Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We’re officially settled in Oxford as of this morning! We’ve endured the jet lag, the rain, and the exhaustion and here we are! Oxford, while at times reminding me (and the other Upstate New Yorkers) of home, is truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before—except maybe in “Love Actually.” But I’m getting ahead of myself—let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

The plane taxied into Heathrow at around 7:19 a.m. London time. As we groggily took off our sleep masks and finally unfastened our seatbelts, the excitement was tangible. Interestingly enough, we were informally accompanied all the way from Newark to Heathrow, and even out to the bus, by a boy choir from Pennsylvania; and, I have to say, those boys were perhaps the only ones whose energy surpassed ours—and that’s probably only because they’ve got 10 years on most of us. The cry of happiness and applause that accompanied the landing ushered in our new adventure.

After successfully navigating our way through customs, we all meandered over to a bus that would take us to Oxford. While some quietly chatted and others slept on the bus, many, both choir members and conductors alike, could barely contain their giddiness. Every few minutes one could here shouts of: “Oh my goodness! They’re driving on the wrong side of the road!” and “Look at all the cows!” Finally the kilometers ticked down and we reached our final destination—St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. From there the choir split up into our respective dormitories; some stayed right at St. Stephen’s House where most of our classes our held, while others of us walked the pleasant little stroll to Christ Church—another facility just around the corner from St. Stephen’s.

Settling into these dorms, for the record, was no trouble whatsoever; each room comes equipped with your standard spacious closet, work desk, comfy bed, and, best of all, a sink in your closet! That’s right—a sink. Upon my initial arrival to the room, I hadn’t even looked in the closets; it wasn’t until after a friend mentioned the sink in her room that I got curious. As soon as I returned to the room, I flung open the closet doors, and there it was, in all its porcelain splendor! My very own sink! What a luxury to literally be able to brush your teeth and hop into bed; I think I could get used to this European way of life.

After acclimating briefly to our accommodations, we embarked on a grand trek across town to pick up our official Choral Institute polo shirts. While this little jaunt turned into quite the hike (Oxford is a lot bigger than you’d think!), the sights we got to see along the way were truly incredible. I consider myself a pretty calm, cool, and collected individual, but I have to admit, when I saw the domed roof of the library, I could barely contain myself; much to my friends’ chagrin, I couldn’t help but pointing and practically shouting: “Wait! That’s the library?!” Regardless of my newly established high level of geekiness, I sincerely hope I can get back to that amazing building to do some exploring!

Soon, we were back at the dorms with our polos in our hands and our bellies full of the local fare, and it was already time to get to St. Stephen’s for the official welcome to the Choral Institute. We choir members, as well as the conductors and other teachers, were ushered into the beautiful church in the St. Stephen’s complex, where we were greeted by none other than the legendary James Whitbourn and the unforgettable Dr. James Jordan. These two great men walked us through the ins and outs of our Oxford schedule and, most importantly, the customs of daily life here. Here’s what we learned:

Rule #1: You do not, I repeat DO NOT, miss tea time. It is served at 4 o’clock sharp every day and, boy oh boy, you’d better be there. (I assure you, it’s not tortuous at all; I’ve since learned that English cookies are perfectly scrumptious.)

Rule #2: At the end of each day, regardless of who you are or how your day has been, we all come together for Compline—an event like none other.

While we certainly learned many other “rules” of Oxford during this introductory session (e.g. Dr. Jordan looks snappy in a blazer), I think the time has come to cut the suspense and get the very best part of our Tuesday together. That is, Compline.

I have to admit, coming into the Compline service, I was a little skeptical. I had no doubt that it would be interesting, but as natural-born cynic, I wasn’t sure about how much exactly I would get out of it. Even at my most optimistic, I don’t think I could have anticipated the magic that happened tonight in the chapel of St. Stephen’s. After a brief rehearsal of the procedures associated with Compline (which is, by the way, a coming together that happens at every college across Oxford at the end of every academic day), James Whitbourn deemed us ready to proceed. Before releasing us for a brief break preceding the service, James said to us, “And if someone does something wrong [during the service], it 100% doesn’t matter—it’s about the progress.” Right then and there, all my skepticism melted away and I realized that I was in for a treat.


From the moment we all entered in silence to the moment the last notes were sung, not a word was spoken out of turn, not a sideways glance was cast. The connection that was forged in those few moments of singing in unison, as a body of people—not singers and conductors—but people, was remarkable. No matter where we go from here or how our lives diverge from one another, we will always share that special memory of this special place where nothing but togetherness and progress matter. I can’t wait to see what the next nine days have in store for us!

Note:  Check out the Choral Music Institute at Oxford Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/ChoralMusicInstituteOxford  for photos and more news about the program.

About choralmusicinstitute

Presented by Westminster Choir College of Rider University and Oxford University's St. Stephen's House, the one-week institute provides instruction to all levels of conductors.
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