It’s retreat weekend for the Westminster Choir! You know what that means…many fun activities planned by tenor Justin Su’esu’e and the retreat committee, vibrant rehearsals led by our fearless leader Dr. Miller, and the tearing down of comfort zones to get to know the new family members within this ensemble.
A two-day adventure in Califon, N.J. encapsulates this brief but exciting weekend. Nestled in the rolling hills of northern New Jersey, Cross Roads, the camp where we stay every year, graciously hosts our music-making and fun-loving spirits. Our hosts kindly welcome us, give us the “lay of the land” (stay on the tracks when hiking, meal times, all of the necessities to have a great time), and provide a safe haven for our stay. The cabins are at maximum occupancy, with men on one side and women on another. The cabin offers full kitchen, living quarters, and communal spaces for games and budding companionship. Dormitory-style bunking provides mild (if any) sleeping for the weekend – with the hustle and bustle of getting-to-know-you games and making of new friends, it’s a wonder how sleep even fits into the schedule. What a landscape to behold, pulling up from the country road reminiscent of a small-town suburb to the tantalizing openness of the grounds. A great place to come and recharge the batteries.
The Westminster Choir seems to have a tradition of one or two carpools getting lost along the way. The biggest mystery is, no matter what online GPS you use with the correct address, you will be led astray. Fortunately for us, this year’s group made it on time for the first big rehearsal. A first, according to Dr. Miller! Our rehearsal began with a rousing arrangement of Nelly Bly by Jack Halloran. This fun, spirited folk song got everyone in the mood to sing. Switching gears, we rehearsed our piece that was to be memorized for this evening: Pater Noster by Jacob Handl. Dr. Miller reminds the choir to communicate with one another via eye contact…perhaps, this time the eye-contact was more for the feeding of words than the intrinsic music-making. I’m certainly guilty of this! We moved on to several other pieces on our program, delving into the beauty of each piece while learning of its place within the program.
After our brief rehearsal, the getting-to-know you games ensued. These games include a beach ball question game, where one throws a ball to a choir member and the choir member must answer a question on the ball; the moving of a machine, where eight choir members had to connect themselves, making a noise to their liking, and an idiosyncratic movement that replicated a machine; a version of “Cross the Line,” where all choir members stepped forward if the statement pertained to an instance in their life, and those who didn’t gave everyone a round of applause; and we ended with a Westminster Choir tradition: Kissing Rugby. Years past have come with haunting stories of what happens during the game – our spirits were strong and gender competition ensued as we watched our family members persevere to win! After the games, we moved to the campfire location and enjoyed s’mores and each other’s company.
As I sit gazing at the glowing embers of a fading fire, or watching the shadows of clouds dance across the green-laden hills of the retreat site, I feel compelled to think about the construction of such a family like the Westminster Choir. I remember coming into retreat my first year: nervous, thrilled, and altogether ready to join such an awe-inspiring group of musicians. This year, with arms and hearts wide open, we welcome our new year with enough soul to change the world.