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.
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…
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.
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