Tour Day 1

The Westminster Choir tour has officially begun! We’ve arrived at our first destination, Cincinnati, Ohio after a full day of bus travel. Now that we’re settled, we’re looking forward to digging into our program with local high school workshops tomorrow, followed by our first tour concert on Friday night. After a much needed winter break these last two weeks, we are certainly eager to continue sharing our program and delving into its meaning as an ensemble.

We met at Westminster again on Tuesday the 3rd, a full-day rehearsal, and it was really nice for us to reconnect without the burden of academic stress. I, for one, felt very well rested and ready to sing. It was very interesting to approach our tour music again having already performed it, and having taken a break from it during the last month of the semester. People often advise when writing, painting, or doing anything that’s really intensive and creatively rigorous to step away in order to keep a continuously fresh artistic perspective and to simply not burn out. Doing exactly this with our tour repertoire enabled us to flush out more detail and to even reconsider some of the artistic choices that had been intuitively established in our first round of performances. Making changes and seeing continual progress, even months after initially beginning the artistic process, gives the performer such a wonderful feeling; he is able to feel that he is constantly finding new meanings in the works, and that the pieces still have significance to him. We were able to do this throughout the day, even when tired, and all in all it made us aware of the areas that still need a bit of work, and brought us back into the right mindset.

Reflection on the meaning of our program, and the most effective way to share this message with our audiences is something that we will all do throughout these next ten days. As we close out our first full day of travel, I will share two more Today I will… statements from our two favorite Oregonians in the choir, first year graduate conducting major Alex Simon, and Junior vocal performance major McKenzie Smith.

Today I will be the best possible version of myself.
– Alex

Today I will enjoy my surroundings.
 – McKenzie

— Scott

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December 2016

The end of the semester is upon us. While life here is something special that I wouldn’t change for the world, I think we’re all in need of a break! I’m very excited for Christmas this year as, although I don’t get to go home, I have family coming all the way from the UK to visit me here. I’m looking forward to seeing them again and showing them the part of the world where I’ve spent the last year and a half.

Westminster Choir is officially on break until the new year, when we’ll be heading on our Southern tour. Check out the dates and locations of our performances and see if we’re visiting somewhere near you! We’d love to see you there.

Our final concert of the year was a festive and fun Christmas concert for some of Westminster’s donors at the Racquet and Tennis club in New York; I must say, it was rather fancy! They were incredibly welcoming, and we had a blast performing some Christmas carols and other Christmassy pieces for them. We even sang with the audience in a heart-warming rendition of White Christmas (shout out to Scott, my fellow blogger, who was flawless on the piano!). We left having consumed some excellent food and having shared some Christmas cheer (and having somehow pulled off a crazy a cappella arrangement of Jingle Bells as our concert closer, well done us!).


The last couple of rehearsals of the year were pretty laid back. This was a blessing as for us, as the lead up to finals was anything but… Not only that, but the whole school is involved with the Readings and Carols concerts that take place at the Princeton University Chapel. Let me tell you, this is no small undertaking! Anyway, our very last rehearsal couldn’t have been cosier because it was pyjama day – a variety of comfy clothing options were taken, but Dr Miller and I both had the right idea in taking the onesie route…


After that we had Readings and Carols, which yes takes a lot of work, but is such a beautiful concert when it all comes together. As a conducting graduate, I wasn’t performing, but instead was working behind the scenes. For me, that meant working with and looking after the sophomore choir, Schola Cantorum. They are the choir that I am working with this year as a graduate assistant, and I was so proud to watch them perform so beautifully.


My Westminster Choir experience of 2016 ended with our Christmas party. During such a stressful time, we all appreciated the opportunity to let off some steam. We ate, drank and were merry: this group of resonant singers are also very resonant talkers!

And with that, we have made it to the end of 2016. This year has been intense in many ways, and there has been a great deal for all of us to deal with. I’m proud of what I have achieved this year and I am ridiculously excited for our upcoming projects with Westminster Choir, from tour in January, to Anthracite Fields in April, the Spoleto festival in May and Barcelona in July! I go into 2017 having no idea where I will end up at the end of it, but that’s ok. I will work it out in time. We will be back in the new year with regular updates as we head out on tour. For now though, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!

(Today I will… family edition!)

Today I will enjoy the company of my family – Susan Hughes (my mum)

Today I will eat New York cheesecake – Sarah Hughes (my sister)



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What a remarkable month at Westminster Choir College. For most students on campus, November has felt like like an uphill climb, and Thanksgiving break the plateau that offers a welcome, but all too brief, respite. Westminster Choir, Symphonic Choir, Westminster Kantorei, Westminster Williamson Voices, and Westminster Jubilee Singers have all had big performances this month, chances for the singers to finally present two months of hard work and artistic internalization. Of course, these performances are only a small portion of a student’s rigorous academic requirements. For me, this rigor takes the form of two impending term papers and a finals-week MasterSingers recital, but it’s no more than anyone else. Each student is equally swamped in his or her major’s equivalent workload. For many of us, our performances have served as a needed opportunity to reflect on concepts bigger than the present moment.

It already seems so long ago, but we were truly thrilled to finally share the Westminster Choir program with two wonderful audiences during the first weekend of November, first in Fairview Village, Pa., and then back home in Princeton. We had thoroughly learned, memorized (mostly), contemplated, and truly lived with the music for the better part of two months, and the resultant art was itching to be shared. Looking back, with the performances having come and gone, and everyday commitments having continued, it’s easy to lose sight of how special it was to add the dynamic of an engaged, paying audience, along with a new space that has its own spirit and function.

The sanctuary of Trinity Lutheran Church is a simple space — flat, open, non-ornate, but absolutely reverential and beautiful. I think adaptation, or maybe acclimation, becomes a crucial task for any performer when these new elements of space and audience are added, especially given the fact that our performance is hardly a “park and bark.” Dr. Miller strives to consider every aspect of the performance — aural, visual, and conceptual — to engage the audience as deeply as possible, and in that vein, to bring something for everyone present. We had run through the entirety of our staged program on campus in Hillman Hall, which certainly spoils us, but we needed to consider and own the subtleties of our new space – incorporate it into our music-making rather than clash. We spent the afternoon doing just that, so when the evening came, tuxes/dresses went on, and the audience arrived, we were ready, and the excitement took over.

I think for many of us, myself included, that first performance felt like a blur. Like I’ve mentioned, we can run through the thing as much as we’d like, but until you do so for an audience, you’re not quite sure what the experience feels like. Everyone had moments of “…what comes next…” or “whoops that was supposed to be an F-sharp” or “Sweet Oz, I’m certain the entire audience just heard my voice crack.” But there were even more moments of significance in which we could palpably feel the impact of a musical moment on the entire room, and of each person deciding to trust those around them even more. We had the opportunity to share our “Today I will…” message (see retreat blog) with a new group of people. We invited audience members to submit their own statements either by paper or online, which we will now continue to take with us as we perform this program. This is just one way we felt ourselves tangibly bringing the program to life, and there’s no greater reward for a performer. Overall, it was a wonderful, successful performance that the audience received openly, and from which we were able to learn and feel fulfilled. I’d like to acknowledge Michael Monaghan, WCC alumnus, who serves as Director of Liturgical Music at Trinity – he was a warm host, and showed us the positive impact our alumni can have on musical communities. Also, thank you to the Westminster alumni who were present at the performance! Choir members certainly enjoyed reconnecting.

The beloved Bristol Chapel back on our home turf was the performance space for the following Sunday. While there were similar considerations in terms of adapting to the space (anyone who has performed in Bristol truly understands the acoustic impact of a room full of bodies), we had discovered a crucial piece of information the night before: the program works! We could get through it! Of course…we knew it all along. But now that we had actually done it, things were just a bit calmer on our end. The atmosphere was very different during this performance; it was mid-afternoon (lighter), and there were far more familiar faces in the audience. Of course, in this context performers become just a bit more aware of their actions and how they are perceived. I think this is what really served as the new element for our Sunday performance, unlike Saturday when simply performing was a new experience. Again, we had wonderful day, and we were excited to hear more about some of the ways the audience members were impacted by our program.

Now, I’d like to take a moment and zoom in from the universal, to talk about something personal: I will never forget the feeling of walking out for my first performance as a member of the Westminster Choir, or the sensation of singing the Lutkin Benediction to conclude our home performance in Bristol. Throughout my time as an undergrad (go Dukes!), I continually looked up to this ensemble as a point of inspiration for what was possible, in terms of both sound and artistic impact. To now say that I have performed with this ensemble, in the company of such excellent musicians, who are also among the best of people – it’s difficult to describe. Thank you to the members of the Westminster Choir, and thank you to those who have come before and set the precedent. You fill my heart with joy.

Well, in the time since that first weekend in November, I mentioned that there were a number of performances. Included was the Symphonic Choir’s first run-out with the Philadelphia Orchestra since the strike, which cut the Mozart run a bit short. We had wonderful experiences performing Ravel’s more abstract Daphnis et Chloé with an otherworldly orchestra, under a truly fantastic conductor, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Considering the recent tumultuous times in our country, this work and our music making provided a wonderful reminder of our, musicians and audience members alike, shared humanity.

Currently, the Westminster Choir is taking a bit of break form our tour program and is busy working on some Christmas music for our annual benefit concert at the Racquet and Tennis Club in NYC. As arguably the world’s biggest fan of Christmas, it’s possible that I’m getting a little TOO into the music during rehearsals, but hey, it only comes around once a year. There was even more excitement last week as we received our travel itinerary for our trip to Spain and the World Symposium on Choral Music next summer! Needless to say, we all cannot wait for that opportunity.

Something strange now — in three weeks the semester will be over, and we’ll be looking forward to a nice break, followed by our winter tour across the Southeast. The time has already flown by. As we return from Thanksgiving break and dig in for the most intense time of the semester, it’s important to remember things that are bigger than academics. I’ll close again with two Today I will… statements, one by junior music education major, Cecelia Snow, and another by first year conducting major, Sinhaeng Lee:

“Today, I will forget about yesterday, and let go of what I want tomorrow to be.”
– Cecelia

“Today I will be grateful for all the people around me and for all the experiences at Westminster as I look back at my first four months in America.”
– Sinhaeng


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First Performance

November 5, 2017

Happy Guy Fawkes night UK! Back home, there’ll be bonfires and fireworks tonight. Meanwhile in the US, tonight is the night of Westminster choir’s first performance, taking place at the Trinity Lutheran church in Pennsylvania.

For all of us, this last month has been a tough month. From midterm exams to the Westminster plague (I’ve recently gone down with a fun cold myself…), we’ve all had a lot on our plates. As a choir, we have spent the last month bringing our program together, learning it as deeply as we can and exploring what we have to say with it. There have been times where it hasn’t been easy, but we can always help each other out when we’re having difficulty with something.

Personally, this last month has been a hectic one. A couple of weeks ago was my final conducting recital with master singers, the choir for student conductors here to work with. I sing with this choir every day at Westminster, but on three occasions, I’ve been fortunate enough to prepare my own recitals with them. I’ve learnt so much through this process and coming to the end of it, I was met with mixed feelings of relief that the hard work paid off and sadness that it was over. It feels like yesterday that I stood in front of that choir for the first time a year ago, trembling like a leaf. While conducting in that rehearsal, Dr Miller, who teaches this class, stopped me, put his arm around me and said “Everyone, this is how you build a mediocre choir.” Needless to say, that hurt. BUT it gave me the determination to learn and to improve. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting that first rehearsal anytime soon…

Another October highlight was a visit from Simon Halsey and the London Symphony Chorus, who sang with Westminster Symphonic Choir for a day. I’ve known Simon for a few years now, as he was director of choral activities in Birmingham where I studied for my undergrad. He was one of my main inspirations in choral music and later in learning about conducting. I would not be where I am today without his wisdom, passion for what he does, and encouragement. What was truly bizarre was to see him and Dr Miller side by side, two men from two different continents who have taught me so much in what it means to be a conductor and a musician. It was definitely one of those ‘ok this is surreal my life is crazy’ moments…


Our final rehearsal last night was pretty successful – to bring out our expression and story- telling abilities, Dr Miller instructed us to sing to Marge. Let me introduce you to Marge:

Isn’t she great!

The altos wore their ‘altoast’ T-shirts from our retreat Olympics for solidarity. I was initially devastated to discover that all of the color had drained from my t-shirt in the wash. I asked my fellow altos if any of them had a marker pen, so I could at least write ‘altoast’ on mine and be part of the team! Later, I realized that the color hadn’t drained out at all: the t-shirt was just inside out… Competent adult in grad school right here… Glad I shared that journey with the entire alto section.

So yes, we all have intensely busy schedules right now and yes, I may have a cold and a lack of common sense, but today I will let all of that go and enjoy our first performance of the season with Westminster Choir: I cannot wait.

Today I will appreciate the people around me as well as myself – Emily Sebastian (Westminster Choir soprano)

— Claire


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2016 Retreat

This is the first post by the Westminster Choir’s 2016-2017 bloggers: Claire Hughes and Scott Koven.  They’ll be sharing the honors this year, posting individually and together.

claire-formal                   scott_formal


For the students at Westminster Choir College, the relaxed schedule of summer, graduate entrance exams, choral hearings, “row, row, row your boat,” and idealistic semester goals seem like the distant memories of a person who has far too much time on his or her hands. With three weeks of school under our belt, the rigor of academic requirements, our jobs, busy ensemble rehearsal schedules (did we mention the symphonic choir had two weeks to learn Mozart’s C-minor Mass?), and more pragmatic day-to-day goals have become the pervading concerns. For the members of the Westminster Choir then, a weekend away at the Cross Roads camp in Port Murray, N.J. was exactly what the doctor ordered — Dr. Miller in this case. It was retreat weekend for our 44 strong, and we experienced the whole gamut of emotions as we made music, connected, competed, and stripped our concert program’s meaning down to its core: Today I will…

Claire’s Perspective:

My retreat experience was more important to me than I could have expected. Five of us travelled up together late Friday afternoon, and as we packed up the car and left (as the smallest I took my regular seat in the middle), it was a relief to leave the stresses of our daily workload behind for a couple of days. Our journey was spent chatting and attempting to memorize the music we needed to learn for the retreat. Fifty rounds through the alto line of Brahms Abendständchen later, we arrived. The grounds were beautiful, a much calmer environment than our usual Princeton surroundings.

Our first rehearsal took place that evening, and it is always refreshing to rehearse somewhere different. The sounds of wildlife outside could be heard in the rests in the music. Memorization tests were generally successful and not as stressful as we had anticipated after all. We then went on to discuss the meaning behind our concert program this year, of living in the moment and embracing what you have while you have it, a message that is easily lost in the frenzy of our everyday lives. Dr. Miller asked us to complete the sentence ‘Today I will…’ We have been thinking of ways we can engage our future concert audiences in this idea, and if we can perhaps encourage them to also complete this sentence: this shall be a working progress throughout the year.

Next on the schedule was team building games, run by my fellow conducting graduate Jacob Truby. He really did an amazing job with these games, and one of the most poignant moments of the trip was during one of these. The game was simple: sit in a circle, close your eyes. In small groups, we would go around the circle and touch someone’s shoulder if you had enjoyed working with them this year. If they had changed you in some way, you would touch their head. As I sat in the circle, eyes closed, I was overwhelmed by how many people reached out to me. Such a simple way of showing affection was deeply powerful and I felt tremendous gratitude toward everyone in that room, most of all to Jacob. This game was followed by ‘kissing rugby’… in which I was very nearly squashed. The evening ended outside, gathered around a campfire underneath the stars. As an asthmatic on choir retreat, this was probably a terrible idea, but it was well worth it!

The next day, we rehearsed through the morning. Before lunch, Jacob had another activity in store for us – this time, Westminster skits! In our documentary portrayal of Westminster Choir College, I portrayed a clueless freshman (typecasting as I have been told I look about 12 on multiple occasions, but might as well embrace it!). From musical theatre to movie trailer, all the skits were hilarious. Turns out we’re a fun group, which bodes well for the coming year…

The finale of our activities at the retreat was sectional Olympics, in which the four sections of the choir battled it out with eggs, spoons, balloons and oranges for ultimate glory. Altoast! (we wore t-shirts with pictures of toast on. Obviously).
Though we may have come last in the games, and I may have fallen over once or twice, the altos hold their heads high. The victory of character undoubtedly goes to the altos! After the Olympics, a group of us played a game of (American) football, and this was the first time I had ever played. I was on Dr. Miller’s team, and I didn’t really know what was going on…but it was fun! And again, although we may have lost the match, we can hold our heads high etc.

At dinner, we sang for the retreat staff to thank them for all their help. I realized as we were singing that this was our first time as the Westminster Choir to perform. Felt pretty good I must say. Also those brownies for dessert were delicious. Chocolate and singing. What more could you want?

By the final rehearsal, we were understandably exhausted and concentration wasn’t easy, but we managed the best we could. Before we were sent on our way, Dr. Miller had one more treat in store for us. He read poetry to us and spoke to us with such honesty and compassion that there was barely a dry eye in the room. Showing vulnerability takes great courage, and clearly he has this in abundance: it is truly inspiring to witness and to be a part of. Coming away from all this, I felt simultaneously drained and rejuvenated. I cannot wait to make more music with these wonderful people this year!

Today I will think of faraway friends and family.

Scott’s perspective:

It warmed my heart to make my way up the mountain (hill) and arrive at the open field in which Cross Roads rests. Hailing most recently from the Shenandoah Valley, the grassy hill, smell of the surrounding wood, and peaceful seclusion reminded me of the beauty one experiences on a trip through Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains (an image we may find useful as we continue preparing the Erb Shenandoah). As a newcomer to the school and to the Westminster Choir, I was particularly excited to learn more about the many wonderful and diverse personalities of our ensemble. Rather than attempting to recall each and every detail of this extremely full weekend, I will give what I believe to be the most meaningful experiences and impressions from the weekend; it’s just one perspective, but I’ll certainly attempt to be as universal as possible.

What better way to bond with your section than some fierce competition, and WOW this ensemble knows how to compete. What one day appeared to be a tame group of singers coming together to work toward professional-level music making, the next turned out to be more competitive than the final scene of a Mighty Ducks movie. Back at school on Monday, members of the Westminster Choir groaned their way through the day, wondering how they became so sore; then they remembered the weekend. Whether it was full-on collisions and three-minute stand-offs during Kissing Rugby, Dr. Miller bearing down on you in a game of pick-up football, or tall people hoisting up shorter section members to pass an orange from neck to neck during Sectional Olympics (yes you read that right), no energy was spared in each person’s attempt to win for their section. The Tenors came away with the win in our Sectional Olympics this year, but those of us newer members have already started thinking of ways to take them down next year…

On a less competitive note, of course one of the main purposes of the retreat is to connect with our fellow singers, and in addition to bonding with our sections through the Olympics, we also learned about one another through various whole-group and more personal activities. In one particularly meaningful activity organized by graduate conductor Jacob Truby, we closed our eyes and sat in circle; a few people at a time would walk around the circle and if they had already enjoyed working with a person they passed, they would touch them on the shoulder, and if they had been impacted more deeply by a person, they would touch them on the head. It was a wonderful way for everyone to realize how much they were positively influencing those around them, perhaps without even realizing it. Connection and learning continued in many ways throughout the weekend, ranging from talks around the bonfire, to impromptu conversations while relaxing on the deck of the cabin, to just having fun throwing a football or Frisbee. As a first year member, it was wonderful to become more familiar with my fellow choristers, and I think everyone felt this to some extent.


Finally, the music. Learning is only a small part of the process, so, we have a favorite Dr. Miller quote that helps us reach the next level of artistry: “What is the music?” It’s a simple question, and one with huge implications. It refers to more than just the theoretical and technical considerations in a piece — it challenges us to look deeper. What is the music accomplishing? What is being represented? What stands out? What makes the piece tick? When considering the prosody of our Paul Crabtree piece, this is exactly where we had to go. In the process, we grappled with the nature of death and the significance of our present. One line in particular stands out: “do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.” In considering this text, we arrived at what we believe to be the linchpin of the entire program, and it’s simply a response: Today I will _____. How will we live in our present, not knowing our future? As our performances near we will continue to contemplate and internalize the encouragement of the text, as well as our personal responses; ultimately we will encourage the audience to do the same. For now, I will close my thoughts on the weekend by providing my own response:

Today I will give up control.

This will be a pivotal year in our lives for both of us as members of Westminster Choir and as conducting students at Westminster Choir College. We look forward to sharing our experiences with you throughout the year, perhaps veering into topics outside of Westminster on occasion. For example, many members of the Choir also sing with the Westminster Symphonic choir, who are performing the Mozart Mass in C minor at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Hi Yannick if you’re reading this!). We’d also love to involve our ‘Today I will…’ program idea into this blog, to collect quotes from choir members and from people we meet as we travel and perform. What would be your answer? Here’s to what is already shaping up to be an incredible year!
Claire and Scott





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Spoleto Festival USA Day 8

After a gorgeous and relaxing Sunday, we started our Monday with a Westminster Choir rehearsal at 11a.m. Finally we got to sing tonal music! (Sorry, Lachenmann, but we miss singing.)

We started working on the Gala concert music, one piece being a beautiful commissioned work by John Kennedy. Dr. Miller explained to us that John Kennedy has hardly written choral music, yet the piece he wrote, titled Blessing the Boats, is one of the most peaceful and ethereal works we’ve had the privilege of singing. After a short lunch break, we had an afternoon Lachenmann orchestral rehearsal, followed by a night rehearsal in Memminger Auditorium. We began integrating the shadow puppet show with the orchestra part, while Helmut Lachenmann was there to help with musical notes. Because the set is still being adjusted, some of the stage hands have precautionary helmets. Hilariously enough, they gave Helmut a helmet. The pictures and memes that ensued are priceless.


Helmut wearing a Helmet.  Photo by Kanisha Feliciano

By the end of the two rehearsals, we were pretty pooped. We’ve had enough subdividing for one day. Time to hit the hay.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 7

It’s a Sunday and we have the day off! Woo! A ton of us are going to hit the local beaches and get some sun. To keep y’all entertained, I’m just gonna post a few amusing/inspiring/ridiculous quotes (mostly from Dr. Miller) that I’ve written down in my music from previous rehearsals. Enjoy!

“You’re unusual. Thank you.”
—-Jerry McCoy, after being a guest conductor for us last semester

“I want you to sound like you’re 10 days drunk and you’ve been smoking for 55 years.”
—-Dr. Miller, about Debussy’s Trois Chansons, 1/10/16

“I want to see some sparkle in your dead eyes.”
—-Joseph Flummerfelt, written in the copy of Debussy’s Trois Chansons that I borrowed from the library (the choir sang it 10 years ago under his direction)

“Don’t ever stop being silly.”
—-Dr. Miller

“The goal is not to match each other, but to resonate together.”
—-Dr. Miller

“It has to be perfect. So be perfect.”
—- Dr. Miller

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 6

Our first “rehearsal” was at 2pm today, thankfully. With the morning off, we always go out exploring. Charleston is a very diverting city. The plethora of coffee shops, bakeries, Southern comfort food restaurants, and tons of eccentric little shops decorating the ever-crowded King Street keep us occupied for our free time. As Spoleto musicians, we straddle this odd gap between tourists and residents – quickly learning how to get around, but constantly gawking at the never-ending attractions Charleston has to offer.

During our afternoon rehearsal, they started doing mic checks. As they were turning the mic up, the feedback started ringing through out the space. From the opposite side of the choir, I started hearing a commotion of moving chairs, stands, and people before someone from the choir called for Dr. Miller. Pauli, a member of our choir, had fainted. In order to be carried out, the mics had to be turned off and that section of the orchestra had to clear out. After he’d been hauled out and whisked away to the hospital, we continued rehearsal. The show must go on, as they say.

Regardless, we were all worried about Pauli. During our dinner break, we found out he had received a minor concussion, but was returning for the evening rehearsal. It was a simple, yet firm reminder that although we seem to be in a harmless profession, we always need to make sure our bodies can handle the events of the day. Our instrument is our body, and thus we must be physically prepared for every rehearsal and performance venue.


Choir 3 women taken by Fiona Ellis


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Spoleto Festival USA Day 5

Thankfully, the morning rehearsal was cut down to just an hour. It was just Westminster Choir and D. Millz (aka Dr. Miller) in the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. Probably the most revealing thing yet: Dr. Miller telling us that he got lost just as many times as we did the previous night and was extremely proud of us for how we fared. We went through a few pages in the score, warmed up, then finished 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

After lunch was our first rehearsal in Memminger Auditorium, the actual production performance space. It’s extremely difficult for me to do justice to the set-up of this production. Apparently, a construction crew was hired to make platforms for the full orchestra that are about 2 stories tall and hold the entirety of us (180+ people). The shadow puppet show is the focal point of the production, so there are two side wings where the chorus and certain parts of the orchestra sit, while the majority of the orchestra sits at the front of the space. That platform has a wall on which the puppet show is projected from underneath the main part of the orchestra. We all have stand lights to see our scores since the performance is done in the dark, which means we have intricate wiring throughout the whole orchestra and choir. Not only that, but each of us choristers has a wooden table to store all of our extraneous instruments. They also have small digital screens distributed in the wings, which show John Kennedy conducting in real-time with measure numbers in the corner of the screen so that we can stay together. The whole set-up is impressively elaborate.


Selfie taken by Grant Farmer

We had an afternoon rehearsal and a night rehearsal, both equally difficult. Since there are few screens and none of the choristers can really see John Kennedy, it was hard keeping up with him. In between rehearsals, we went outside to get some fresh air, but it’s been so humid lately that it feels like we’re breathing in water.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 4

We had the morning off! It was glorious. Since we didn’t have a morning rehearsal, a lot of us spent the night exploring and having fun. A group of us choristers went to the Kickin’ Chicken for trivia night. They conveniently serve you delectable, fried foods while you attempt to answer trivia whilst competing against neighboring tables. It’s a game of who-can-remember-things-without-using-Google. It’s pretty legendary.

(Speaking of Google, Dave proved that he rightfully won the Passion Flower contest with a selfie.)

Our first rehearsal of the day was at the St. Johannes Lutheran Church with Lachenmann. Hilariously enough, before Lachenmann arrived, one of the members of the parish heard us practicing. She came out of the office chuckling because out of context, it sounded like we were passing gas. Helmut Lachenmann came halfway through our rehearsal to help us understand a few more of our score markings (most of the notation he invented himself).

We had a dinner break and then were scheduled to meet in the Gaillard Ballroom for a night rehearsal with the full orchestra. Let me reiterate the breadth of this performance. The orchestra is 140 instrumentalists strong including instruments like electric guitar and sound engineers who distort sound bites. Westminster Choir is 40 vocalists; there are 2 soprano soloists, a German text speaker, and John Kennedy as conductor. This was the first rehearsal of us putting it all together. There were puppeteers from all over the world sitting in the rehearsal, who’ll be telling the story using shadow puppets as we perform. Apparently they’ve been planning the puppet show using a recording of a previous production of the opera, so hearing it in real time must have been really new.

Honestly, this whole thing seemed to be very new for all of us. Having never heard the orchestral part before we were stunned by the inventive score writing Lachenmann had done for the instrumentalists. They had never heard us “sing” our part either so they were giving us as many confused looks as we were giving them. John Kennedy was conducting the heck out of everything, cueing everywhere that he could, subdividing everything with precision, and only stopping when necessary. Despite his superb conducting and all of our prior preparation, we got lost a million times. The score is just so insanely intricate that it was impossible to stay with it the whole time. It was both exhilarating and anxiety-inducing.

By the end of the three-hour rehearsal, the whole choir looked in dire need of rest. We trudged back to the dorm and conked out for the night.

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