Gettin’ in the Groove

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

As our first full day of classes is nearing its end, it’s quite evident that we’re “gettin’ in the groove” of this Oxford thing! For most, the jet lag has worn off and the magic has started. Today’s lectures, sessions, and rehearsals were absolutely inspiring for one and all.

The day started with a hearty English breakfast of fried eggs, sausage, tomatoes, yogurt, toast, and cereal. (Oh, and don’t forget the much-needed coffee.) Breakfast, while certainly different from the American breakfasts I’m used to, was not, however, my largest dose of culture shock for the day. In order to use the electrical outlets in our rooms, we need particular adapters. Until this morning, I had had no issues with said outlets; that is until I brought out the now notorious travel blow dryer. I had been warned against using hair dryers in Oxford because the voltage on the sockets is different here; I, in my infinite wisdom, however, thought that because my travel dryer is tiny, maybe I won’t need to worry about the voltage. Man, was I wrong. After breaking my adapter and blowing a fuse in my room, I set off with soaking wet hair to find myself a new adapter. Luckily, or unluckily rather, another girl in the choir had done the very same thing so I had a traveling companion. It took quite a while to locate the type of adapter we needed, but we eventually found it in a store called “Fred’s Discounts,” which was aptly described by a local as selling “all kinds of bits and bobs.”

When I got back to my room, I realized that the fuse had blown as none of my outlets worked with my new adapter. Knowing that there was no way trustworthy Fred (of “Fred’s Discounts”) would have sold me a faulty adapter, I tracked down a very helpful security guard who went into the electrical box and fixed my blown fuse situation. I wish I could have been inside his head while I was explaining what I had done; he was probably thinking “Stupid American. I’m glad we let them go.” All in all, I have to say that, luckily, my first culture shock moment was adventure-filled but harmless.

From there we went to St. Stephen’s House to join the conductors for a series of lectures. The first was given by Ronald Leopold, the director of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Having seen the Westminster Williamson Voices’ performance of Whitbourn’s Annelies at Lincoln Center this past April, Mr. Leopold was rather excited to speak with us about his perspective on the legacy of Anne Frank. Covering a range of historical facts and figures regarding Anne’s diary and short life, the lecture was incredibly engaging and informative. While I loved hearing the history of it all, what I found most interesting and refreshing was Leopold’s discussion of the dilemmas that arise when studying Anne Frank’s life and legacy. Many times when we hear discussions about Anne Frank she is presented as the singular martyr of the Holocaust, which of course is not true. She has become in many ways an idealized and romanticized figure. Anne’s talent and courage are of course admirable and striking, but it was very intriguing to hear Leopold speak to the philosophical dilemmas of educating the public about her life without exaggerating her impact to the point of becoming offensive.

As performers of Annelies, many of us struggled to find a connection to the tragedy we portrayed. How can we possibly begin to understand the horrors of the Holocaust? We’ve all had our challenges in life, but truly nothing can compare to that atrocity. It was incredibly refreshing and reassuring to hear one of the leading historians on Anne Frank relate to our struggle to find the connections. In fact, he asserted that our struggle was actually a testament to Anne and the other victims of the Holocaust; our insecurity meant that we recognized that we can never know what that was like and that we therefore understand and appreciate the tragedy and bravery of this chapter in our collective human history. For me, this session was not only intellectually stimulating but spiritually challenging in the best way possible. This impression, I have no doubt, will last with me for a very long time.

Then, Edward Higginbottom of Oxford University spoke to us about the evolution and restoration of the music of the Chapel Royal under King Charles II. As musicians, we deal with politics all the time. Any historical piece that we sing has a socio-political context that informs performance. Whenever we audition for something we can’t help but wonder what latent political maneuvering behind the scenes might affect our chances. Higginbottom’s discussion of Cromwell’s disbanding of the royal court musicians after the Puritan Revolution was quite fascinating in that one could easily see the connections to our world today. The misfortune of that situation, in which dozens of musicians were thrown out of work and education was halted, actually reminds me of a similar predicament that’s happening in public schools across the country today as arts education is left on the back-burner. It’s really interesting and quite sad to see how history truly does repeat itself. Hopefully, though, we in music education will see the restoration and renaissance of our craft in the schools as the likes of Locke and Purcell saw in the Chapel Royal in the 17th century.

After a yummy lunch break, we reconvened for a session that could have been titled “Evensong 101.” For those of you, like me at about noon today, who don’t know what Evensong is, it’s the Anglican evening prayer similar to the Catholic Vespers. There are usually several readings as well as chant and psalmody. Today, Daniel Hyde, also of Oxford University, taught us – in one hour – practically everything we needed to know about an Evensong service, including a new piece by Gibbons, and then off we went! In two hours most of us went from not even possessing the word “Evensong” in our vocabulary to participating and leading a full-fledged service. I think many of us learned that we’re not quite as awful at sight-reading as we had previously thought. It really is remarkable how immersion, cultural and musical, brings out the best in us.

Our next session was our first master class with the conductors. For two solid hours we were conducted by some of the greatest up-and-coming conductors from literally around the world. Although the skill-levels varied, as to be expected, every single individual brought the best of himself/herself to the choir. The choir, by the way, is halved for the purpose of time and rotates as a mini-unit between the groups of conductors (e.g. today, I sang with my mini-unit for one half of the conductors and tomorrow I’ll sing for the other half). Seeing the diversity of expression and style among the conductors, as well as their humility and grace in the face of constructive criticism, was a great lesson for me as a singer and future music educator. I learned not only about the challenges a conductor faces as s/he polishes his/her craft, but also about how to give criticism that comes from a place of kindness, but is not overly sentimental. This session truly was a wonderful experience all the way around. It will be very exciting to see how these talented conductors grow in the next few days.

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Finally, we closed our day with an open rehearsal of some of our repertoire. We, as Westminster Williamson Voices, were conducted by both Dr. Jordan and James Whitbourn in preparation for our upcoming master classes with the conducting fellows. The conducting fellows were invited to observe the rehearsal and the techniques of both Dr. Jordan and James Whitbourn. I dare say that to be given such a privilege, even for an hour and a half, is priceless. Having been lucky enough to have worked with Dr. Jordan all year and even to have known James Whitbourn for the few months since the Lincoln Center performance, I have learned more about choral singing and spirituality in music than I had ever thought possible. It’s because of these men that I am here today and I sincerely hope that my fellow singers and conductors at this fantastic institute gain as much in the next days as I have this year.

More to come tomorrow. Now, it’s time for some much needed sleep!

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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