Westminster High School Vocal Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jordan Saul is a counselor for Westminster’s 2013 High School Vocal Institute.  We thought that you might like to read about her experiences as counselor and about the program.
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It seems like I am often writing blog posts while in transit.  At the moment, I am sitting on a bus with half of the participants of the Westminster Vocal Institute and half of the counselors.  The others are on the bus just in front of us, and we are on our way to New York City.

The Vocal Institute is run through the Westminster Office of Continuing Education, and the full choir is conducted by Dr. Amanda Quist.  The participants are high school students from around the world – their homes are as far as France and as close as Princeton.  For two weeks in the summer these students experience what life is like at Westminster.  They sing in multiple ensembles, take voice classes, sing in sectionals every day, and participate in academic elective classes.  Their days begin at 7:30 am and end at 11:00 pm, and when it is time to finally hit the hay in their respective dorm rooms, there is never a problem falling asleep. 

It is among the highlights of my summer to be a part of this special choral family.  Dr. Quist asked me last summer to create a community in this group, and it was an immense joy to design activities and games to build the teams.  VI 2012 was a tremendous success, and I was thrilled to be asked to return this summer to do it all again.  It brings me much joy to think about my experiences as a high school teacher, and to take what I learned in those four (short) years about community, condense it, kick it into high gear, and foster that bonding in a short (intense) two weeks. 

 When the students first arrive, they are all a bit pensive, including the returning members.  Everyone is looking around.  They are met with grins from their team of counselors (all current Westminster students) who go through the necessary registration steps to get everyone into their new home – ladies in the Seabrook residence hall, men in Dayton.  Then, Dr. Quist and other conductors on campus hear every single person sing, and create from them the small ensembles, in addition to beginning the process of voicing the full choir.  There are 76 singers this year – this is no small feat!

On the first evening, we start the process of creating an atmosphere of trust, mutual respect, and musicianship of the highest order.  The activities are specifically designed and developed to move from low risk ice-breakers to higher risk team and trust builders.  The planning and design takes a long time, and by the time the counselors first have contact with the students, they have already spent many hours together conceptualizing, trouble-shooting and working through logistics from every angle. 

The weekday schedule is full, from 7:30 a.m. (breakfast) to 11:00 p.m. (light out).  Everyone meets after breakfast for a sectional – this is the opportunity the individual voice parts have to learn the notes for the full choir pieces.  Following sectionals are voice classes.  Each voice part meets with a member of Westminster’s world-class voice faculty to learn solo repertoire in a group setting. 

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Professor Elem Eley working with members of the bass section.

After the voice classes, students attend the first elective of the day.  The course offerings include beginning piano, audition and performance techniques, music theory, conducting, and yoga among others.  This year, I am teaching the conducting course and in a day full of highlights, these class meeting are some of my favorite times.  After the first elective, there is a break – 15 full minutes to sit still and relax before the first full choir rehearsal of the day. 

During this rehearsal, the students work with Dr. Quist to prepare a concert featuring collegiate-level repertoire.  In fact, this year, Vocal Institute and the Westminster Chamber and Festival Choirs (conducted by Dr. Joe Miller) are on campus at the same time and are doing some of the same repertoire.  This year, the two ensembles made Westminster history by rehearsing together for the first time.

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Joint Vocal Institute and Choral Festival/Chamber Choir rehearsal with Maestro Joe Miller.

 Lunch is next, and immediately following a meal in the dining commons, the students attend their second elective class.  Then the students rehearse with their small ensembles – there is a men’s ensemble conducted by Dr. John Russell (one of the conducting fellows from the Chamber Choir and a Director of Choral Activities in California), a women’s ensemble conducted by Dr. Ryan Brandau (another of the conducting fellows, the conductor of Princeton Pro Musica, and one the conductors of last year’s Westminster Symphonic Choir), and a chamber choir conducted by Dr. Quist.  Each of these ensembles prepares a complete program to present at the final concert – these students learn SO MUCH MUSIC in only two weeks. 

After the small ensembles rehearse, it is back to the Playhouse for the afternoon full choir rehearsal, and then dinner.  The counselors go to work in the evenings, with activities and games that create lasting memories.  One night this week featured games in which the counselors had to be willing to laugh at themselves.  Each counselor was hidden somewhere on campus, and their team had to find them.  Once discovered, the counselors were decorated with tin foil, streamers, and pipe cleaners, and then stayed in this outfit for the remainder of the evening.  They then had to shave balloons covered in shaving cream while the participants cheered them on (you can imagine how that went), and put on a panty-hose cap (like a bank robber), and eat a banana through it.  All of this was to show the participants what their leaders are willing to give for them, and the end result was an even more tightly knit community of musicians.    

Now, we are on the bus to New York city for a day in the city.  We will take a tour of Lincoln Center, enjoy lunch and activities in Central Park.  When we return to campus tonight, we will be treated to a brief talk on French Mélodie followed immediately by a recital presented by participants in Westminster’s CoOPERAtive program, a summer opera-training program. 

There is no rest for the weary!  We are back to rehearsals on Sunday. 

About Westminster Choir

Westminster Choir is composed of students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, a center for music study in Princeton, N.J.
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