The Feelings You Can’t Quite Describe

What does heaven sound like? This question was presented to us by Ayla Lepine in our 10 a.m. session, which really made everyone think for a moment. I know I had never a question like that before, and I started to think what it could be. Would it sound like something of Mozart, or Bach? Maybe we would hear church hymns constantly, or plainchant? Ayla began her speech about some of the history and architecture behind Oxford and specifically St. Stephen’s. The information was fascinating, involving various people who impacted the movement involving the Gothic-style revival and their artwork and other accomplishments, as well as the details of the church in St. Stephen’s that we sit in every day.

When talking about her final question of what heaven sounds like, we were all stumped. We could not think of answers right away, or so it seemed from the silence in the room, or the, “whoa, I never thought about that” answers. Ayla Lepine then explained what her ideas on the matter were and the answer that she believed in. Hopefully I understood correctly, but she touched on the idea that sensory details and the art works that we see and interact with, as well as the churches that become contact points between our world and heaven, may be the key. Another explanation she shared was that the sound of heaven is the upbeat of an entrance in music, as the best way I can describe it. When she showed us what she meant, it really made me think about what Dr. Jordan tells us about fantasizing what the sound is when you first conduct and start a piece. If you do not have that idea and fantasy of what the music sounds like, the music will not be what it has the potential to be. Once you have the idea and can hear that music, the music will come to life. Maybe this is what Dr. Jordan is talking about? I feel as though these ideas are linked, but maybe you can decide. Back on to the lecture though, learning about the architecture and the beauty behind the work that many did to establish the arts and buildings that exist today was incredible, as I felt I was starting to understand more behind being in Oxford.

After lunch, the FULL Williamson Voices came together for rehearsal to prepare for our concert at the end of the program. The feeling of having the whole family back together, singing as one, felt like I was home. This choir really is my family, and being together with everyone again, working toward one goal as a collective group felt like the missing piece to my summer found its spot in the puzzle. We rehearsed from 2 until 4, and worked on everything we have for our concert, including Berstein’s Chichester Psalms. Teatime followed, and again we were back into two choirs, rehearsing and working with our conducting friends.

The conductors are growing more and more every day, and seeing each conduct and work with Dr. Jordan is informational and fun. The conductors have very open hearts and minds to learning more and more each day, and really seem to love working with the choirs. Each time they conduct, the preparation they have come in with helps them, but then once they step in front, both James Jordan and James Whitbourn only find more and more ways to take their conducting from one level to the next.

Dinner involved a little bit of searching, but Jon, Gui, Peter and I eventually stopped at the Pink Giraffe. Hats off to them as our food was delicious, and we quickly headed back to St. Stephen’s for our next Compline service (and I do recommend grabbing a bite at the Pink Giraffe, just don’t expect a giraffe — they don’t have one).

Compline continues to get better, even after our second service. Isabella Burns rehearsed with us before starting our service, cleaning up some details and refining a little. Once the service started, everything went smoothly, as we are all starting to become one voice during the service. It is beautiful as we come together, though we may not share the same opinions or beliefs, to sing through the Compline and chant together, sing together, speak together, and I think, act together, as one rather than 75. I spent extra time afterwards to reflect on what has happened thus far on the trip, how I got here, and how lucky I really am. I know I have said this before, but I would not being doing this choir justice without saying it. This choir is amazing. I do not think you could find any choir anywhere else on Earth that cares for each other, supports each other, loves each other, and believes in each other like we do. If you don’t believe me, listen to the sound. I can hear in the sound that we make that there is an openness, honesty, and love that we all bring to the table when we come together and sing, that cannot be replicated anywhere else. We all joke about hashtag blessed, and tease, but I think it is a blessing that I have somehow been allowed to sing with this choir, and that we have all been given the opportunity, by Dr. Jordan, and whatever else it is, to come together as the family we are and to sing together.

That was all Friday though, and so now here is Saturday!!

The Choral Institute offered everyone an opportunity to go to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where we could take a small tour inside to see some original, hand written by composer’s themselves, works, including a manuscript of the Elijah by Mendelssohn (and yes we saw a little of Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir), pieces by Byrd and Tallis, and plenty more. Seeing these original scores and old manuscripts was incredible, as I thought about how much preservation it took to maintain the pieces and works. While talking with Emily Sung, my Schola Graduate Assistant this past year, she said it is interesting how we do not even think to maintain our copies of music, since we can always copy and print a new one. However, with the originals, if anyone had treated those scores the way we treat our copies, maybe the music we have today would not exist.

Luckily, I was in the last group to see the manuscripts and pieces at the Library, so I was able to sleep in. Thank. Goodness. The sleep was necessary, as we have had some long days at the Institute. Waking up for breakfast each morning at 8:30, and having classes and sessions throughout the day until about 6:30 every day, the Institute packs quite a bit into each day. We do have breaks though, so don’t worry too much!

Afterwards, our next conducting session occurred and wow, there was some real magic in the church today where my half of the choir rehearsed. One after another, each conductor made magic, connecting with the choir and stirring emotions that we thought we couldn’t find. No matter the song, no matter how late in rehearsal, the conductors evoked beauty from the choir. We shared beautiful moments, seeing Ryan as one of the choir, take the podium and conduct us through Sine paenitentia, or one of my favorites of the day, Alan, who touched our hearts while conducting Lux Aeterna by Thomas LaVoy.

Ryan said something today that really struck me. He said that while talking to Dr. Jordan, he realized that he took singing in the choir for granted (hope he doesn’t mind me posting!!!) and I realized that I do this far too often. I realized that during the year, I would show up to choir and I would be so glad I had that time to be with my family, but that wasn’t enough. I remember sitting out sick one day, hearing the sound, and feeling awful for not just going up and singing anyway, even if I would have felt worse after. I feel as though I need to appreciate the moments I have with the Williamson Voices more than I have in the past, because even as this week goes faster and faster, my time at Westminster continues to go faster as well. There is nothing I enjoy more while at Westminster than the time I have in Bristol Chapel, 4:30-6:00, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday every week with my favorite people.

But back to the entertaining things, I am now sitting in our common room with a great number of us, both choir and conductors, who are singing musical theater songs for all our enjoyment, with snacks and sodas, as we spend quality time together. This night is so much fun thus far, and I can’t wait to see who else will sing!!

For now, take care and I keep you posted more as we go! Tomorrow is our free day, and supposedly it involves some outdoors activity, the burger of everyone’s dreams, and more!! Have a good night!! I know I will!

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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