Lessons Learned

This past week I spent a lot of time reflecting on the lessons and skills I’ve learned at Westminster Choir College that I know I’ll take with me in my next step as a vocal performance major. I am extremely grateful for the classroom and stage experience I’ve received in my degree but I realized that a lot of my professional performance experiences have come from my time in the Westminster Choir. I was able to talk a little bit about that in a “Why Westminster” video I made this week, but I figured I’d take some time in this blog post to really elaborate on experiences that have taught me a lot about myself and my craft through the Westminster Choir.

  1. How to travel with your instrument: Vocalist Edition

Touring and performing as much as I’ve gotten to with the choir over the past three years has taught me a great deal about discipline, self-care, and how to gauge my needs. I’ve learned tricks to revive a voice after a bad cold, maybe a little too much partying, or over-singing. I’ve become a true guardian of my sleep, especially when we have back-to-back performances and workshops. I’ve learned how to sleep on a loud tour bus as it speeds through a bumpy, snowy pass. I’ve learned how much social interaction I can take before I need a break. I’ve learned where the best indie coffee is in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Charleston, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and many other cities. I’ve learned how to pack swiftly and methodically, how to do my hair and makeup for a concert in under 15 minutes, how to stop runs in tights, how to fake a pearl earring backing should I need it, and how to deal with a finicky zipper. I’ve been to countless cities and even overseas with some of my best friends in the whole world, experiences that would’ve been out of reach without the Westminster Choir.

  1. How to learn music like a professional musician.

While at Westminster I took a whole gambit of musicianship classes and although they taught me so much about theory and aural skills, there are few experiences that teach you faster than having to apply all of your skills in real time — also known as sight reading with the Westminster Choir. I will never forget my first rehearsal my sophomore year, I was an alto 2 and we were sight-reading the Martin Mass for Double Choir (which we later recorded). I was so terrified to mess up, I didn’t feel like I belonged among all of these musicians who were just digging in. It was electrifying, inspiring, and so scary, but I had never read better or faster in my life. I’ll never forget when Dr. Miller came up to me after a rehearsal on my first tour and said, “Betsy, you have to just sing. Stop trying to sound like everyone else, just sing.” That changed my life. Real, professional musicians just go forth and sing as fearlessly as they can. Even the most incredible musicians with perfect pitch and impeccable rhythm and tone are bound to make a mistake sometimes. This moment, and many others in my time in the choir, taught me that the only thing really holding me back when I’m sight-reading is me.

  1. How to be a part of a team.

I am an only child, a classic “Type A” person, who hates doing group projects. Being in Westminster Choir forced me to trust my colleagues, something I was never good at doing. I knew that if I couldn’t sing a note because it was too low (when I was an alto) or too high and quiet, or if I was too sick or exhausted that my teammates would show up for me. They would fill in the gaps for me and I them. This team work I experienced in choir has been an incomparable lesson for when I learn roles and perform them as part of a cast. I’ve had to trust my other performers to be there right with me for risky blocking or intensely technical musical passages. Being a part of a team is more than being a good colleague, it’s also being a good friend. In my recent post, a “Love Note to the Soprano Section” I delved into how grateful I am for the amazing people I’ve been able to sing with in my section.

  1. It is okay to feel things deeply

Last March right before our first performance at the National ACDA conference in Kansas City we received the news that the previous conductor of the Westminster Choir, Dr. Flummerfelt, had passed away. I had only been able to meet Dr. Flummerfelt a few times, but this loss was foundation-shaking for all of us as we knew the impact he had on choral music as we know it today. Minutes later we were on stage in front of thousands of people performing our set about love. I have never felt so much love and power on a stage before. The audience was electric and so were we as we gave every ounce of strength, courage, beauty, and love in both of our performances that day.
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Afterward we all gathered on the side of the stage, huddled together, teary eyed, and sang one of the most meaningful Lutkin Benedictions I’ve ever been a part of. We held each other so tightly, we were so exhausted after baring it all to that audience, giving them a piece of our souls, and for a lot of us, crying for the first time in front of a large audience. It is those moments that remind me that it is okay to feel the way we do when we share such beautiful art. This past winter after performing the Bach B Minor Mass with the Westminster Symphonic Choir, Dr. Miller summed it up nicely when he said “The best choral music changes you each time you sing it.” It wasn’t just the audience that was changed that day in Kansas City, it was each and every one of us.

— Betsy

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Graduate Recital

Hello, I hope this finds you and your family safe and healthy during this difficult time. My name is Jillian Newton, and I have been the Graduate Assistant for Westminster Choir this year. This February, I had the opportunity to conduct the choir in my final graduate recital. It was an incredible experience, and one that was a year in the making, and I wanted to share a little bit about the graduate student recital process with the Westminster Choir.

Selecting Repertoire
Since Westminster Choir sings at the level of a professional choir, Dr. Miller told me to “dream big” when selecting repertoire. I took to Spotify and listened to numerous CD’s from professional choirs around the world. Eventually, I discovered Dale Trumbore, a composer out of LA. Her works are beautiful sound paintings in the background and text painting and speech-like melodies in the foreground, among other things. Her song cycle How to Go On, a secular Requiem, became the centerpiece of the recital. Bookending the song cycle were pieces by two traditional composers from the Western music canon: “With drooping wings” from Dido and Aenaes by Henry Purcell and the first sinfonia/chorus from J.S. Bach’s Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4.

Rehearsals
Working with an ensemble of my peers was really fun and engaging, and it created a positive environment where I felt I was able to grow in every rehearsal. Westminster Choir works at a very high caliber and Dr. Miller pushes us to learn music quickly as we sight-read often and memorize all of our tour repertoire in two months. Throughout the rehearsals, the singers fully engaged with every piece and were willing to try any rehearsal technique. Most importantly, they consistently helped me find new things in the music: sharing their own insights about different pieces, interpreting a musical phrase in a unique way, and singing with passion and purpose. In each part of the process, Dr. Miller provided valuable feedback, guidance, and encouragement.

Performance
When I envisioned my final graduate recital, I set my sights on presenting something that told a meaningful story. The recital moved from the moment of death (Purcell) to the Requiem (Trumbore), which explored grief and the importance of our lives, and finally to a feeling of rebirth (Bach).  Despite any nerves during the dress rehearsal, I focused on communicating that message to the musicians and audience. The ensemble really brought the pieces to life with their storytelling and sophisticated music-making, and I even found myself getting emotional mid-performance as they helped me discover new meaning in the poetry and rich harmonies.

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Reflection
Making music with the Westminster Choir and Dr. Miller has been one of the defining experiences of my time at Westminster Choir College. This recital was not only an educational experience, but a chance to celebrate these amazingly talented singers. It was also an opportunity to share a message of hope, and to help those listening heal, process, rejoice, or grieve. Now, more than ever, I have been holding on to that hope and have been returning to that poetry throughout this time of isolation and uncertainty. One especially meaningful section from the Trumbore, “However Difficult,” really spoke to the choir and continues to encourage me now:

“However difficult you think it might be,
it is yours, this life,
even the failures
are yours,
even the garden, though it be unkempt,
is yours.
– Laura Foley, excerpt from “Autumn Musings,” Mapping the Fourth Dimension, 2006

The lessons from this recital will continue to influence my teaching and conducting long into the future. I was, and will continue to be, immensely grateful to the Westminster Choir and Dr. Miller for this experience.

— Jillian
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PS – Check out Dale Trumbore! She is a wonderful composer who sets many female poets! A sample of Westminster Choir singing her song cycle, How to Go On, from the recital: “However Difficult.”

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A love note to the soprano section

Last week was certainly an adjustment, but this week was trying in other ways. The loneliness of being quarantined at home alone began to be harder to manage. My remedies this week have included going for runs, drinking lots of tea, baking up a storm, and keeping up with my journal. Although these things were of some help, the best remedies I could’ve asked for came in the form of the Westminster Choir sopranos. We are a tight knit group by design, but this year’s group of sops has really become a little family. In this week’s post I am going to look back on some fun sectional bonding moments we shared this year, a little love note to my section that has made all the difference in my experience this year.

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At the 2019 Westminster Choir benefit event in New York City.

Twas the night before retreat, and a gaggle of sopranos gathered at my house with two major goals in mind: 1. To make outstanding sectional tee shirts featuring none other than a quote from rapper/flautist Lizzo and an adorable photo of Dr. Miller, 2. To strategize on how we planned to beat the other sections in the following days’ sectional olympics! Those of us who’d participated in years past shared stories and answered questions from the newer members on what to expect and what to pack as we painstakingly painted our names and our voicing numbers onto our adorable lilac-colored tee shirts. It was our first real opportunity to bond outside of a working environment and the laughter was infectious.
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I’d like to take a moment to shout out and thank our section leader, Rebecca Ruescher. Her leadership, persistence, and care for all of us made sectionals far more than time spent learning and memorizing. Throughout this year and especially now that we are all in quarantine, she has continually reached out through our group chat and one on one to support each of us in whatever we are struggling with. Her shoulder to cry on and kind ear are just some of the reasons we love her so dearly in the soprano section (and the whole choir).

Another fond memory with this section is a Westminster Choir Classic: Soprano Night. This year our soprano night was held in Salt Lake City. We were already so tired from the tour and it was barely halfway finished, so we decided we would stay in at the hotel and do a spa night. We all gathered in my hotel room put on face masks, did nails, and shared some pizza. We took turns playing “Would you rather” and other get-to-know-you games. It was a huge success, and certainly a night we’ll remember.

Each member of this section works so hard on their own, but it is the work we have done together that makes me the proudest. I love you sopranos, I’m glad we stay in touch.

— Betsy
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Virtual School Edition

The unthinkable has happened and we are left to pick up the pieces. In this time, like no other in our lifetimes, I have found myself thinking less about the performances and opportunities I missed out on and more and more about how grateful I am to have spent the time I have with these people, my people.

This week was our first week of virtual learning. I will admit, I was a bit skeptical that I would be able to finish out my performance degree online, I mean the word “performance” is in the name of my degree program, how was that going to work? I set up a little workstation in my Princeton apartment with a piano, a microphone, my laptop, all of my books and work materials, a LOT of coffee, and some lighting.

My first class of the week was actually a coaching with Professor Nova Thomas. We checked in with one another and began to compile a plan for the rest of the semester. We had an in-depth conversation about a new aria I had begun learning and I took copious notes. Normally, we would have a shortened edition of this discussion because we would ultimately want to put the aria “on its feet” and add some staging to it. Knowing that Professor Thomas had performed the role who sings this aria, I was able to get some extra knowledge from a true expert, all from the comfort of my living room. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

My next class consisted of a 20-minute, focused, concise coaching on German diction of a piece I had recorded and sent in to the instructor for notes. Again, I took many notes and was able to observe my instructor demonstrate precisely what she wanted me to do and to try it myself with her guidance.

Later I had my weekly coaching with the director of opera at Westminster, Professor Susan Ashbaker. She gave me a quick FaceTime call and we charted a plan for the next few months. She gave me insight on work I could do at home now that would only make me a stronger, more organized performer and auditioner down the line. We spoke through some recitative, and made plans to finish the rest of the piece in our next session. It was so comforting to focus on something else, something extremely important to me, something that did not change depending on what was on the news; opera.

I ended my day with a group Zoom call in place of our normal opera rehearsal, although our world premiere performance of Ellen Fishman’s MARiE Begins was cancelled, it was so meaningful to reconnect with the cast, discuss our characters, and just spend time together. At this point, I had been isolated in my apartment, alone, for about a week, and although I made a conscious decision to FaceTime and call friends and family every single day, it felt so good to get back into a routine, especially with people who I love so dearly.

As the week went on, my classes were going better than I imagined. It was a different experience to be conducting, singing, and working in groups via video chat, but it worked. The most daunting of these classes that was going to continue to occur was Westminster Choir. We had been preparing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for a number of weeks before classes went online. Our performances for the rest of the season had been cancelled, and as sad as we all were, we understood why. I wasn’t sure what the next few weeks would mean for Westminster Choir until we logged into Zoom for a call with the whole group on Wednesday afternoon. There everybody was, in their bedrooms, living rooms, offices, all across the country and the world. We were together again, and it was electric (no pun intended). Dr. Miller took time to greet each of us and ask where we were, we made jokes just like if we were back on the bus for tour.

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Then, Dr. Miller showed us his hand for the next few classes, we were going to simultaneously listen to the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of Bach’s
St. Matthew Passion. We all pulled up the staged video recording via Digital Concert Hall, muted our microphones, and pressed play. I remember being a little confused, why couldn’t we have all watched the concert on our own time? Why did we have to be on video chat, experiencing it together? As the piece went on, I realized that this was more than a learning experience, we were processing the loss of this performance together. It was more than Bach, more than COVID-19, it was us, being together and bearing witness to a complete performance of something we had worked so hard to put together in the past few weeks. I found this to be completely cathartic. It felt like we were right back in Hillman hall, doing as Dr. Miller always taught us, taking good care of each other.

— Betsy
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Conclusion

Hello Blog!

The end of Westminster Choir tour was certainly an exciting close to a snowy adventure. I was especially excited because I got to bring my Westminster Choir family to meet my actual family in San Diego!

I was lucky because my parents also came to our concert at Christ Cathedral and brought me back to our house in San Diego that night so I could spend a night in my own bed and see my dog!
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The next day, we met the rest of the choir at La Jolla Cove! It was so hilarious to watch some of my colleagues gawk over the sea lions or even the seagulls that I grew up seeing almost weekly!
82767735_10157089426798892_117533914653786112_nThe concert that night was incredibly meaningful for me, besides being the final concert of tour, because my high school choir teacher was in the audience. Ms. Williams was a huge part of my decision to pursue performance. She encouraged me, gave me many opportunities to sing solo, and taught me a lot about community through music. It was a truly full circle experience to have her in the audience at the end of my undergraduate experience with the Westminster Choir.

DSC04813After the concert, some of the other seniors and second year grad students and I presented each member of the choir and staff with a “paper plate award,” a tradition in which we recognize everyone for their contributions to tour and the choir in a humorous way.  This year, I won an award recognizing me for my extremely distinct “cackle” that could be heard from anywhere in the bus at any time. I take pride in this award as this tour was filled with joy for me, so I cackled liberally while on the bus.

DSC04975After that, the night was our own. We explored La Jolla, enjoyed a late-night dinner and spent time together hanging out and reminiscing this and past tours. The next day, we got on the bus, headed to the airport and boarded the plane, only to have our flight to be postponed due to technical difficulties. I would like to take this moment to commend director of performance management, Alex Kanter, for his patience, strength, and resourcefulness during this inconvenience. His effort and flexibility made the world of difference during this situation and we are very lucky to have him working with us.

I was very happy to have another opportunity to see my parents and took them to my favorite restaurant. The next day, we flew out early and arrived back in Newark. Although my bag was lost for a few hours due to an intense law enforcement situation, Alex Kanter yet again saved the day and drove back to Newark the next day and retrieved my bag. After we arrived at school and said our tearful goodbyes, we all retreated to our own beds to hibernate after a long tour.
83090059_10157092280308892_4679283920288612352_oMonday, the 27th, we had a full day of classes and then met up with our choir members who are now student teachers to rehearse and prepare for the concert that night in Richardson Auditorium. It was, as anticipated, a truly emotional affair as the seniors realized it was our last Homecoming concert and our last performance with the student teachers. It was so meaningful for me to stand near Madi Bowling in our mixed position, as she was one of my first friends at Westminster as well as my seat buddy in the alto section during my first year of Westminster Choir. Being able to squeeze her hand after songs like “May the Circle Be Unbroken” reminded me that like the circle, our friendship will never be broken, even while she’s away student teaching.

IMG_5850The first part of the year was spent learning, memorizing, and performing the tour program. It became a part of us, almost like another member of the choir, and we will cherish it and those we performed it for as we continue this year with our new projects.

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— Betsy

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Boise and Beyond

Day 4
Travel day to Boise, ID – It was time to make the long 8.5 hour drive to Boise, Idaho. Crossing over the Columbia River into Oregon was a sight to behold. We could see the river stretch for miles on either side of us with a new terrain awaiting us just on the other side. There was not a lot of mountains but many plains with hills, which reminded me of my home state, Texas. As we got closer to Idaho we began to hit winter weather and saw many vehicles that had slid off the roads due to the hazardous conditions. We stopped on the side of the road with dozens of other 18 wheelers and Steve, our bus driver, put chains on the tires so we could finish our trek across the wintry tundra to our destination. We arrived in Boise around 8:30 p.m. and after putting our luggage in our rooms we made our way to dinner! My friends and I had dinner at a taco diner just down the block from our hotel before heading back to our rooms to get ready for the next day.

One of the most important things to do when traveling as much as we are and being confined in a bus with 50 people is self-care. I love to start my day by working out because it not only gives me time to myself, but it helps me get mentally and physically prepared for the day. Everyone is different and some will go to a coffee shop or down to the hotel lobby for their self-care time.

Day 5
Concert day at Cathedral of the Rockies – We had a late call time giving many of us the morning to sleep in and take our time at a leisurely pace. I started my morning how I always do, wake up, workout, shower and eat a full breakfast before taking on the day. Part of what helps our tour run on time is our rotating luggage crew. Each day there is a new group of students who are in charge of loading and unloading luggage for that day and the crew I was a part of today’s crew. It made for an interesting time because we had to be diligent in how we organized the bins by luggage that was going to home stays or staying on the bus (it’s like playing Tetris) and the fact it was SNOWING! Being from Texas, I’m not used to the amount of snow we were encountering (little did I know I would be seeing twice as much in Utah).

We arrived to the church and quickly unloaded the luggage for home stays and made our way into the church to begin rehearsal. The space was beautiful and complemented our sound well! With each space being a different size, we have to adapt our formations, which means it’s not always the same. We had a nice long break for lunch and then began our pre-concert rituals. Mine is being by myself if I have the space while I work on my hair, which is always in a tightly- knit sock bun, and my makeup. This gives me time to reflect on what took place in the rehearsal and what I can do to ensure success in the concert. Others listen to music, meditate or just have light conversation with friends!

We had a great audience who showed such great energy through our entire concert and almost every inch of the sanctuary was packed! After the concert we immediately went downstairs to change and meet our home stays because there was a storm heading straight for us!

Shai and I had a great home stay with an older couple, Jim and Norma, who provided us with our own private bedrooms and fed us homemade chili with cornbread for dinner and cookies with ice cream for dessert. They have a little dog, Milo (he looks like Toto from The Wizard of Oz) who was very loving and did not stray far from Shai’s and my feet during dinner in hopes of getting some food. Jim and Norma were very respectful of our space and let us have the rest of the evening in our respective bedrooms to prepare for the next day of travel. Home stays are also a great time to take advantage of LAUNDRY which was what I did for the rest of the evening and watched Hulu.

Day 6
Boise, ID to Salt Lake City, UT – The following morning started off with two workshops! We left our home stays house (but not before meeting their adorable and very shy granddaughter who joined us for breakfast) and made our way to the school. Our home stay was about 30 minutes from the church, so it was recommended that we meet the bus at the school to avoid icy roads because it had snowed during the night. We arrived earlier than expected, so Jim took us down the road to tour around the state park, which is a small island with a site for tubing! We made our way back to the high and said our goodbyes.

Our workshop at Eagle High School started with a warmup with the high school choir followed by us singing 2 or 3 songs for them. We switched places and Dr. Miller held a mini clinic with the mixed choir and director in preparation for their ACDA convention performance. They are an incredible ensemble! We then switched back and finished the workshop with two more songs.  Dr. Miller invited some of the Eagle High School choir members to join us to sing Let My Love Be Heard, since they sang it last year. We gathered our belongings and made our way to our second workshop before getting on the road to head to SLC!

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We had a great workshop with the Timberline HS mixed choir who also provided an AMAZING lunch. We always appreciate our high school workshops feeding us! We enjoyed small visits with the students before making our way to the bus to start out 5-hour drive to Salt Lake City.
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We encountered calm and chilly weather on the road, nothing like our drive from Seattle to Boise, and arrived at our hotel in the evening. A group of us went out to celebrate a fellow choir member and made our way back to the hotel to enjoy a morning of sleeping in and a day off!

Day 7
Day off! – The next day I went hiking with a group of friends in the mountains, and it was absolutely breathtaking. There was so much fresh snow on the ground and it was truly a winter wonderland but the wind was certainly harsh. After our hike we decided to head for some indoor activities because a snow storm making its was toward us! We explored the state capital building, where Jillian led us on our own personal, self-guided tour. The paintings and statues were breathtaking, and it was crazy to see how small someone looks when standing in the center of the capital with the pillars and statues towering around them! By this time the snow storm had made its way in. We were not too far from downtown so we walked to the mall’s food court to grab lunch (I was starving from our morning adventures). After thawing out and filling our stomachs with delicious food, we finished the trek to our hotel where I stayed in the rest of the day and watched tv and enjoyed the time I had to myself. That evening we had our Alto dinner (every section of the choir has some sort of get together) and we went around the table answering questions our section leader, Jillian, asked us as a get-to-know-you=better for the group! After dinner we discussed going to the pool, but many of us were tired from our day adventures and wanted to be sure we were well rested because we had a long day of workshops at Corner Canyon HS and Brigham Young University.

Day 8
Corner Canyon HS and BYU workshops – The next morning we made our way to the last workshop of tour at Corner Canyon HS, where we also sang the Lutkin in the dome of the entrance (follow our Facebook and Instagram page to see the video), and we took our pictures outside with the HS choir and introduced them to the traditional WCC turn and laugh (also check out our Facebook for the final product :)) After the pictures, we grabbed our lunches and headed to the bus so we could begin our drive to BYU which was another half an hour away.
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While waiting to enter the BYU auditorium we walked around the student center and checked out the art displays. We all made our way in to the auditorium to begin our workshop. Westminster Choir sat in two rows and the BYU chamber singer sat in front of us. Dr. Miller warmed up the ensemble and then Dr. Crane took over rehearsal. Toward the end we joined the chamber singers and sang through one of their pieces with them. The next class was the Concert choir (similar time our Symphonic choir) and we sang through excerpts of Carmina Burana with them. In the last 20 minutes we sang a couple of our pieces for the chorus and did a small Q&A session. At the end of the class we made our way back to the seats to watch the treble choir and Tenor/Bass choir! Students from our group had the option to stay for either or both rehearsals and some of our students went and toured the campus. Both choirs consist of a large number of students, roughly 150 to 300 singers and the sound they produced was breath taking. Their Carmina Burana concert will be spectacular! After the rehearsals ended, we made our way back to the bus and began the drive back to our hotel where we went our separate ways for dinner.

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Day 8: Concert day at the Cathedral of the Madeleine – we had a late call time, which gave us all time to have lunch on our own before needing to meet at the bus to make the drive to the church. When we arrived at the church, we began our rehearsal in an absolutely remarkable space! We started in sectionals which was VERY beneficial considering we have gone 4 days between concerts. After 45 minutes we reconvened and ran through pieces to check sound, which had a reverb of about 5 seconds if not more. We ran through logistics of how we were going to enter and exit, and it was off to dinner which was across the street in the Catholic school that is connected to the cathedral. Our host told us about the school’s choir and about how they are getting ready to travel to Dallas, TX (home state!) and Portugal! They provided us with a Ramen bar, which was to die for, and before we knew it, it was time to begin our pre-concert rituals. Our concert went amazingly well and the audience was wonderful and we saw a few familiar faces from BYU and Corner Canyon HS!
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We met our home stay, Robin, who took us to her beautiful home that was built in 1904 and was three stories high with 6 bedrooms! She has two dogs, Steve (labradoodle) and Judge Judy (mini Australian Shepherd), and two kids who go to the Catholic school. We enjoyed a couple of snacks and made our way to our respective bedrooms for our early morning call.

Day 9
Travel day to Las Vegas! – We woke up to a true winter wonderland! We sat and watched the snow fall outside of the kitchen windows while Robin made us bacon, eggs, toast, hot chocolate, tea and coffee! After eating our breakfast and meeting the dogs we made the drive back to the church. We had a delayed start due to the weather but we made great time to Las Vegas and it was so great to see the sun for the first time in what seemed like forever! We arrived at our hotel, MGM Grand, and had the evening to roam. A group of us decided to take advantage of the buffet in the hotel and the food did not disappoint and we certainly got our money’s worth! My best friend, Matt, and I walked the entirety of The Strip, stopping to watch the fountain show at The Bellagio and ending at The Venetian where Matt got to see the painted ceilings that resembles the sky. After making a pit stop at Carlo’s Bakery and visiting about everything music, we Uber’d back to our hotel and called it a night because we had our biggest concert of the tour in less than 24 hours.

Day 10
Travel to L.A & Concert Day at Christ Cathedral – We made the 4 1/2 hour drive to L.A. and it was so cool to see the change in terrain, from desert to palm trees and green rolling hills. We stopped at the The Outlets at Orange to grab a quick lunch and then made our way across the street to start our rehearsal at Christ Cathedral (formerly known as the Crystal Cathedral). We had a short amount of time to cover everything we needed to do before their first Mass of two started. When rehearsal ended, we made our way down to our changing rooms to wait for dinner. I decided to attend the Mass and joined my classmates outside for dinner afterwards. It was then I realized for the first time in a week and a half I did not need to wear my jacket! Although Vegas can be warm during the day, at night it gets into the 30’s because of being in a desert and heat not being trapped. L.A. doesn’t have as drastic a weather change as Vegas. At 6 p.m. I began my pre-concert ritual and because our concert was later than usual (8 p.m.) we had even more time to get ready, so I took advantage of that time and did some score study.

This concert was very special for me because my mom traveled all the way from Texas to see us perform and what made it more special was that she had performed with her college choir in this same space, and they also ended every concert with the Lutkin Benediction, just like us! My grandparents and uncle were also in attendance, and I am very grateful to have family who have been nothing but supportive all these years with my pursuit in music. I was able to meet up with them afterwards for some adorable pictures and shortly after that met our last home stay of tour!
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Shai and I had a wonderful couple, Chris and Amy, who took us to their home in Fullerton hills! We each had our own room with our own bathroom and after setting our things in our respective rooms we made our way to their “idea salon” and had pizza with wine! We got to meet their adorable little dog, Nelson, who greeted us with kisses the moment we walked through the door. We so enjoyed our conversation with them: we talked about the concert, music, life and so many other things! We were so deep in conversation that we completely lost track of time and before we knew it, it was already midnight! I slept a full 8 hours and was ready to take on our last day of tour.

This tour has been absolutely phenomenal! I got to see and travel to states I never thought I would ever get to see in my lifetime. This choir and the Choir College, offers endless amounts of opportunity for students and the experience I had and the many adventures to come will be cherished forever!

Elizabeth

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Boise

Day 3

Today, our homestays dropped us off and we boarded the bus to prepare for the next leg of our journey: traveling to Boise. Normally, it would take about 8 hours to drive from Seattle to Boise, not including stops for bathroom breaks or meals. However, the mountain pass that we were originally going to take was snowed out! So, instead of going through Washington, we went down into Oregon to get to Boise. While I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see the mountains, the drive through Oregon was absolutely beautiful. In particular, the Columbia River Gorge was absolutely stunning, with incredible hills and geologic formations. I had never seen anything like it before in my life, except maybe in a movie! It was a terrific reminder of just how far we had traveled, even if it is within the same country.
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On our long bus rides, we have lots of ways to pass the time, but my favorite is our “radio show,” where two choir members, Chris Fludd and Jade Blocker, host over the mic in the front of the bus! There are segments where we air minor grievances, Chris and Jade interview random members of the choir, we have a contest for the best meme, but at the heart of the show is where we share stories about our homestays. Ranging from wild to wonderful, these stories are what I look forward to most whenever we board the bus. Everybody who shared a story from their Seattle homestay had such a lovely time! Finally, after a long day of sleeping, eating, and traveling, we arrived in Boise and headed straight off to bed.

Day 4

Today was a lighter day. We had our second concert today at the Cathedral of the Rockies, another beautiful space in which to sing. Throughout tour, we continue to rehearse to sharpen our performances on all of our repertoire, as well as to acclimate to each new acoustic. Today, our rehearsal focused on Canticum Novum, a modern piece by Michael Ostrzyga. There’s a lot of disjunct speaking, humming, whistling, and noise-making rather than singing, so it requires a lot of focus and precision to pull off well. When we do it exactly right, the sounds line up to form text: Cantate domino, canticum novum…; sing to the Lord, a new song. Our rehearsal work paid off, and our performance of Canticum Novum was really precise at this concert.
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We had another homestay after the concert. Since this concert was early, we got to go to dinner with our homestay, Carol! It was so lovely to get to know her over dinner. She is a recently retired elementary school teacher, so she had lots of advice to share for a future teacher like me! Since retirement, she has recently begun traveling all over the world and had lots of amazing stories to share with us. We also met her dog, Ellie, who could do all sorts of tricks. She was really a lovely woman, and it was such a treat to get to know her!

Day 5

Today, we had two workshops, at Eagle High and Timberline High, respectively. A few of us and I got dropped off pretty early at Eagle, so we observed their non-auditioned men’s chorus, when their choir director called us up to help teach. I wasn’t expecting to act as any kind of teacher, but it was a lot of fun to interact so directly with students! The rest of the Westminster Choir arrived, and the workshop was great. We actually got to warm up mixed in with the choir, which was a lot of fun, and some of them asked how they can prepare themselves for majoring in music in college! Always a delight to see such eager young musicians.

Our second workshop at Timberline High School was another amazing one! From seeing the choir sing and talk to their conductor, we could tell how much love the students have for music and their conductor. All around the room, there were posters made by students with their own decoration and motivational sayings! It was so lovely to see how much the teacher valued the students and enabled them to create the classroom environment. After the workshop, we boarded the bus and headed off.

Next stop: Salt Lake City!

== John
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First semester and the tour begins

This is my first year in Westminster Choir, and I am so happy to be a part of such a legendary ensemble! Every time I sing with this choir I fall more and more in love. I think Dr. Miller has such a great teaching style, and I appreciate how he encourages each student to be the best versions of themselves. I have learned so much from being in the choir for such a short amount of time. I am excited to see what else I will gain from the choir in the future!

The Westminster Choir had a wonderful first semester, filled with lots of rehearsals and performances. In November, we had the first concert of the season in Long Island, NY and followed it the next day with an on-campus concert in Bristol Chapel. That weekend marked my first performances with the Westminster Choir and it was exhilarating! In December the choir traveled to New York City for the annual benefit concert at the Racquet and Tennis Club. It was such a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season.
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The majority of our semester, we spent time preparing for our January 2020 tour. I love the level of focus we maintain as an ensemble in rehearsal, yet we still manage to have fun. This was really nice for our 7-hour rehearsal the day before we left for Seattle. After being away from the school (where we were singing every day) it was nice to come back together and just get back into the swing of singing again.

On January 8 we left campus for the airport. Our flight was long, but Netflix really helps to pass the time!

Seattle was such an incredible first stop. I loved going into the high schools for workshops. It brought me back to my children’s choir days, when we would do school tours, traveling to elementary schools and singing for them. Our concert on Friday night was in such a beautiful space. I remember thinking how grateful I am to be a part of, not only this choir, but this school and how we share who we are through the music we make together.

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Workshop at Ballard High School

— Lillie
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The year begins

It’s been a busy year for the Westminster choir. We started off with our auditions and callbacks process in September and hit the ground running with a concert program fit for a centennial celebration. The program is an homage to the creative journey and artistic process that led to the creation of the Westminster Choir in 1920.

One of the most difficult pieces to memorize this year has to be Canticum Novum by Ostryzga. This piece exemplifies the revolutionary nature of the choir at its birth through extended techniques like whistling, humming, and overtone singing. We were lucky enough to employ the help of Rob Saffell, an overtone singing expert based in Washington DC. He led an incredibly eye-opening workshop on the principles of overtone production and technique. Additionally, Dr. Miller challenged us to tackle an early piece of Schoenberg’s, Friede Auf Erden, which implores the world to work toward a more peaceful society at all costs. Learning it was an extreme challenge, but the overall level of musicianship of the choir was raised because of it. That’s really what the next hundred years of Westminster Choir will be about: pushing the envelope even further to make the world a more beautiful place.

As we rehearsed and spent time together, we grew very close, as the choir often does. Although this year’s group is especially boisterous. We are so excited to share this music with you, please stay tuned to read more accounts as the tour progresses from my colleagues!

— Betsy
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Path of Miracles at the Spoleto Festival USA

Hello, everyone! After an incredibly challenging year, culminating in our memorized performance of Path of Miracles, we immediately began our next challenge: staging Path for the Spoleto Festival USA. Simply learning and memorizing the music was an immense journey all its own. We had no idea what the staging was going to be until the last week of classes, when we began our staging work in Princeton. Our director, John La Bouchardière, had previously worked with the choir in 2014 for a production of John Adams’ El Niño. I was immensely excited to meet him and begin the staging.

Before we met, he asked us to create a character that we would portray in our performance. At our very first day of rehearsal, he asked every single choir member to talk about our character and explain why they were going on the Camino. It was remarkable to hear the detailed, specific backstories that everybody had devised for their characters.

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Sharing our character’s story.

Then, we got to work. For the most part, the staging was very general: we had points to hit or big stage pictures to make at certain points, but the focus was on our individual narratives. A note we all heard time and again was, “You have to know why you’re moving. You have to decide to move.”

Fitting our characters into the music was tricky at first. Not only our actions but our singing had to be motivated by our characters. In between periods of staging, we broke off into groups and played games to help with our improvisation and acting. After three long days, we had staged most of the work and were ready to continue our work in Charleston the next week.

When we arrived at our first staging rehearsal in Charleston, we all noticed one thing: the size of the rocks. As part of our pilgrimage, we all carried rocks for the majority of the show. We had been practicing with small bags of sand in Princeton but these in no way prepared us for the size of the rocks. Along with our rocks getting heavier, our rehearsal days got longer.
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That first week, all my memories of Charleston are from the ballroom in the Gaillard. Some of the director’s original ideas for the staging ended up not working when he saw them in real life, so we had to rework a lot of the staging. A lot of the staging was done through experiment: our director would suggest something and we would try it; if it didn’t work, we’d try something else until we got it right. The fourth and final movement, in particular, was difficult to stage in a way that did not get boring after too long, since it’s a long, joyous celebration of our arrival in Santiago, the end of our pilgrimage. After a lot of work, though, we had the staging locked in, so we started adding costumes.

The costumes were full of rich, flashing colors and patterns, drawn from the colors of stained glass windows. Many of our costumes came from our own clothes, so we looked like ordinary people who might be attending a concert at Spoleto. These clothes also reflected different class backgrounds of our characters.

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Photo credit: William Struhs, Spoleto Festival USA.

As we made our pilgrimage towards Santiago, we shed our bright, colorful outer clothing to reveal simple, neutral underclothes. The costumes aided in John’s broad concept for the piece: no matter our background at the beginning of the pilgrimage, we all realize that we are truly equal by the journey’s end. Like our rocks that we could finally set down, we leave our old selves behind to walk into our new lives.

After several arduous days in the ballroom, we began rehearsing in the concert hall of the Gaillard, our performance venue. Everything felt a little bit different when we went in the hall. The stakes felt so much higher. We did a full run-through of the show for the very first time in the hall. That run-through took an immense amount of concentration and focus, both musically and dramatically. I really can’t overstate how hard it is to sing for an hour in all sorts of contorted positions and delivering a subtle performance of my character’s inner journey, all the while holding a rock!

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Photo credit: William Struhs, Spoleto Festival USA.

Somehow, we got through it. Afterward, we continued to work on our staging, tweaking this and polishing that, all for the sake of clarifying the story for the audience.

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John La Bouchardière checking the stage during rehearsal.

Finally, we got to opening night. Not only was it the opening night for Path of Miracles, but it was our very first performance at Spoleto this year. We were all ready to share our story with the audience. As part of the narrative that we were ordinary audience members taking this journey, we actually began in the audience! I was seated next to Roy DeMarco, a tenor, and an audience member. I give the pitch to begin the show, so I was the very first person to sing. Let me tell you, it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life! Normally, we have some distance between ourselves and the audience and other people are singing with us, so making a mistake isn’t the absolute end of the world. Being a foot from an audience member and singing totally alone, however, left no room for error.

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Photo credit: William Struhs, Spoleto Festival USA

After that frightening beginning, we walked onto the stage and began our journey. All through the show, I felt the energy and excitement carrying me along. The hardest thing about performing Path was staying absolutely focused on the music without ever breaking character or losing track of the narrative. It took a lot of energy and focus, but we were able to walk that tightrope and sing beautifully while enacting a powerful story, both as a choir and as individual characters. We end by processing out of the hall, followed by a speedy return for bows. The energy when we walked back into the hall was astonishing. I have never before seen an audience jump up to give a standing ovation! We were all ecstatic that we had performed Path of Miracles, fully staged, for the first time ever.

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A final bow.

I was wondering what drew so many people to these performances. Were they coming based on our reputation as a choir, or was it the story of the Camino de Santiago that they were coming to see? After hearing from several people, I think it was both. I was amazed to discover just how many people have made this pilgrimage. Two choir members talked about family friends who had made the pilgrimage, as did several audience members I had the opportunity to speak with after the performance. Although we did not actually walk the Camino de Santiago, staging Path of Miracles was an incredible journey. The level of sensitive acting and performance that was demanded of us for this performance is way above what is normally demanded of a choir. It’s rare that we are asked to be completely individual in a performance, while still singing together. Still, we stepped way out of our comfort zones to bring the audience on a journey with us. This performance was absolutely the most impactful performance I’ve been able to be a part of, not only for the audience but for myself and for the choir. The music was already so powerful, and the staging only amplified that power. Taking that journey, although only a performance, led me to reflect on who I am and who I want to become. I left Spoleto resolving to be kinder and more giving going forward, to help everyone who’s going through struggles. I spoke to a few other choir members and asked them what their thoughts were after performing Path of Miracles. Here’s what they had to say:

“Staging Path of Miracles taught me how to be patient, flexible, and creative. In high school theater, I was used to tons of structure and specific direction when staging plays and musicals. This process was quite different because of the individuality of our characters and the minimalist design of the production. It taught me a lot about the process of stage direction and how to develop my own character. I also learned how to use my voice and body all day without becoming tired. Knowing when to mark and when to sing full out was extremely important to reduce vocal fatigue, and getting adequate sleep and taking meditative breaks helped with bodily fatigue.” – Jess Huetteman

“My biggest takeaway is that storytelling is vital to choral music. Through this process we got to tell the story of our pilgrims through the staging along with the incredible music. This process reminds me that we need to do this with all of our pieces, staged or not, and continue to tell the stories of all the characters and texts we come across as choral performers.” – Scott Aucoin

“Path of Miracles wasn’t a performance, it was a journey and an experience. Our humanity and personal experiences are represented with each of our own individual movements and interactions with each other through this music. It was a chance to represent who we are as people while singing.” – Felicia Villa

Path of Miracles is a performance I’ll never forget. It was an incredible honor to make this journey with Westminster Choir. Really, this whole year was a pilgrimage. We began as strangers, but through our travels and tribulations, preparing dozens of concerts, we became closer than ever, and we’ve each come out stronger, with new resolve for making music and facing the world. I’d like to close with the words of our inimitable director, John: “Whatever their starting point in time and place, pilgrims travel towards the light, peeling back the veil to see the world unmasked. The change is theirs and, ultimately, comes from within: the miracles of the path are the people who walk it.

Thank you, Westminster Choir, for an incredible journey. Here’s to a whirlwind year just finished and another year of miracles yet to come.

— John
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