Each year we’re given thrice-photocopied directions to a camp out in the middle of Nowhere, New Jersey and expected to find our way through the meandering roads that slice through the mountainous, lush woods that propagate themselves throughout this gorgeous state. Once we arrive at our destination, we sit in a room rehearsing for hours. Then when we’re exhausted for the night, we cram ourselves into rooms full of twin-sized bunk beds, only to get up the next morning to rehearse again, knowing that later we’ll have to go outside and compete against each other, only to rehearse more after that. Why would anyone do this, you ask? Why would anyone subject themselves to such insanity? Simply for music and for love.
Ambiguity and hyperboles aside, Westminster Choir retreat is the first event of the year, the first time we get to socialize and bond with the wonderful musicians we will spend the rest of the year creating art with. After our choral hearings happen, extracurricular choirs have callbacks for the Westminster students that match the sound that conductor has in mind for his or her choir. Then, after that arduous process but right before school begins, a list comes out that denotes the members of that choir for the year. We jump into rehearsals with the beginning of classes and Westminster Choir rehearses on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 4:30 – 6:00 pm. However, besides stumbling through the year’s repertoire in a flurry of frantic sight-singing, we don’t really get much time to get acquainted with one another.
Thus, we have retreat. And so we escape to a scenic spot in New Jersey and begin figuring out who we are as a choir. The social chair this year, the wonderful contralto Jess Kerler along with our Retreat Committee, organized a plethora of fun icebreakers so each of us could get to know each individual in the choir. From passing a ball around the choir with personality questions scribbled in hardly-legible handwriting, to playing a questionable version of rugby, we cheered and laughed (and of course, sang) the night away. As we dispersed to spend the evening as we pleased, many of us went stargazing or exploring the campground, letting the cool breeze accompany us as we indulged in the presence of our peers for just a bit longer before retiring to our beds. By the time our heads hit our pillows, we’d learned so many new things about our fellow singers’ backgrounds and personalities.
The following morning we ate a hearty, camp-provided breakfast, then began rehearsing the nitty gritty things in the music we hadn’t fully touched on yet. Despite the early morning, the music sounded invigorated, almost as if a night of bonding helped the sound of the choir become more unified.
As is tradition, skits ensued shortly after rehearsal ended for the morning. Every year, Retreat Committee picks a topic and a subtopic for groups of 5-6 members to act out. This year the topic was “choral warm-ups.” We disperse around the camp, finding a private spot to brainstorm, plan, and rehearse, then come back to perform our skits for the choir. This year’s skits were exceptionally hysterical. We had subtopics like Christmas, minimalism, baroque, Disney, etc. Thus, our temporarily incapacitated Lauren Kelly sang about her inability to use her legs using a melody from The Little Mermaid while a group of the grad students dramatically embodied baroque composers before collapsing on the ground for the finale. My absolute favorite was the rendition of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl (which Westminster Choir performed this summer at Spoleto Festival USA) that was performed for the minimalism group, where their warm-ups mirrored the detriment of the little girl, acted out by soprano Kanisha Feliciano, and ultimately resulted in this year’s Grad Assistant, the brilliant David Conley, dragging her “dead body” off stage by her feet. We get a tad ridiculous to say the least.
We gathered again to eat lunch, rehearse more, but then it was time for the annual event we’d all been training for (and by training, I mean bragging about and planning coordinating outfits for): Sectional Olympics! Each section comes out in matching garb, like team uniforms, except this year the tenors and basses forgot to plan anything (so of course the basses improvised and tied their sheets and towels on like capes – typical basses). The sopranos wore all black with camo boas and the altos made awesome tie-dye shirts that had our names and section number on the back. (No applause necessary, but if you feel so inclined, we won’t deny our fans what they want.) After doing everything from inventing cheers to emulate rival sections, nonverbally putting ourselves in birthday order, becoming a human train that could only travel by sparsely-separated paper (weird and vague, I know), scarfing down oranges as fast as humanly possible, and forming a human pyramid (lots of human-replicas of pre-existing objects) while singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the altos won! Just kidding. The tenors technically won, but the altos came in close second. While the competition is a great motivator, the coolest thing is to look at your section after attempting to accomplish random, absurd tasks together, only to realize you’re not only surrounded by great musicians, but some unique, impressive individuals as well.
Some of us stuck around on the field to play an epic game of touch football, which is always really friggin’ fun. With Dr. Miller and David Conley as team captains, the game was even more interesting. For the record, Dr. Miller is a cheater (everyone knows now, so you can’t deny it). However, despite his less-than-honorable tactics at the beginning, I see now that Dr. Miller definitely knows his people – whether it be within a choral setting or on the football field, his talent for recognizing and utilizing people’s strengths is impeccable. Despite a pretty evenly matched team, our team was creamed.
We then met up with the rest of the choir to serenade the other campers and camp staff with the Lutkin (basically Westminster’s school song) and eat a delicious dinner.
We rehearsed for a bit more, but the rehearsal was unexpectedly truncated by Dr. Miller’s annual poetry reading. Each year he brings poems to read to the choir, poems he feels embody the aura of the choir or the future of the choir. They always seem to relate to something all of us understand inherently, and somehow there’s never a dry eye in the room. And here it comes full circle. This year he talked about personality and love. He relayed to us how the sound of the choir has morphed over the years, how legacies and traditions should tie us together but never hold us down, and how we should love what and who we are as a choir because it’s unique every year. I think this is the night we learn that we are family, not just any simple choir, and we must love each other, accept the love we receive, and in turn love ourselves. Then, and only then, can we open our hearts enough to let the music change us and the world with it.
Oh, the monumental life lessons I learn from this choir never cease, as it should be.
Last but not least, with Dr. Miller’s annual 32nd birthday being September 27th and retreat ending the night of the 26th, we made him a present to coincide with this year’s tour theme (sorry, can’t give it away) and Liska (an alto section leader for Symphonic choir) made him a delicious cake. Of course, we sang our version of “Happy Birthday” that normally ends with us split into 5 or 6 octaves at the top of our lungs and Andrew Stack came out in a gorilla suit (still confused on that one).
We laughed, we cried, and it was most definitely better than Cats.