that morning. People who know me, know that I am NOT a morning person, as hard as I try. Throughout this tour, Xiaosha has complained about the disaster zone that was my suitcase. I believe in keeping my suitcase in my own way, and leaving you to keep your suitcase in yours, but apparently, they did not agree… Coming out of the bathroom that morning, I caught them red-handed, folding my clothes and putting them neatly into my suitcase! Despicable behaviour. I was appalled. And then we all burst out laughing: I think at this point we all needed a good night’s sleep!

It was a little sad to be at the airport and on the plane home but all good things must come to an end, and part of me was looking forward to being at home and sleeping in my own bed again. The air hostess had heard that the Westminister (we had to correct her on the name multiple times) choir was on board and asked us to sing. The problem was that sound doesn’t travel on an aeroplane, and she couldn’t hear us, so she just assumed she was busy and interrupted us mid-Lutkin benediction. Never mind! It was a nice idea of hers, even if she couldn’t hear us in the end…

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The memories of this tour will stay with me for a long time. The places we’ve been, the people we have met and the people I have got to know better: I’ve played in the snow in Cincinnati, got a spontaneous haircut and gone line dancing in Nashville, wined and dined in Alabama, attended my first music education conference and enjoyed summer beach weather in January in Florida. I’ve been part of something very special, performing and spending time with a fantastic group of people, and I’ve seen how we were able to inspire people to enjoy choral music in our high school sessions. I’ve also seen the group grow and develop through the exploration of our tour program. I think that as a conductor, your choir reflects what you put into it, and if you give enough it starts to reflect who you are as a person. In this choir, each member takes responsibility for their own contributions and we have learnt to value each other for our strengths and weaknesses. I don’t believe I have been part of a choir that looks out for each other in the way that this choir does, even though we have our disputes. I hope to lead my own choir one day, and I cannot help but wonder what this choir would be, what in me they might reflect.

A new semester approaches. Scott and I will continue to keep you updated. It has been a pleasure to meet some of you on our travels. I have a better understanding now of the people I am talking to when I write these posts. Thank you for taking the time to read and to engage!

A selection from Twitter, search #wcctodayiwill to see for yourself…

Today I will share my passion for music with everyone I meet.

Today I will take time to enjoy the good things in life.

Today I will stay calm.

Today I will breathe and be present.

Today I will GIVE PRAISE!

Today I will seek to understand rather than to seek to be understood.

Today I will see though my eyes and NOT my screen.

Today I will tell my kids I love them.

Today I will live for me.

— Claire
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April!

The semester starts…you blink your eyes…and it’s April. I know that’s how many members of Westminster Choir, including myself, currently feel. The radio silence of this blog over the last two months is certainly an indicator of the number of exciting things going on, as well as the general craziness of the spring semester at this wonderful little school. Here’s a brief recap of some of the things that have happened!

Way back in February we performed our tour program for our homecoming concert at the beautiful Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University — a wonderful culmination of all the learning and growth from tour. We were lucky to have in the audience many choir members who had traveled to Princeton to participate in the Sing ‘n’ Joy Festival and Competition, as well as friends and family. The music and meaning of the program is of course an intrinsic part of all of us now, and we were so happy to share our “Today I will…” journey with the Princeton audience having ruminated on it for several months. For now, that program is tucked away until next month when we’ll perform it for the final time at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C.

There wasn’t much time to celebrate because the following weekend our beloved GA, Grant Farmer, gave his recital in Bristol Chapel. With limited time, he beautifully prepared us to sing works by Tarik O’Regan, Victoria, John Wykoff, Schubert, and Ted Hearne. Thanks to that final composer, none of us will ever forget how to count syncopated triplet and sixteenth figures again…shukushukushukushuku…Congrats to Grant!

Of course, all of the Westminster community mourned the passing of Prof. Lindsey Christiansen in March. Westminster Choir was asked to sing at her memorial service, and, not having known her personally, it was truly indescribable to see the depth of her impact on the entire Westminster and Princeton community. We were very blessed to have been a part of celebrating her life by singing the Erb’s “Shenandoah” and Brahms’ Geistliches Lied.

Throughout March, the predominating rehearsal focus has been our big project for this semester: the Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Anthracite Fields, by Julia Wolfe. We are performing this work April 21-22 as a part of Westminster’s Transforming Space project at the historically rich Roebling Wire Works in Trenton, NJ.

There are so many elements that make this an intriguing, challenging, and what will ultimately be an extremely rewarding project. One such element is that renowned choreographer Doug Varone is staging the performance. Exciting because that deepens the connection to the work that much more, but also challenging because this means we have to memorize almost the entire work. While Westminster Choir is certainly used to memorizing performance repertoire, this work is simply a different entity than anything we’ve encountered. There are many minimalistic elements, such as fixation on motives/gestures, long periods of repeated material, and sections of music that don’t necessarily have an easy relationship to what has come before it. While the notes and rhythms are not difficult in themselves, having to memorize the exact location of motives, exactly how long to hold things, and when the patterns just change slightly has been tough. That being said, in this past week of rehearsal we took a huge leap forward, and we are now finally starting to see how the final product will fit together. I’d say we are shifting from feeling quasi-overwhelmed to just being excited.

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Working Whitney from Doug Varone’s company on “Breaker Boys.”

So those performances will happen in two weeks, and then we’ll shift our focus to the Spoleto Festival USA! I won’t go into detail now, but lots of preparation to be done for that as well. Look for Claire’s next post at the end of the semester!

Final personal thought: in this tricky time for the Westminster community, we’ve come together to support one another and have insisted on the excellence of our art more than ever. I can’t put into words how amazing that is. What a crazy, wonderful little place our home in Princeton is!

Today I will honor and love my communities, past and present.

Peace!

— Scott
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Florida!

The choir that got off the bus after the seven-hour ride from Atlanta to Tampa looked completely different than the heavily bundled, shivering, cold-shocked choir that got off in Cincinnati just a week earlier. People practically leapt off the bus, thrilled to be wearing just a polo and jeans in complete comfort. Our previous stop in Atlanta was nice and mild, but immediately upon setting foot in Tampa we knew how much this truly warm weather and marine setting would rejuvenate us.

An opening performance at The Florida Music Education Association conference is what brought us to Tampa. We learned that FMEA is apparently the second largest such conference in the United States (behind Texas), and one of the wonderful benefits of being a performer was that we had complete access to any of the sessions/events throughout the day. In such a thriving state in terms of music education, we were truly lucky to have the opportunity to explore — four different All-State choirs to observe; exhibits for universities and products and numerous lectures.
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Plenty of people took advantage of the free day by simply relaxing or walking around the area. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day, 75 degrees and sunny; Marisa Curcio and I talked about how the water and vegetation really seemed to make the air smell different, to make Tampa feel alive. So, regardless of what people chose to do, it was just nice for everyone to not be on the clock, to not be on the bus and to be in such a comfortable environment.

As fun as our day was, we did have some business to attend to toward the end of it. The grand ballroom in which we performed presented our most different and perhaps challenging space yet. A HUGE, wide-open rectangle with a stage at the front — it’s difficult to explain the sound. It wasn’t necessarily dead because we could hear sound going out into the house, but rather than a magnanimous wave that you perceive in a large church, all we heard was a single “pingy” echo coming back to us. Because of the size, it was also difficult for us to hear each other, so we discovered in our sound check that we really had to trust what we rehearsed and previously performed; in fact, Dr. Miller encouraged us to sing even softer at times to draw out dynamic contrast and prevent over-singing.
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The unusually late 9 p.m. performance time and the four-hour break between our sound check and the concert meant that we had to be extremely diligent in pacing our energy and voices throughout the day. It also meant that there was a little bit more anticipation in the air, both from having to wait longer and from the prospect of performing in front of a room full of musicians. Before we went out, as we were standing in our two lines, Dr. Miller told the first row to turn around and face the second. He reminded us that the people in front of us were the source of the music. It’s only through our trust and love in one another that we can possibly create a message greater than ourselves. With this in our hearts and minds, we walked on.

The number of people sitting in front of us, all musicians, was breath taking. The space felt enormous when filled with so many people! When Aaron Ramsey (the birthday boy!) began his opening solo, we knew we’d have to have heightened sensitivity with our ears and eyes to adjust to the room and not get distracted by the number of people.
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The first half went well, people were especially receptive to the ring shout (led by incredible Taria and Pauline!), but it seems like we all agree that the second half, after we had adjusted, taken a deep breath, and walked back on, was something special. I’m not sure what it was, Dr. Miller used the word “committed,: but there seemed to be a heightened level of emotional consciousness and comfort. The audience was extremely present, and we were honored to receive a standing ovation from so many incredible musicians at the performance’s end. As always, we expressed our gratitude through the Lutkin Benediction.
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It was in this moment that many of us noticed a man in the front row crying, moved by this last piece. We found out after the concert that this was a WCC Class of 1946 alumnus, Robert McClintock. We were absolutely honored to receive a visit from him following the performance, where he thanked us, shared remarkable experiences from his time at Westminster, and encouraged us to realize our potential in this genre of music. His sharpness and vibrancy was certainly something we will all aspire to as we continue to live our lives in this field.
img_2880The next morning we had a final meal in Tampa and then hit the road for our four-hour drive to Ft. Lauderdale, our last long bus ride before our flight home on Sunday. We got to drive through the Big Cypress National Preserve and a bit of the Everglades; coming from hilly NJ and VA where we have the Blue Ridge Mountains, I found it remarkable how flat Florida is. When we got to Ft. Lauderdale, we had a brief dinner and then met our hosts for our homestays. Typically homestays happen after the concerts, but this time we actually stayed with the people prior to it. Thank you, as always, to our wonderful hosts! Here’s a special shout-out to Mason and Beth: thanks for the great conversation and grilling hamburgers at 10 p.m!

Now we’re eagerly awaiting our final concert at First Presbyterian Church, and our tour banquet after. It’s hard to believe this journey is almost over; it feels like so much longer than nine days! It has been an incredible first tour experience for me, full of learning and fulfillment through music. In the spirit of new experiences, here is a Today I will statement from another first-timer, first year conducting student Dwight Weaver.

Today I will savor the process.
                                              – Dwight

— Scott
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Atlanta

Firstly, I have to say it was a pleasure to meet Tony award winning producer Louise Beard and to spend time in her house in Birmingham. She told me that she reads the blog and that she was happy to see how small I am in real life (I really am quite small). Thank you for your incredible hospitality Mrs. Beard!
dsc06038On to Atlanta. We stopped for lunch in this amazing modern market place with lots of interesting food choices and shops. We chose to slurp up some delicious ramen noodles (I’m afraid I am one of those terrible people who is unable to use chopsticks, I’ve tried multiple times but alas, I cannot get the hang of it).

There was plenty of time to rehearse once we arrived at the church, and so we spent some time working in detail with Kim Arnesen’s Even when he is silent. We went into depth into the meaning of what we were singing. The text he uses was found on the wall of a concentration camp, words that hold on to hope, love and faith even when life is dark and isolated.

I believe in the sun even when it’s not going shining.
I believe in love even when I feel it not.
I believe in God even when he is silent.

We talked about the text itself, as well as what Arnesen’s setting of the text adds to the meaning. We don’t simply want to sing well in this program. We are trying to communicate and to connect with the people who give their time to watch us perform.

As a result, the performance that night felt stronger in terms of emotional connection, particularly in the Arnesen piece. Sadly, we have some nasty illnesses going round, and not all of us were well enough to perform the whole program, but we are doing our best to just keep calm and carry on!

Matt Van Dyke, a conducting graduate and Westminster choir member from last year, came along to our concert, and it was so nice to see him again and catch up briefly. Congrats again on the wedding! Our homestay was at a lovely house with the lovely Cindy, and we managed to get boring life things like laundry done while we were there. Clean clothes are important!

The next day was mainly a travel day, but first we stopped off for a high school clinic with a very talented young choir at Starr’s Mill High School. Watching Dr. Miller working with the high school kids is truly like seeing a wizard at work with the sounds he’s able to encourage from them! I hope we were able to give them an insight into how choral music can be dynamic and engaging as an art form.
dsc06244They very kindly provided us with a choir’s worth of Chick-fil-A and with that we were on our way to Tampa, Florida for the FMEA conference. The journey took seven hours by bus, so I found myself alternating between restless and fidgety, to fast asleep. What was amazing was our stop off for coffee once we were in Florida. January in the U.K. is nothing short of miserable weather and temperature wise, so I had never experienced such pleasant weather like this in the winter. We’d had such a cold time for the rest of the tour that the warm weather was both exciting and thoroughly confusing.

The first evening in Florida was a relaxing one; no concerts to perform but a new area to explore. I can just tell that Florida is going to be a blast…

Today I will smile at everyone I meet
– Atlanta audience member

— Claire
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Nashville and Birmingham

Having given three performances in three different states over the span of six days, it’s safe to say that the Westminster Choir is right in the heart of its tour across the South (and Cincinnati). We have another six days left to go before we head home from Ft. Lauderdale, and a number of feelings and sensations have begun to permeate the atmosphere as we grow accustomed to traveling and performing.

First is familiarity with our program. By this point in time we are confident in our ability to perform our concert program well. Furthermore, we now really know what it feels like to DO the program in terms of our physical and mental energy. As any performer knows, this is both a blessing and a curse: we have a sense of trust in each other and ourselves when we do the program, which allows us to have a sense of freedom. However, we must always be on our guard to not let our attention to detail slip; what makes the beautiful whole is the sum of its working parts – it’s up to us to have just as much attention to the wonderful minutia as when we were first learning these pieces.

Second, this familiarity extends to the relationships among our fellow singers, director, and performance management staff – we are all learning more about each other. Our favorite Wisconsonian/ite/Packers fan, Jacob Truby, organized a really cool Q&A sheet for each member of the choir, so we’ve been able to look at those and learn more about each other that way. We are also discovering what it feels like to be around one another for much of the day. Constant contact brings out the reality of people, and in this group that is a wonderful thing since there are so many vibrant, dynamic, intriguing personalities. Of course, you also learn the balance of, perhaps, when to leave someone alone, or, if you’re feeling a certain way, maybe take some alone time. All in all, it’s a great learning experience for everyone, including myself, and these building relationships and learning will certainly impact our music making and memories of this experience.

The third sensation is a simple one – physical energy! It’s that point in the tour where irregular sleep, travel, and taxing concerts begin to take their toll on our bodies, and a few of our ranks have already felt the result. Dr. Miller always insists on taking care of your body first, so if you’re sick, there is never pressure, only concern/support from the choir. Illness is also just a reminder that we need to be careful during this crazy final week, and you can bet that there will be mass amounts of water and vitamin C consumed!

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How about a little of what we actually did? Well, over the course of days four through six we’ve been to Nashville, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama, two interesting and very distinct places. We got to experience Nashville in particular because we had a performance day on Saturday, followed by a free day to explore on Sunday. Both Dr. Miller and our graduate assistant, Grant Farmer, are from Tennessee, and Grant is actually from the Nashville area, so we got to learn a lot about the city and get the inside scoop on where to visit.

Our performance venue was the beautiful West End United Methodist Church, which apparently contains the largest organ in the state of Tennessee! We immediately fell in love with the sanctuary once we started rehearsing; it had such wonderful acoustic and spiritual energy. We had a nice catered dinner, and many of us just spent some time relaxing afterward. Personally, I went to the back of the sanctuary and absorbed the space for a bit – I find that each congregational place has its own meaning and, of course, aesthetic, and trying to understand it for just a short time can lead to such a more meaningful performance experience. Before it was time to go on, Dr. Miller shared his own Today I will statement with us, saying that he would work hard to relinquish control – he wanted us to really begin to take the program into our own hands. With that in mind, we had another wonderful concert in front of an audience that had A LOT of Grant’s family and friends, as well as a number of WCC alumni, including Mark Thompson, the grandson of our college’s founder, John Finley Williamson. Many of the aforementioned family and friends of Grant ended up graciously hosting us for our homestays, which were again wonderful experiences – thank you to all who hosted!

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Sunday was our much-needed free day when we got to roam around Nashville. Many of us visited the famous Ryman auditorium, a cool experience to be in a space that has so much history and has hosted so many pop-music icons over the years. Some of us went and explored the Parthenon replica in Centennial Park. There are so many cool places to visit, and to eat, drink, and listen to live music; we were able to have a full, and very fun day. The evening brought sectional dinners for the basses and altos, as well as more fun, listening, and exploring!
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Monday morning we hopped on the bus to Birmingham, an easy two and a half hour skip down south. We arrived at the stunning Independent Presbyterian Church, a deeply colored space with mahogany hue, beautiful stained glass, wonderfully polished organ pipes, and a tall choir loft. This space brought the greatest need for adaptation yet encountered, remembering that we seek to embrace the space and let it couple with us, rather than try to force ourselves to keep things a certain way. This meant that we began both halves of our program in the choir loft, a really cool effect and sound, and had new standing formations when on the floor. Additionally, there was a pretty big football game on Monday night that involved the University of Alabama! This meant that audience members weren’t quite as numerous as we had previously experienced. However, considering these new elements, Dr. Miller encouraged us to let these added factors enhance our experience, rather than distract us. He encouraged us to love the new way of hearing, and to embrace a smaller audience, never knowing who might need to hear our music at what time. As a result of that, it was a cool experience performing in this different space, and the audience, which had many Westminster alumni, was very appreciative. Time to give a shout-out to my wonderful grandmother who drove all the way from Pensacola, FL to hear us perform! Her encouragement over the years is a big reason I am at this college and sing in this choir – much love to you, Vovo!

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Following the performance, we traveled to the magnificent home of alumna Louise Beard, a Tony Award winning Broadway producer and huge supporter of the Westminster Choir College. She hosted a wonderful reception for Westminster people at the concert, and speaking of which we were happy to be joined by Dean Shaftel at the concert and reception as well!

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Currently, I’m finishing up this post as we conclude our bus trip to Atlanta! We’re excited for another performance tonight at the All Saints’ Episcopal Church. As we continue to learn and build experiences with one another, and battle through our physical exhaustion, we continually seek meaning in the performance of our program at these different locations. This means that we take our Today I will statements with us and use them to inspire us during the concerts. Today we’ll hear from junior music education majors Gabriel Harley and Noël Zucchero:

Today I will learn from my mistakes and change.
             – Gabe

Today I will not be afraid to be vulnerable.
– Noël

– Scott
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Cincinnati/Lakeside

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It’s snowing in Cincinnati! Turns out you’re never too old to play on the snow. I loved exploring the city in hat, scarf and gloves. Tsarina, thanks for throwing all that snow on me…

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Sadly our first high school clinic was cancelled due to weather conditions, but we had a wonderful time singing for and with the Anderson High School Singers. They show great promise; perhaps some of them will be students at Westminster Choir College some day?

First performance tomorrow, hopefully see some of you there!

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Before we left, we made sure to take in the delicacies of spaghetti and chili, and Graeters ice cream with the biggest chocolate chips I have seen in my life! On to Kentucky for our first performance and the church was really lovely. It was a great feeling to perform our tour program for the first time since November, getting back into the swing of things. I’m excited for how it will develop and improve over this tour. I love performing with these crazy people.

After the performance, we went to our home stays, and we were taken care of by such a kind and considerate couple. We ate angel food cake with freshly whipped cream and strawberries, and we talked about all sorts of things. They were delighted to get the international crew comprised of Liska, Xiaosha and me: three conductors from three different continents; it’s pretty awesome! Chuck owned two guitars and a ukulele so we ended up staying up far too late playing silly songs.
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Next stop Nashville, Tennessee! During our concert, we share the ‘today I will’ statements of some of our audience, and I am one of the choir members who reads them out. Thanks to those of you who are happy to share, and I will leave you with two of the statements we read out in our Kentucky performance.

Today I will pray.

Today I will hear, and not just hear, but listen.

— Claire
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Tour Day 1

The Westminster Choir tour has officially begun! We’ve arrived at our first destination, Cincinnati, Ohio after a full day of bus travel. Now that we’re settled, we’re looking forward to digging into our program with local high school workshops tomorrow, followed by our first tour concert on Friday night. After a much needed winter break these last two weeks, we are certainly eager to continue sharing our program and delving into its meaning as an ensemble.

We met at Westminster again on Tuesday the 3rd, a full-day rehearsal, and it was really nice for us to reconnect without the burden of academic stress. I, for one, felt very well rested and ready to sing. It was very interesting to approach our tour music again having already performed it, and having taken a break from it during the last month of the semester. People often advise when writing, painting, or doing anything that’s really intensive and creatively rigorous to step away in order to keep a continuously fresh artistic perspective and to simply not burn out. Doing exactly this with our tour repertoire enabled us to flush out more detail and to even reconsider some of the artistic choices that had been intuitively established in our first round of performances. Making changes and seeing continual progress, even months after initially beginning the artistic process, gives the performer such a wonderful feeling; he is able to feel that he is constantly finding new meanings in the works, and that the pieces still have significance to him. We were able to do this throughout the day, even when tired, and all in all it made us aware of the areas that still need a bit of work, and brought us back into the right mindset.
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Reflection on the meaning of our program, and the most effective way to share this message with our audiences is something that we will all do throughout these next ten days. As we close out our first full day of travel, I will share two more Today I will… statements from our two favorite Oregonians in the choir, first year graduate conducting major Alex Simon, and Junior vocal performance major McKenzie Smith.

Today I will be the best possible version of myself.
– Alex

Today I will enjoy my surroundings.
 – McKenzie

— Scott
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December 2016

The end of the semester is upon us. While life here is something special that I wouldn’t change for the world, I think we’re all in need of a break! I’m very excited for Christmas this year as, although I don’t get to go home, I have family coming all the way from the UK to visit me here. I’m looking forward to seeing them again and showing them the part of the world where I’ve spent the last year and a half.

Westminster Choir is officially on break until the new year, when we’ll be heading on our Southern tour. Check out the dates and locations of our performances and see if we’re visiting somewhere near you! We’d love to see you there.

Our final concert of the year was a festive and fun Christmas concert for some of Westminster’s donors at the Racquet and Tennis club in New York; I must say, it was rather fancy! They were incredibly welcoming, and we had a blast performing some Christmas carols and other Christmassy pieces for them. We even sang with the audience in a heart-warming rendition of White Christmas (shout out to Scott, my fellow blogger, who was flawless on the piano!). We left having consumed some excellent food and having shared some Christmas cheer (and having somehow pulled off a crazy a cappella arrangement of Jingle Bells as our concert closer, well done us!).

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The last couple of rehearsals of the year were pretty laid back. This was a blessing as for us, as the lead up to finals was anything but… Not only that, but the whole school is involved with the Readings and Carols concerts that take place at the Princeton University Chapel. Let me tell you, this is no small undertaking! Anyway, our very last rehearsal couldn’t have been cosier because it was pyjama day – a variety of comfy clothing options were taken, but Dr Miller and I both had the right idea in taking the onesie route…

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After that we had Readings and Carols, which yes takes a lot of work, but is such a beautiful concert when it all comes together. As a conducting graduate, I wasn’t performing, but instead was working behind the scenes. For me, that meant working with and looking after the sophomore choir, Schola Cantorum. They are the choir that I am working with this year as a graduate assistant, and I was so proud to watch them perform so beautifully.

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My Westminster Choir experience of 2016 ended with our Christmas party. During such a stressful time, we all appreciated the opportunity to let off some steam. We ate, drank and were merry: this group of resonant singers are also very resonant talkers!

And with that, we have made it to the end of 2016. This year has been intense in many ways, and there has been a great deal for all of us to deal with. I’m proud of what I have achieved this year and I am ridiculously excited for our upcoming projects with Westminster Choir, from tour in January, to Anthracite Fields in April, the Spoleto festival in May and Barcelona in July! I go into 2017 having no idea where I will end up at the end of it, but that’s ok. I will work it out in time. We will be back in the new year with regular updates as we head out on tour. For now though, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!

(Today I will… family edition!)

Today I will enjoy the company of my family – Susan Hughes (my mum)

Today I will eat New York cheesecake – Sarah Hughes (my sister)

–Claire
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