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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November

What a remarkable month at Westminster Choir College. For most students on campus, November has felt like like an uphill climb, and Thanksgiving break the plateau that offers a welcome, but all too brief, respite. Westminster Choir, Symphonic Choir, Westminster Kantorei, Westminster Williamson Voices, and Westminster Jubilee Singers have all had big performances this month, chances for the singers to finally present two months of hard work and artistic internalization. Of course, these performances are only a small portion of a student’s rigorous academic requirements. For me, this rigor takes the form of two impending term papers and a finals-week MasterSingers recital, but it’s no more than anyone else. Each student is equally swamped in his or her major’s equivalent workload. For many of us, our performances have served as a needed opportunity to reflect on concepts bigger than the present moment.

It already seems so long ago, but we were truly thrilled to finally share the Westminster Choir program with two wonderful audiences during the first weekend of November, first in Fairview Village, Pa., and then back home in Princeton. We had thoroughly learned, memorized (mostly), contemplated, and truly lived with the music for the better part of two months, and the resultant art was itching to be shared. Looking back, with the performances having come and gone, and everyday commitments having continued, it’s easy to lose sight of how special it was to add the dynamic of an engaged, paying audience, along with a new space that has its own spirit and function.

The sanctuary of Trinity Lutheran Church is a simple space — flat, open, non-ornate, but absolutely reverential and beautiful. I think adaptation, or maybe acclimation, becomes a crucial task for any performer when these new elements of space and audience are added, especially given the fact that our performance is hardly a “park and bark.” Dr. Miller strives to consider every aspect of the performance — aural, visual, and conceptual — to engage the audience as deeply as possible, and in that vein, to bring something for everyone present. We had run through the entirety of our staged program on campus in Hillman Hall, which certainly spoils us, but we needed to consider and own the subtleties of our new space – incorporate it into our music-making rather than clash. We spent the afternoon doing just that, so when the evening came, tuxes/dresses went on, and the audience arrived, we were ready, and the excitement took over.

I think for many of us, myself included, that first performance felt like a blur. Like I’ve mentioned, we can run through the thing as much as we’d like, but until you do so for an audience, you’re not quite sure what the experience feels like. Everyone had moments of “…what comes next…” or “whoops that was supposed to be an F-sharp” or “Sweet Oz, I’m certain the entire audience just heard my voice crack.” But there were even more moments of significance in which we could palpably feel the impact of a musical moment on the entire room, and of each person deciding to trust those around them even more. We had the opportunity to share our “Today I will…” message (see retreat blog) with a new group of people. We invited audience members to submit their own statements either by paper or online, which we will now continue to take with us as we perform this program. This is just one way we felt ourselves tangibly bringing the program to life, and there’s no greater reward for a performer. Overall, it was a wonderful, successful performance that the audience received openly, and from which we were able to learn and feel fulfilled. I’d like to acknowledge Michael Monaghan, WCC alumnus, who serves as Director of Liturgical Music at Trinity – he was a warm host, and showed us the positive impact our alumni can have on musical communities. Also, thank you to the Westminster alumni who were present at the performance! Choir members certainly enjoyed reconnecting.

The beloved Bristol Chapel back on our home turf was the performance space for the following Sunday. While there were similar considerations in terms of adapting to the space (anyone who has performed in Bristol truly understands the acoustic impact of a room full of bodies), we had discovered a crucial piece of information the night before: the program works! We could get through it! Of course…we knew it all along. But now that we had actually done it, things were just a bit calmer on our end. The atmosphere was very different during this performance; it was mid-afternoon (lighter), and there were far more familiar faces in the audience. Of course, in this context performers become just a bit more aware of their actions and how they are perceived. I think this is what really served as the new element for our Sunday performance, unlike Saturday when simply performing was a new experience. Again, we had wonderful day, and we were excited to hear more about some of the ways the audience members were impacted by our program.
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Now, I’d like to take a moment and zoom in from the universal, to talk about something personal: I will never forget the feeling of walking out for my first performance as a member of the Westminster Choir, or the sensation of singing the Lutkin Benediction to conclude our home performance in Bristol. Throughout my time as an undergrad (go Dukes!), I continually looked up to this ensemble as a point of inspiration for what was possible, in terms of both sound and artistic impact. To now say that I have performed with this ensemble, in the company of such excellent musicians, who are also among the best of people – it’s difficult to describe. Thank you to the members of the Westminster Choir, and thank you to those who have come before and set the precedent. You fill my heart with joy.

Well, in the time since that first weekend in November, I mentioned that there were a number of performances. Included was the Symphonic Choir’s first run-out with the Philadelphia Orchestra since the strike, which cut the Mozart run a bit short. We had wonderful experiences performing Ravel’s more abstract Daphnis et Chloé with an otherworldly orchestra, under a truly fantastic conductor, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Considering the recent tumultuous times in our country, this work and our music making provided a wonderful reminder of our, musicians and audience members alike, shared humanity.
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Currently, the Westminster Choir is taking a bit of break form our tour program and is busy working on some Christmas music for our annual benefit concert at the Racquet and Tennis Club in NYC. As arguably the world’s biggest fan of Christmas, it’s possible that I’m getting a little TOO into the music during rehearsals, but hey, it only comes around once a year. There was even more excitement last week as we received our travel itinerary for our trip to Spain and the World Symposium on Choral Music next summer! Needless to say, we all cannot wait for that opportunity.

Something strange now — in three weeks the semester will be over, and we’ll be looking forward to a nice break, followed by our winter tour across the Southeast. The time has already flown by. As we return from Thanksgiving break and dig in for the most intense time of the semester, it’s important to remember things that are bigger than academics. I’ll close again with two Today I will… statements, one by junior music education major, Cecelia Snow, and another by first year conducting major, Sinhaeng Lee:

“Today, I will forget about yesterday, and let go of what I want tomorrow to be.”
– Cecelia

“Today I will be grateful for all the people around me and for all the experiences at Westminster as I look back at my first four months in America.”
– Sinhaeng

Scott
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First Performance

November 5, 2017

Happy Guy Fawkes night UK! Back home, there’ll be bonfires and fireworks tonight. Meanwhile in the US, tonight is the night of Westminster choir’s first performance, taking place at the Trinity Lutheran church in Pennsylvania.

For all of us, this last month has been a tough month. From midterm exams to the Westminster plague (I’ve recently gone down with a fun cold myself…), we’ve all had a lot on our plates. As a choir, we have spent the last month bringing our program together, learning it as deeply as we can and exploring what we have to say with it. There have been times where it hasn’t been easy, but we can always help each other out when we’re having difficulty with something.

Personally, this last month has been a hectic one. A couple of weeks ago was my final conducting recital with master singers, the choir for student conductors here to work with. I sing with this choir every day at Westminster, but on three occasions, I’ve been fortunate enough to prepare my own recitals with them. I’ve learnt so much through this process and coming to the end of it, I was met with mixed feelings of relief that the hard work paid off and sadness that it was over. It feels like yesterday that I stood in front of that choir for the first time a year ago, trembling like a leaf. While conducting in that rehearsal, Dr Miller, who teaches this class, stopped me, put his arm around me and said “Everyone, this is how you build a mediocre choir.” Needless to say, that hurt. BUT it gave me the determination to learn and to improve. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting that first rehearsal anytime soon…

Another October highlight was a visit from Simon Halsey and the London Symphony Chorus, who sang with Westminster Symphonic Choir for a day. I’ve known Simon for a few years now, as he was director of choral activities in Birmingham where I studied for my undergrad. He was one of my main inspirations in choral music and later in learning about conducting. I would not be where I am today without his wisdom, passion for what he does, and encouragement. What was truly bizarre was to see him and Dr Miller side by side, two men from two different continents who have taught me so much in what it means to be a conductor and a musician. It was definitely one of those ‘ok this is surreal my life is crazy’ moments…

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Our final rehearsal last night was pretty successful – to bring out our expression and story- telling abilities, Dr Miller instructed us to sing to Marge. Let me introduce you to Marge:
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Isn’t she great!

The altos wore their ‘altoast’ T-shirts from our retreat Olympics for solidarity. I was initially devastated to discover that all of the color had drained from my t-shirt in the wash. I asked my fellow altos if any of them had a marker pen, so I could at least write ‘altoast’ on mine and be part of the team! Later, I realized that the color hadn’t drained out at all: the t-shirt was just inside out… Competent adult in grad school right here… Glad I shared that journey with the entire alto section.

So yes, we all have intensely busy schedules right now and yes, I may have a cold and a lack of common sense, but today I will let all of that go and enjoy our first performance of the season with Westminster Choir: I cannot wait.

Today I will appreciate the people around me as well as myself – Emily Sebastian (Westminster Choir soprano)

— Claire
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2016 Retreat

This is the first post by the Westminster Choir’s 2016-2017 bloggers: Claire Hughes and Scott Koven.  They’ll be sharing the honors this year, posting individually and together.

claire-formal                   scott_formal


9/25/2016

For the students at Westminster Choir College, the relaxed schedule of summer, graduate entrance exams, choral hearings, “row, row, row your boat,” and idealistic semester goals seem like the distant memories of a person who has far too much time on his or her hands. With three weeks of school under our belt, the rigor of academic requirements, our jobs, busy ensemble rehearsal schedules (did we mention the symphonic choir had two weeks to learn Mozart’s C-minor Mass?), and more pragmatic day-to-day goals have become the pervading concerns. For the members of the Westminster Choir then, a weekend away at the Cross Roads camp in Port Murray, N.J. was exactly what the doctor ordered — Dr. Miller in this case. It was retreat weekend for our 44 strong, and we experienced the whole gamut of emotions as we made music, connected, competed, and stripped our concert program’s meaning down to its core: Today I will…

Claire’s Perspective:

My retreat experience was more important to me than I could have expected. Five of us travelled up together late Friday afternoon, and as we packed up the car and left (as the smallest I took my regular seat in the middle), it was a relief to leave the stresses of our daily workload behind for a couple of days. Our journey was spent chatting and attempting to memorize the music we needed to learn for the retreat. Fifty rounds through the alto line of Brahms Abendständchen later, we arrived. The grounds were beautiful, a much calmer environment than our usual Princeton surroundings.

Our first rehearsal took place that evening, and it is always refreshing to rehearse somewhere different. The sounds of wildlife outside could be heard in the rests in the music. Memorization tests were generally successful and not as stressful as we had anticipated after all. We then went on to discuss the meaning behind our concert program this year, of living in the moment and embracing what you have while you have it, a message that is easily lost in the frenzy of our everyday lives. Dr. Miller asked us to complete the sentence ‘Today I will…’ We have been thinking of ways we can engage our future concert audiences in this idea, and if we can perhaps encourage them to also complete this sentence: this shall be a working progress throughout the year.

Next on the schedule was team building games, run by my fellow conducting graduate Jacob Truby. He really did an amazing job with these games, and one of the most poignant moments of the trip was during one of these. The game was simple: sit in a circle, close your eyes. In small groups, we would go around the circle and touch someone’s shoulder if you had enjoyed working with them this year. If they had changed you in some way, you would touch their head. As I sat in the circle, eyes closed, I was overwhelmed by how many people reached out to me. Such a simple way of showing affection was deeply powerful and I felt tremendous gratitude toward everyone in that room, most of all to Jacob. This game was followed by ‘kissing rugby’… in which I was very nearly squashed. The evening ended outside, gathered around a campfire underneath the stars. As an asthmatic on choir retreat, this was probably a terrible idea, but it was well worth it!

The next day, we rehearsed through the morning. Before lunch, Jacob had another activity in store for us – this time, Westminster skits! In our documentary portrayal of Westminster Choir College, I portrayed a clueless freshman (typecasting as I have been told I look about 12 on multiple occasions, but might as well embrace it!). From musical theatre to movie trailer, all the skits were hilarious. Turns out we’re a fun group, which bodes well for the coming year…

The finale of our activities at the retreat was sectional Olympics, in which the four sections of the choir battled it out with eggs, spoons, balloons and oranges for ultimate glory. Altoast! (we wore t-shirts with pictures of toast on. Obviously).
altoast
Though we may have come last in the games, and I may have fallen over once or twice, the altos hold their heads high. The victory of character undoubtedly goes to the altos! After the Olympics, a group of us played a game of (American) football, and this was the first time I had ever played. I was on Dr. Miller’s team, and I didn’t really know what was going on…but it was fun! And again, although we may have lost the match, we can hold our heads high etc.

At dinner, we sang for the retreat staff to thank them for all their help. I realized as we were singing that this was our first time as the Westminster Choir to perform. Felt pretty good I must say. Also those brownies for dessert were delicious. Chocolate and singing. What more could you want?

By the final rehearsal, we were understandably exhausted and concentration wasn’t easy, but we managed the best we could. Before we were sent on our way, Dr. Miller had one more treat in store for us. He read poetry to us and spoke to us with such honesty and compassion that there was barely a dry eye in the room. Showing vulnerability takes great courage, and clearly he has this in abundance: it is truly inspiring to witness and to be a part of. Coming away from all this, I felt simultaneously drained and rejuvenated. I cannot wait to make more music with these wonderful people this year!

Today I will think of faraway friends and family.

Scott’s perspective:

It warmed my heart to make my way up the mountain (hill) and arrive at the open field in which Cross Roads rests. Hailing most recently from the Shenandoah Valley, the grassy hill, smell of the surrounding wood, and peaceful seclusion reminded me of the beauty one experiences on a trip through Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains (an image we may find useful as we continue preparing the Erb Shenandoah). As a newcomer to the school and to the Westminster Choir, I was particularly excited to learn more about the many wonderful and diverse personalities of our ensemble. Rather than attempting to recall each and every detail of this extremely full weekend, I will give what I believe to be the most meaningful experiences and impressions from the weekend; it’s just one perspective, but I’ll certainly attempt to be as universal as possible.

What better way to bond with your section than some fierce competition, and WOW this ensemble knows how to compete. What one day appeared to be a tame group of singers coming together to work toward professional-level music making, the next turned out to be more competitive than the final scene of a Mighty Ducks movie. Back at school on Monday, members of the Westminster Choir groaned their way through the day, wondering how they became so sore; then they remembered the weekend. Whether it was full-on collisions and three-minute stand-offs during Kissing Rugby, Dr. Miller bearing down on you in a game of pick-up football, or tall people hoisting up shorter section members to pass an orange from neck to neck during Sectional Olympics (yes you read that right), no energy was spared in each person’s attempt to win for their section. The Tenors came away with the win in our Sectional Olympics this year, but those of us newer members have already started thinking of ways to take them down next year…
tenors

On a less competitive note, of course one of the main purposes of the retreat is to connect with our fellow singers, and in addition to bonding with our sections through the Olympics, we also learned about one another through various whole-group and more personal activities. In one particularly meaningful activity organized by graduate conductor Jacob Truby, we closed our eyes and sat in circle; a few people at a time would walk around the circle and if they had already enjoyed working with a person they passed, they would touch them on the shoulder, and if they had been impacted more deeply by a person, they would touch them on the head. It was a wonderful way for everyone to realize how much they were positively influencing those around them, perhaps without even realizing it. Connection and learning continued in many ways throughout the weekend, ranging from talks around the bonfire, to impromptu conversations while relaxing on the deck of the cabin, to just having fun throwing a football or Frisbee. As a first year member, it was wonderful to become more familiar with my fellow choristers, and I think everyone felt this to some extent.

retreat-group

Finally, the music. Learning is only a small part of the process, so, we have a favorite Dr. Miller quote that helps us reach the next level of artistry: “What is the music?” It’s a simple question, and one with huge implications. It refers to more than just the theoretical and technical considerations in a piece — it challenges us to look deeper. What is the music accomplishing? What is being represented? What stands out? What makes the piece tick? When considering the prosody of our Paul Crabtree piece, this is exactly where we had to go. In the process, we grappled with the nature of death and the significance of our present. One line in particular stands out: “do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” In considering this text, we arrived at what we believe to be the linchpin of the entire program, and it’s simply a response: Today I will _____. How will we live in our present, not knowing our future? As our performances near we will continue to contemplate and internalize the encouragement of the text, as well as our personal responses; ultimately we will encourage the audience to do the same. For now, I will close my thoughts on the weekend by providing my own response:

Today I will give up control.


This will be a pivotal year in our lives for both of us as members of Westminster Choir and as conducting students at Westminster Choir College. We look forward to sharing our experiences with you throughout the year, perhaps veering into topics outside of Westminster on occasion. For example, many members of the Choir also sing with the Westminster Symphonic choir, who are performing the Mozart Mass in C minor at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Hi Yannick if you’re reading this!). We’d also love to involve our ‘Today I will…’ program idea into this blog, to collect quotes from choir members and from people we meet as we travel and perform. What would be your answer? Here’s to what is already shaping up to be an incredible year!
Claire and Scott

 

 

 

 

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 8

After a gorgeous and relaxing Sunday, we started our Monday with a Westminster Choir rehearsal at 11a.m. Finally we got to sing tonal music! (Sorry, Lachenmann, but we miss singing.)

We started working on the Gala concert music, one piece being a beautiful commissioned work by John Kennedy. Dr. Miller explained to us that John Kennedy has hardly written choral music, yet the piece he wrote, titled Blessing the Boats, is one of the most peaceful and ethereal works we’ve had the privilege of singing. After a short lunch break, we had an afternoon Lachenmann orchestral rehearsal, followed by a night rehearsal in Memminger Auditorium. We began integrating the shadow puppet show with the orchestra part, while Helmut Lachenmann was there to help with musical notes. Because the set is still being adjusted, some of the stage hands have precautionary helmets. Hilariously enough, they gave Helmut a helmet. The pictures and memes that ensued are priceless.

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Helmut wearing a Helmet.  Photo by Kanisha Feliciano

By the end of the two rehearsals, we were pretty pooped. We’ve had enough subdividing for one day. Time to hit the hay.

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