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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.