Old Sport

Saturday, July 12, 2014

For anyone who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the phrase “old sport” will ring a bell. Used as a term of endearment by Gatsby, it comes to represent his gentility and gregariousness. Whenever I think about Oxford University as a whole, I always picture Gatsby saying “I’m an Oxford man, old sport.” Part of the myth that arises around this enigmatic protagonist is that he, as a self-made American, studied at Oxford. While this distinction becomes more complicated as the plot develops, it leaves me wondering what exactly it means to be an “Oxford man/woman.”

As we settle into our routine here, I find myself thinking about what it would be like to actually study here. Our daily schedule is roughly similar to a typical day at St. Stephen’s House during the academic term. We eat most meals together; we have tea time every day together; we go to classes together; and at the end of the day, we sing at Compline together.

It’s really remarkable to me that classmates share meals and songs together each and every day at a prescribed time. In our American school system, we certainly spend much of our class-time together, but the interpersonal connections typically happen after the bell rings. Here, however, the school sets up the expectation that you will make these meaningful connections through the custom of sharing typically solitary events. How often do we just grab lunch on the go by ourselves? How often do we pick up the morning coffee by ourselves? When we sing in the shower, we are most certainly by ourselves. The dichotomy that exists between the aloneness of American education and the togetherness of British education is truly fascinating. In so many ways the simple act of eating together and closing the day together has brought the choir so much closer. It took us traveling across an ocean for some of us to even talk to each other. It’s not that we hold anything against our fellow singers or dislike them (quite to the contrary), but in our American culture we so often get caught up in the hustle and bustle of our daily personal schedules that we forget about the importance of communication and connection.

Thinking about what it means to be an “Oxford man/woman,” I can’t help but think that the culture and tradition of education here shapes that identity. In this most sacred house of learning, students cultivate their own interests and talents, but are never allowed to forget their place in the community. For us at Westminster, we’re lucky enough to sing with each other every single day, but when that becomes part of the daily grind we sometimes forget how lucky we are to be able to connect to one another in such a meaningful way.

Coming to Oxford has made me realize that what we have at Westminster and within Williamson Voices is so unique in our country. While we have comparatively limited exposure to each other, when we raise our voices together with a collective emotional goal in mind it forges bonds that are indelible. Before this program I sometimes wondered “why Oxford?” Now I understand that the beauty of Oxford is the beauty of Williamson Voices. As an “Oxford man/woman,” your education is defined by your connections to a common tradition. As a “Williamson Voices man/woman,” your education is defined by your connections to a common musical spirit. Even though at face value Oxford and Westminster seem very different, our shared commitment to fostering empathy and honest communication make us kindred spirits.

In closing, I’m very proud to be a Westminster Williamson Voices woman, old sport    

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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