Last night I celebrated my 22nd birthday. In truly idiosyncratic fashion, I dragged eight friends to a favorite outdoor thoughtful spot of mine where we held a midnight poetry reading. Emily, recurring guest star on the blog, shared one of her favorite poems with us: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” As the poem is a reflection on gracefully accepting loss and change, it was a reminder that I desperately needed as I say goodbye to so many things. Daily rehearsals with Dr. Miller and our indefatigable graduate assistants. Two cities, Charleston and Princeton. The third iteration of Westminster Choir that I have belonged to as we go our separate ways. A universe of strange inside jokes, 2 a.m. conversations, ritualistic chamber music attendance, always-sticky practice room piano keys, and that beautiful kind of necessary tension between friends and colleagues who love deeply enough to be painfully honest with each other.
For those who have graduated alongside me, the choir’s performance of St. Matthew Passion at Spoleto was our last appearance as Westminster Choir College students. And what a way to end—singing perhaps the greatest choral-orchestral work ever written in the canon of Western art music. But as impressive as the work is on a technical level, its impeccable construction is only a conduit for its underlying message. As a Sacred Music major, classroom discussions often turn to the concept of “thin places” in classes with Dr. Pilkington. This concept, which originated in Celtic pagan spirituality, is used to describe places in which the boundary between heaven and earth is so thin it is almost imperceptible. I think that there is perhaps another type of place like a thin place, but one in which Luther and Kierkegaard would have found themselves more often. In this space, one is so deeply, empathetically connected to the suffering of humanity that the ego disappears as the individual becomes a seamless part of an infinite whole. As we sang the final chorus of St. Matthew Passion that last night, I found myself in that nameless place. I can remember the looks on the faces of my fellow choir members and Dr. Miller so perfectly, the look of absolute submersion in the present moment. If I could selfishly hold onto performing incredible music with this family forever, I sometimes think that I would. But when I am given moments like these, I know that I would take it all for granted if I were to remain here indefinitely.
But of course, that night was not the last time that we sang with each other. After some much-needed sleep, we had our annual beach party at the Reahards. The Reahard family has a special place in the Westminster Choir’s heart. After winning a private concert from the choir in an auction over thirty years ago, the matriarch of the family decided to thank the choir and Dr. Flummerfelt with a beach party. And thus began one of the annual highlights of Spoleto: a day at the beach, followed by a meal and private concert with the family. I say “with” and not “for” as the family always exchanges music with us. This year, Irene graced us with a choir favorite: her ode to Charleston, which has been passed down by rote to new choir members from Westminster Choir veterans. We surprised everyone by joining her in the chorus, collectively extolling the virtues of Charleston. Then we sang a few choice selections from our tour program, ending in an aptly teary Lutkin. The family’s reception of us is like no other. As we left, they embraced each of us in turn, remembering old faces and committing new names to memory.
And then, the final tour banquet. I’ll be entirely honest: this event was the one I dreaded most when I agreed to be this year’s social chair. Between hounding every choir member for their financial contribution, choosing appropriate thank you gifts for Dr. Miller and student leaders, and purchasing enough champagne at Harris Teeter to earn a year’s worth of raised eyebrows and troubled glances in a mere twenty minutes, attempting to cover every detail of this event kept me more than occupied for the last few days of Spoleto. Additionally, as we had the beach party on the same day as the final banquet, I had only an hour or so to set up before the banquet itself.
But, thank goodness, my attempts to micromanage every detail of the evening were thwarted by the entirety of the choir. When I was fumbling to collect components of Dr. Miller’s final present, Emily took the reins. Rather than letting me walk over to Dr. Miller’s host home carrying all twenty bottles of champagne myself, Olivia drove everything over in her car. As choir members left the dorm for the party, they carried the food and thank you presents. A legion of choral conducting grads took on the task of chilling and serving champagne. In the end, I was left with so little to do that I felt alarmingly relaxed.
Not only did the selflessness of the choir make my job painless, it set a beautiful mood for the evening. Dressed in our finest garb, we feasted on cake and crudité in an expansive private garden. We had a chance to thank our incredible student leaders and Dr. Miller with gifts and speeches (I’ll admit that this was the one portion of the evening that I refused to let anyone else do for me—I’m a shameless facsimile of a sham of a standup comedian). To our student leaders, we presented Charleston-inspired accessories (bow-ties, necklaced designed after distinctive wrought-iron gates, and mother of pearl earrings). And for Dr. Miller, we decided to give a gift that represented our journey from invention to love in our tour program: a box, cleverly disguised as Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, which contained love letters, trinkets, artwork, and other tokens of appreciation from the choir.
The toast gave us our final opportunity to communally express our parting thoughts to one another. Looking around the circle (rather, I should say oval—we decided to hold the toast on the porch so that we could actually see each other’s faces this year), I was overwhelmed by gratitude. This part of the evening is a chance to strip away the trite conflicts that come from working together in such close quarters and to refocus ourselves on what we have done and what we mean to each other. Naturally, the entire event ends in an extended hugging fest and a chance to make private, personal addresses. As I looked across the yard, midway through a hug, I was humbled by the sight of at least half the choir cleaning up without having been asked. As cleanliness (or the lack thereof) is my hamartia, I can’t express what this meant to me. When I feel the jolt of sadness that comes at the end of all good things, I replay that image in my mind, and I know that I am deeply loved.
And so ends my final chapter in this unparalleled adventure. I keep turning over thoughts in my mind, ones that I have only touched the hem of—like how to share such a magnitude of kindness with the world when I don’t know where I will be in three months, or a year, or five years. Or what it means to give so much of oneself that the vacuum of one’s heart is filled with something unspeakably beautiful. To “souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me,” I am so grateful for you all. Honored to be one of you, and dreadfully excited to see who you become. To those who have put up with my logorrhea all year on the blog, I thank you for taking the time to listen to my reflections. And to the Westminster Choir family that came before me, and will come after me, I am deeply glad to be a strand in this magnificent tapestry that you have created and will continue to create.
As I have mentioned here, Dr. Miller often reads us poetry before performances in order to center us and remind us of why we do what we do. And so I end this, my last entry, with one of my favorite poems (now that I’ve already snuck in references to two others—“One Art” by Bishop and “Ulysses” by Tennyson. Ha.) I leave you with words that I hold dear, ones that encapsulate what this family means to me.
when two violins are placed in a room
if a chord on one violin is struck
the other violin will sound the note
if this is your definition of hope
this is for you
the ones who know how powerful we are
who know we can sound the music in the people around us
simply by playing our own strings
for the ones who sing life into broken wings
open their chests and offer their breath
as wind on a still day when nothing seems to be moving
spare those intent on proving god is dead
for you when your fingers are red
from clutching your heart
so it will beat faster
for the time you mastered the art of giving yourself for the sake of someone else
for the ones who have felt what it is to crush the lies
and lift truth so high the steeples bow to the sky
this is for you
~From “Say Yes” by Andrea Gibson