Saturday, January 23, 2016

Taking Georgia By Storm, Southern Hospitality, and Snow

Hello from (snowy!) John's Creek, Georgia! Snow?! But aren't we in the South? Only the PLU Chorale would travel across the country to the land of sunshine and blue skies and discover that they actually did not leave winter behind as they supposed.

Yesterday was our first official day of tour - and we're off to a great start! The day started with breakfast at Best Western in Atlanta, followed by a "9:30" departure to the University of Georgia in Athens, about an hour and a half drive away. (Well, it was a 9:30 departure in theory. Some members of the male species in the choir have "a flexible relationship with time," as Dr. Galante has eloquently phrased it. In reality, we left at about 9:50.) We pulled away in the bus to familiar rain that seems keen to follow us Washingtonians everywhere.

It turns out that the state of Georgia, however, is not so familiar with "that wet stuff coming from the sky." Shortly after getting on the road in transit to the University of Georgia's Athens campus, we learned that the university was actually closing at 2:30 due to "inclement weather." We found this somewhat amusing, noting that if the same standards applied to schools in Washington, it'd take roughly twenty years to get a bachelor's degree. Quite fortunately, however, our time at UGA was scheduled to end at about 2:30 anyway. 

At about 11:30, our wonderful bus driver, Shawn (who was so kind as to say a blessing for our travels before our morning departure), pulled us up to the curb of UGA's campus, clearly beautiful even in the rain. The choir had a chance to enjoy a yummy lunch on campus before meeting in the choir room where UGA's impressive Hodgson Singers, directed by "wizard" Dr. Daniel Bara, were rehearsing. (Members of University Chorale that sang in the ensemble last year had the special experience of seeing Lauren Whitham, last year's director while Dr. Galante was on sabbatical. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Georgia and sings with the Hodgson Singers. What a neat experience it was, to see our previous director being directed, hear her sing in a wonderful ensemble, and then sing for her!)

We observed with great eagerness and enjoyment the Hodgson Singers' rehearsal. Dr. Bara then invited us to perform a song or two for the Singers. We sang our concert opener, "Richte Mich Gott," followed by Dr. Galante's own composition, "A Child My Choice." The welcoming Hodgon Singers were a kind audience, and thanked us for visiting them as they departed. A few, including Ms. Whitham, stayed behind to observe our clinic with Dr. Bara that followed the rehearsal.

It was truly a gift to work with Dr. Bara! His energy and enthusiasm encouraged us all to try embrace our full potential as a choir. After singing the same songs again and again, it can admittedly become easy to lose focus and go on auto-pilot as a performer. (This may also be a consequence of getting three to four hours of sleep the night prior.) Clinics such as ours with Dr. Bara yesterday, however, remind us of the beauty we can accomplish as an ensemble, refresh us, and offer a new perspective. 

...That being said, we were all sheepish smiles as we listened to Dr. Bara's input and advice when rehearsing with us, finding that it sounded all too familiar...Some of Dr. Bara's instructions were the very same words we'd heard from Dr. Galante, almost verbatim! As he smugly smiled in the corner, surely basking in the pride that always comes with the ability to say, "I told you so," we were all reminded of the mindfulness and mental attention that singing takes. More than anything, however, we've realized again and again, through Dr. Galante's instructions, Dr. Bara's suggestions, as well as our own experiences, that singing with a group is to be a "musical conversation." This means engaging, and engaging fully and courageously, with the people you are singing with. Indeed, one of Dr. Bara's most memorable pieces of advice was to embrace true eye-contact with fellow choir members while singing. It makes one vulnerable, Dr. Bara acknowledged, but it makes a difference. With this in mind, we rehearsed our J.A.C. Redford piece, "Let Beauty Be Our Memorial," which is usually performed without the direction of Dr. Galante. The result was beautiful. All in all, Dr. Bara was a delight to work with - and it was humbling that the feeling seemed mutual. "You guys are a hell of choir," were the words Dr. Bara left us with. "I'd love to keep conducting you for a long time."

All smiles, we said goodbye to Dr. Bara, to Ms. Whitham, and to the University of Georgia, as we got back on the bus bound for John's Creek United Methodist Church, near Duluth, where we'd be performing a 7:30pm concert. It wasn't a quick exit, however - You'll find that when a university campus closes in the middle of the afternoon for inclement weather, everyone leaves at the exact same time. But this wasn't a major frustration, as our time on the bus is spent by conversing with our fellow choir members, listening to music, reading, or (as was the case for this writer) attempting to catch up on some sleep. (The consequence of sleeping on your backpack, I've learned, is a series of interesting dents on your face when you wake up.)

Upon arrival at John's Creek UMC, we discovered that the evening's venue would be quite a treat to sing in. The church is grand, both by virtue of its size and design. An additional plus of this venue was that it offered another reunion - its Director of Music, Dr. Nathan Frank, directed Chorale two years ago, when Dr. Nance was on sabbatical and Dr. Galante took over Choir of the West in his absence. A few veteran members of Chorale enjoyed the chance to see both their first and second directors of the ensemble in a single day! 

Inside John's Creek UMC, we admired the large sanctuary, its beautiful wooden pews, huge windows, and the stained glass gracing the walls. In such a big sanctuary, however (It is capable of seating 1700), an audience can easily appear to shrink in number. Add to the fact that the unusual Georgia weather - windy, rainy, and daring to snow - had shops and schools closing, Chorale had a feeling that this wouldn't be our biggest audience.

Dr. Galante brought this to our attention, but stressed the importance of not getting discouraged by the size of an audience - that we would sing for whoever came, and if no one came, still we would sing. It didn't matter if there were four people, or four hundred, or four thousand. "Don't think about who or how many people you're performing for," Dr. Galante advised us. "Just go up there, and have a musical conversation." 

After a brief rehearsal in the sanctuary to get the feel of singing in the space, we were treated to  dinner held in a nice fellowship room, and then proceeded to prepare, both physically and mentally, for our first performance of the tour. We donned our fancy black dresses and spiffy tuxedos and, come 7:30, entered the sanctuary.

Outside the window, rain fell, gusts of winds blew, and snow made an occasional appearance. The size of our crowd reflected hesitations about the uncertain and unusual weather. However, while I comment on the size of the audience, I want to make it clear that the size really wasn't that important. Those who were there were happy to be there, listening carefully, clapping heartily, and warmly encouraging the  University Chorale from a school most had never heard of, in a city few knew the name of. After the concert, we were welcomed, thanked, and complimented as though we were their own. And while many of us walked off the stage initially feeling a little discouraged (May I advise one to try to get more than three or four hours of sleep before performing an evening concert in a different time-zone?), we came to realize that our audience, though small, had truly loved it. 

It made me realize that while we seek to perform to our best ability, achieve the perfect performance, and present the best possible concert we can, music does not have to be perfect to be meaningful, and felt, and valued, and loved. Certainly, I'm not encouraging us to be lazy singers and make mistakes. I just invite us to acknowledge - while we will strive to make each concert our new best, and ought to do so, it's not about us, after all. It's about the people sitting in front of us, no matter who they are or how many there are. At the conclusion of yesterday evening's concert, those people  stood up and heartily gave us a standing ovation. I think that's something we can be proud to sign our names to.

Following the concert came my favorite part of choir tours - the home-stays! Many kind and generous congregation members, surely acting in the spirit of that good old Southern hospitality, took groups of us into their homes for the night and provided for us all the kindness and courtesies they would offer their best guest, while simultaneously welcoming us as warmly and comfortably as they would their own family. Members of Chorale went their separate ways as they found the eager and smiling people holding up pieces of paper stating the names of the students that they'd be "adopting" for the night.

The next morning we met back at the church (our home-stay parents provided the transportation), beaming and laughing at the unexpected snow that was falling, making teeny tiny snowmen in the parking lot, and sharing our home-stay stories. Each was convinced that his or her home-stay was the best.

But, really, mine was the best. Allow me to brag: My home-stay, shared with three other wonderful ladies in Chorale, brought me two of the kindest, most hospitable people I've ever met, a five-month old puppy named Bear, a home that was taken straight out of a Pottery Barn magazine, 10pm cheeseburgers, fries, and brownies (What can you expect? We're college students.), story-sharing, and laughter. Upon going upstairs to our rooms to get ready for bed, the girls and I found chocolates placed on our pillows. I personally slept so well that I really don't believe I moved. We woke to a breakfast of home-made cinnamon rolls, bacon, fruit, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, juice, and were offered everything else in between. After breakfast, I took a few moments to simply sit in a cushy armchair by the fireplace with a puppy at my feet. Such a hard life. 

While ever grateful (and boastful) for my home-stay, according to what I've heard from fellow choir members, it seems that everyone had just as pleasant of a time in John's Creek, Georgia. We were so thankful for the kind reception, and left the city with a great opinion of it, and a great appreciation for all the people we had the pleasure of meeting. 

Though I admittedly started this particular post this morning in John's Creek, the University Chorale is now in transit (late) to Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama! This day has already had its fair share of the excitement of sight-seeing, and the hiccups of delays (I'm proposing a new tour theme!), all of which I can't wait to tell you about tomorrow. As for now, wish us luck as we attempt to arrive "on time" (a relative phrase today) in Birmingham, and continue to "tell the world" - we're not always on schedule, we may have to switch buses because the original's compression lines may have frozen, and the bus's heat may not be working, and our time for rehearsal for tonight's concert may have all but disappeared...but nonetheless, we're blessed.

Check out Allie's video of Friday's fun below! Thanks for stopping by, and we'll talk to you later ;)

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