September 22, 2012
It is quite late in the evening, and I have just returned home from the annual Westminster Choir retreat. Instead of meeting for our regular rehearsal time yesterday, the choir members packed overnight bags and sleeping bags and headed up to Crossroads (a camp in North Jersey). I rode with four great friends, and we were packed like sardines in the car. As we drove up state Route 206, I kept grinning out the window and thinking how much fun we were having rehearsing French texts (we had more memory goals to achieve by the time of the retreat – just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!). We grabbed some dinner, got lost only once in a quaint, lovely town, and arrived at the camp to find some of our friends settling into our quarters.
There is a lodge with barracks-style rooms (one for the ladies, one for the gentlemen) and a large, cozy sort-of living room with high ceiling that is our main rehearsal space. Dr. Miller gets the ‘executive suite’ downstairs from our quarters, which is also right next to the kitchen, which is full of people whenever there is free time and into the wee hours of the morning. I am not sure how much sleep he gets…
One of the main goals for the time we spend at Crossroads is intense rehearsal. We sing, eat, sing, eat again, play, sing, sleep, eat, sing, eat, play, eat, and sing. It requires a great deal of vocal stamina and smart singing to be productive and focused, and we accomplish so much technically and artistically during the many hours of music making. The process for the rehearsal is as rapid as ever, and it is exciting to get glimpses of the sound possibilities that are available to us once we are facile with the printed score.
The other central purpose for the retreat is community building. Part of the joy of being a part of an ensemble like this is living with the constant knowledge that our time together is finite, and each shared experience weaves our once-disparate stories into a common cloth. So we play. We play games that help us see each other clearly, and games that make us laugh until our cheeks are sore, and games that help ignite a child-like excitement (full of wonder). There is always an activity that involves a performance element. This year, each team was assigned a musical genre and had a short amount of time to adapt an alphabet-learning song to that style. Some highlights included Minimalist ABC’s (they sang ‘A’ in the style of Terry Riley), Flamenco ABC’s (complete with choreography!), and Wagnerian ABC’s (with all of the stereotypical Brunhilde one could want).
Another favorite event is the Sectional Olympics. This extremely competitive cadre of spectacles is soprano vs. alto vs. tenor vs. bass. The sopranos, defending champs going into this year’s retreat, even created team jerseys to intimidate the other sections. After a chaotic relay (involving water balloons, saltine crackers, crepe paper, hair rollers, and human pyramids, to name a few), a skit where each section portrayed another (if you have never seen a Westminster tenor acting like a soprano, may I suggest you add it to your bucket list), and a doughnut-dipping relay (which ended with a number of people’s faces covered in chocolate syrup and sprinkles – and those were the winners!), the tenors emerged as the new champions.
During out night at the camp, we have a campfire. The weather this year was exquisite, and we shared s’mores and stories with new and old friends as we sat out under the stars. As everyone got settled in around the fire, somehow Dr. Miller’s ‘executive suite’ was filled with balloons (150) and multiple rolls of crepe paper (have you seen ‘The Parent Trap” with Hayley Mills? There is a scene in that movie that may have inspired this set up. Of course, this is purely conjecture on my part as I have no recollection of the actual circumstances.) Each person moved quietly back to the campfire, and Dr. Miller was none the wiser. When the fire was out and everyone was back in the lodge, a rousing game of Big Booty was underway in the kitchen when Dr. Miller discovered his ‘present.’ He sat in the middle of his floor, grinning hugely, holding a balloon as if it were a bubble of joy.
After the brief, intense retreat, our community is strong and our music-making will soar. We have a lot of work to do – memory goals every week, sectionals, individual practice time – and this is in addition to the scholarship and preparation for many other classes and ensembles. The time we spend together, though, helps us to keep the stress of school in context and helps us remember how fortunate we are that our stresses are mostly musical in nature.