To those of you who haven’t read my profile on the WCC website, I thought I would provide a brief introduction so you aren’t taken aback when Shane’s words are supplanted by an unfamiliar tone. I am Christianna Barnard, the 2014-2015 Westminster Choir blogger. I am a senior Sacred Music major, and this year marks my third with Westminster Choir. I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to take you into the inner mechanisms of life as a Westminster Choir member, as choral singing and writing are two of my greatest joys in life.
If you are a choir devotee, you might recognize me for my work at Spoleto as an inept barmaid and crazy-lady-in-hospital-gown #13 in the 2013 production of Le Villi, the person in a green cardigan who had to keep running into the center of huddles in El Niño because the color was distracting, or for my work as the distinguished Movie Mastress* on our tour of Texas and Oklahoma.
Choral Hearings & Callbacks
In addition to introducing myself, it seemed fitting to explain the process of how each year’s Westminster Choir is chosen. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Westminster tradition known as choral hearings, I will provide you with a seasoned-warrior’s perspective. Every student who sings in an academic choir partakes in a five minute long hearing before the school year begins. The highly caffeinated choral conducting faculty has the pleasure of braving up to 12-hour long stretches of these auditions, each of which consists of three parts: a song of the student’s choice, the sight-reading of a brief excerpt of music, and a test of tonal memory, in which the student repeats several sequences of notes played by the accompanist.
The results of choral hearings determine students’ eligibility for callbacks to the many auditioned ensembles at Westminster. Given the importance of ensembles in the lives of Westminster students, it would be feasible for the choral hearing and callback season to devolve into competition-fueled madness. However, the opposite is true. An air of mutual support and camaraderie is evident throughout campus during this hectic time. At our unique and wonderful institution, we are taught to invest equal care in our relationships with one another as we do our choral sound.
Callbacks for Westminster Choir always occur shortly after Fall Convocation. This year’s Convocation was a historic one, as it marked the first use of Hillman Hall in the Marion Buckelew Cullen Center—an incredible state-of-the-art performance and rehearsal space that has been decades in coming. The new hall is indeed beautiful, and it is made even more so when filled with the glorious sounds of the entire student body joined together in song.
The callback itself took place in The Playhouse, Westminster Choir’s traditional home. For me, callbacks are deceptively enjoyable. First, we are presented with a Renaissance anthem. After this, we are voiced within the choir, and then Dr. Miller splits us into quartets. These smaller groups rehearse for a brief period of time, and then return for the quartet test, during which each quartet performs a portion of the song for Dr. Miller and the other auditionees. Having been tested early on in the process, I was free to simply revel in the beauty of the music. An outside observer would never be able to tell that this piece had been given to the singers only about half an hour earlier. The level of musicianship, attention to detail, and quality of performance was astounding. I certainly did not envy the difficult decisions Dr. Miller would have to make to determine the makeup of this year’s choir.
And then, the waiting game. A few hours later, the list is posted on the top floor of Williamson Hall and is met with rejoicing by some, and disappointment by others. After some much deserved sleep, the new choir comes together for the first time as Westminster Choir on the first day of classes.
During our first rehearsal, we introduce ourselves and always include an interesting fact about ourselves. This year’s choir includes several members from as far away as Japan and Hong Kong, two former nationally ranked athletes, and an internationally ranked video game player (I, sadly, am none of the above). After this follows the long-anticipated revelation of this year’s calendar and tour program. The theme of this year’s tour program is “The Invention of Love,” and it features music about invention, astronomy, and all forms of love from passionate to the divine. As we explore this music and more as a choir, I will be bringing you my thoughts on this experience. It’s a joy to be heading into this year’s adventure, and I am honored to be able to share it with you.
*Mastress is antiquated term that functions as the female equivalent of master. Basically, it just means that I got to count votes when we were selecting a film for movie time on the tour bus.