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


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).
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…

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.


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.


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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Spoleto Festival USA Day 7

It’s a Sunday and we have the day off! Woo! A ton of us are going to hit the local beaches and get some sun. To keep y’all entertained, I’m just gonna post a few amusing/inspiring/ridiculous quotes (mostly from Dr. Miller) that I’ve written down in my music from previous rehearsals. Enjoy!

“You’re unusual. Thank you.”
—-Jerry McCoy, after being a guest conductor for us last semester

“I want you to sound like you’re 10 days drunk and you’ve been smoking for 55 years.”
—-Dr. Miller, about Debussy’s Trois Chansons, 1/10/16

“I want to see some sparkle in your dead eyes.”
—-Joseph Flummerfelt, written in the copy of Debussy’s Trois Chansons that I borrowed from the library (the choir sang it 10 years ago under his direction)

“Don’t ever stop being silly.”
—-Dr. Miller

“The goal is not to match each other, but to resonate together.”
—-Dr. Miller

“It has to be perfect. So be perfect.”
—- Dr. Miller

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 6

Our first “rehearsal” was at 2pm today, thankfully. With the morning off, we always go out exploring. Charleston is a very diverting city. The plethora of coffee shops, bakeries, Southern comfort food restaurants, and tons of eccentric little shops decorating the ever-crowded King Street keep us occupied for our free time. As Spoleto musicians, we straddle this odd gap between tourists and residents – quickly learning how to get around, but constantly gawking at the never-ending attractions Charleston has to offer.

During our afternoon rehearsal, they started doing mic checks. As they were turning the mic up, the feedback started ringing through out the space. From the opposite side of the choir, I started hearing a commotion of moving chairs, stands, and people before someone from the choir called for Dr. Miller. Pauli, a member of our choir, had fainted. In order to be carried out, the mics had to be turned off and that section of the orchestra had to clear out. After he’d been hauled out and whisked away to the hospital, we continued rehearsal. The show must go on, as they say.

Regardless, we were all worried about Pauli. During our dinner break, we found out he had received a minor concussion, but was returning for the evening rehearsal. It was a simple, yet firm reminder that although we seem to be in a harmless profession, we always need to make sure our bodies can handle the events of the day. Our instrument is our body, and thus we must be physically prepared for every rehearsal and performance venue.


Choir 3 women taken by Fiona Ellis


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Spoleto Festival USA Day 5

Thankfully, the morning rehearsal was cut down to just an hour. It was just Westminster Choir and D. Millz (aka Dr. Miller) in the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. Probably the most revealing thing yet: Dr. Miller telling us that he got lost just as many times as we did the previous night and was extremely proud of us for how we fared. We went through a few pages in the score, warmed up, then finished 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

After lunch was our first rehearsal in Memminger Auditorium, the actual production performance space. It’s extremely difficult for me to do justice to the set-up of this production. Apparently, a construction crew was hired to make platforms for the full orchestra that are about 2 stories tall and hold the entirety of us (180+ people). The shadow puppet show is the focal point of the production, so there are two side wings where the chorus and certain parts of the orchestra sit, while the majority of the orchestra sits at the front of the space. That platform has a wall on which the puppet show is projected from underneath the main part of the orchestra. We all have stand lights to see our scores since the performance is done in the dark, which means we have intricate wiring throughout the whole orchestra and choir. Not only that, but each of us choristers has a wooden table to store all of our extraneous instruments. They also have small digital screens distributed in the wings, which show John Kennedy conducting in real-time with measure numbers in the corner of the screen so that we can stay together. The whole set-up is impressively elaborate.


Selfie taken by Grant Farmer

We had an afternoon rehearsal and a night rehearsal, both equally difficult. Since there are few screens and none of the choristers can really see John Kennedy, it was hard keeping up with him. In between rehearsals, we went outside to get some fresh air, but it’s been so humid lately that it feels like we’re breathing in water.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 4

We had the morning off! It was glorious. Since we didn’t have a morning rehearsal, a lot of us spent the night exploring and having fun. A group of us choristers went to the Kickin’ Chicken for trivia night. They conveniently serve you delectable, fried foods while you attempt to answer trivia whilst competing against neighboring tables. It’s a game of who-can-remember-things-without-using-Google. It’s pretty legendary.

(Speaking of Google, Dave proved that he rightfully won the Passion Flower contest with a selfie.)

Our first rehearsal of the day was at the St. Johannes Lutheran Church with Lachenmann. Hilariously enough, before Lachenmann arrived, one of the members of the parish heard us practicing. She came out of the office chuckling because out of context, it sounded like we were passing gas. Helmut Lachenmann came halfway through our rehearsal to help us understand a few more of our score markings (most of the notation he invented himself).

We had a dinner break and then were scheduled to meet in the Gaillard Ballroom for a night rehearsal with the full orchestra. Let me reiterate the breadth of this performance. The orchestra is 140 instrumentalists strong including instruments like electric guitar and sound engineers who distort sound bites. Westminster Choir is 40 vocalists; there are 2 soprano soloists, a German text speaker, and John Kennedy as conductor. This was the first rehearsal of us putting it all together. There were puppeteers from all over the world sitting in the rehearsal, who’ll be telling the story using shadow puppets as we perform. Apparently they’ve been planning the puppet show using a recording of a previous production of the opera, so hearing it in real time must have been really new.

Honestly, this whole thing seemed to be very new for all of us. Having never heard the orchestral part before we were stunned by the inventive score writing Lachenmann had done for the instrumentalists. They had never heard us “sing” our part either so they were giving us as many confused looks as we were giving them. John Kennedy was conducting the heck out of everything, cueing everywhere that he could, subdividing everything with precision, and only stopping when necessary. Despite his superb conducting and all of our prior preparation, we got lost a million times. The score is just so insanely intricate that it was impossible to stay with it the whole time. It was both exhilarating and anxiety-inducing.

By the end of the three-hour rehearsal, the whole choir looked in dire need of rest. We trudged back to the dorm and conked out for the night.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 3

Update: David Conley, our choir’s grad assistant, won the Find the Passion Flower contest. There is speculation as to whether he just Googled a picture since he didn’t take a selfie with it.

Another day of rehearsing in gorgeous (and rainy) Charleston. We had a morning rehearsal with just us and Dr. Miller before rehearsing with John Kennedy in the afternoon at the Gaillard Center. Hearing John Kennedy talk about the orchestral parts to the score has piqued our curiosity even more, not to mention trying to figure out all of the cues we see him conducting.

In the last half of the rehearsal, we finally got to mess with the percussion! So the choral scores have several fun percussion parts. There are slapstick solos, a temple gong part (a bowl that vibrates on a certain pitch), a pan flute part (a little woodwind instrument with several pitched pipes), a rolled/glissando mallet part, and a Styrofoam part (still confused about this as they don’t have it yet). Getting to finagle the different instruments was fun and trying to figure out how to properly execute each part was interesting (to say the least). It truly is a unique score.

Thankfully, we have a lot more rehearsals to get the hang of our new musical toys.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 2

Today is the day we got to meet the enigmatic composer, Helmut Lachenmann, himself. We met up for our morning rehearsal at the brand new Gaillard Center to run through the piece with him. None of the choir really knew what to expect, although we’d made a million conjectures as to what he’d be like. Upon walking in, this tall, charismatic German man with a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard greeted us with ceremonious waves and multiple handshakes. His charm and bright demeanor won the choir over almost immediately.


Photo by Alicia Brozovich

Running through the opera with Lachenmann at the rehearsal was extremely helpful and slightly intimidating. He had just as many notes for us as we had questions for him. John Kennedy (no, not the late president), our director for the performance, also helped us secure parts we were unsure about.

Amusingly enough, John Kennedy and Dr. Miller showed up in matching outfits. Coincidence? We think not.


Photo by Jacob Truby

In the afternoon we met back up with Dr. Miller at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul to solidify the parts of the opera we were still having difficulty with. The piece itself is an amalgamation of voiced, unvoiced, and a few sung German consonants. When all the parts of the choir lock in, we are collectively speaking the German text of the Hans Christian Anderson tale. However, the opera changes meter so often and the rhythms have to be so exact, that it takes a while to get the text to speak. But with a lot of hard work on our part and help from Dr. Miller, it’s really beginning to shine. The Lachenmann opera has gone from something we didn’t understand upon first encountering it, to something we can perform accurately and with pride.

That being said, we got out of the rehearsal feeling a little brain-fried and ready to enjoy some of beautiful Charleston. A few of us had planned to go for a run after rehearsal to shave off the deliciously filling Charleston food, but it was raining when we got out of rehearsal. Fortunately, that didn’t stop Fiona, Jacob T., and me from going for a jog in the refreshing rain. #SpoletoBod

After a full day of rehearsals and rain, we retired in the dorm.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 1

Our first rehearsal was at a reasonable 9:00 a.m. in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Even though we had several rehearsals (and a very emotional alumni concert) the week before leaving for Charleston, it was interesting getting back into the groove of rehearsal. The first thing on our agenda? The Little Match Girl opera by Helmut Lachenmann.

To those of y’all unfamiliar with the Little Match Girl story by Hans Christian Anderson, it’s a tale about a poor beggar girl who goes to sell matches in the freezing cold on New Year’s Eve. Unable to sell any matches and afraid of going home to her abusive father empty-handed, she freezes to death in the cold. It is a chillingly raw tale that Westminster Choir also performed a setting of at last year’s Spoleto Festival, composed by David Lang. However, Helmut Lachenmann’s opera tells the tale in a unique, unconventional way. With an orchestra of 140 instrumentalists, 2 amazingly talented soprano soloists, a German speaker, and our own choir of 40, Lachenmann illustrates the story of the Little Match Girl. The piece is in 24 movements and changes time signature almost every bar. The choir part is mostly vocalized German text that tells the story with very few sung notes. It is nothing like we’ve ever done or heard before, to say the least.

With a double rehearsal slightly wearing us down, the choir needed to wind down for the evening, some of us gathering to watch the season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race and others hitting local dinner places before crashing for the night.

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Traveling to Charleston

Note:  This is the first in a series of entries about the Westminster Choir’s 2016 residency at the 2016 Spoleto Festival USA.

Life lesson for all choir directors: do all in your power to never have a call time before the local coffee shops in town are open. Our bus call for the flight to Charleston was 6:30 a.m., and the energy level of the choir was at a minimum. Yet, under-caffeinated and perpetually yawning as we were, we shoved our luggage under the bus and drove to Newark airport. The security line was backlogged, mostly because the entirety of Westminster Choir was still trying to wake up while going through TSA. The plane was insanely tiny – so small that Dr. Miller couldn’t stand up straight while walking to find his seat. Like any early flight, all who could, slept. When we landed, we did the usual scramble to grab luggage and then crammed into a couple of vans to drive to our dorm.

So a lot of people ask, “Do y’all get to stay in a hotel while performing at Spoleto?” No such luck. That being said, the College of Charleston lets us room in their dorms, which is pretty fun. We all have at least one roommate, and we normally share a bathroom with three other people. After checking in, we had the whole day to explore and acquaint ourselves with the streets of beautiful Charleston.

At 9:00 p.m., we met in the dorm lobby to talk to Dr. Miller about rehearsals and the upcoming weeks. He did his usual spiel as Encyclopedia of the choir and told us about the best restaurants, hang out spots, along with notable flora and fauna in the area. (He even made a contest to see who could find a passion flower growing in Charleston. The winner, he said, would get to enjoy a cold drink with him on his patio.) Then off to sleep we went!


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