Final Reflections, by Betsy Pilkington

Final Reflections

By Betsy Pilkington, senior alto
Major:  Music Education

I must begin by saying that this tour was my very last experience not only with choir at Drake, but Drake University in general.  I graduated on December 14 and entered our final week of rehearsals before the tour with quite a heavy heart knowing that this was “it” for me.  With the overwhelming feeling of goodbye dominating my mind, I boarded the plane that would bring me somewhere I’ve always loved and admired from afar.  Our first day was absolutely exhausting, but in all honesty, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.  That day made it possible for me to push the goodbyes from my mind and focus on the incredible experience I had just been given.  From that moment on, I would make it my desire to completely live within the span of moments, instead of weighing my mind heavily on the future.  And that’s exactly what I did.   

Day 2 brought the fulfillment of a life-long dream: to see the grave of one of the most influential writers in my life, J.R.R. Tolkien.  This was a pivotal moment for me that happened extremely early on in the trip.  It felt like coming home, in a way – silly, I know, but his series of books have brought me through difficult times.  And thus, a better start to the tour could not have been asked for.  I began to take the experiences I encountered very deliberately, as if at any moment they could be ripped from me. I took in my surroundings with extraordinary reverence, trying my best to keep silent and thoughtful as I walked.  I saw sights I could only dream of and I became overwhelmingly aware of the timelessness of this country.  Life moves differently in England, and time there is serenely suspended.  I recall walking across the Oxford University campus and thinking about the genius born from this single location--an overwhelming sense of connectivity between and among humanity.   Inspiration for knowledge is what would eventually light the world – and this is where much of it began.  The concert that night was enlightening, as if to reflect what we had learned and experienced that day.

The days that followed brought much of the same inspiration.  Every cathedral we stepped into, every tour we participated in, was an extraordinary testament to the beauty and richness of English history and its huge contributions to Western thought and action.  To heighten this historical web of emotion, I stood at the graves of amazing figures like Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, kings and queens of England, and other monuments that represented England’s incredible contributions to life, literature, government, society, and, perhaps most importantly, music.  Every location we sang in brought tears to my eyes. I can still remember staring at the ceiling in Gloucester Cathedral, wondering about every musical sound that had ever been contributed to the space.  The Chamber Choir’s sound is now permanently a part of that sound, adding to the centuries of life and love created by the human spirit.

As I grew closer to my colleagues and as time went on, I was once again reminded that this was a goodbye experience for me.  I remember driving into London late on Friday night, after our extraordinary experience in singing at Witham, thinking that these were my last days to spend with some of these people.  I refused to allow anyone to talk about the end of the trip in my presence.  Some might call it denial, I would call it living in the moment (perhaps to the extreme).

Any further acknowledgement of the end only brought us closer to that stinging truth.  And that was somewhere I did not want to be.  I spent time alone in the city, exploring some incredible sights.  I got teary-eyed looking at original manuscripts by Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel.  I found my family name in an ancient registry of English family crests.  I met people who lived a world away from me, and yet still found plenty of things to discuss and chat about.  I tried new things, I reverted to old things, and all the while desperately clung to my final days of bliss.

In reflection, perhaps I was a tad dramatic in refusing to acknowledge the end of the tour.  But in a way, I didn’t want to acknowledge what truly was the end of my college education.  That’s ultimately what this trip meant to me.  It marked the end of an era: a time of exploration, joyful bliss, humor, happiness, meaningful relationships, and most importantly, really, really great choral singing.  This, in a nutshell, was my tour experience as well.  It occurred to me that I might never experience music-making like this again, and if I’m going to be honest with you, I must say that this really upsets me.  I had no idea how much it meant, how fast it all goes, until now that it’s over.  There’s so much I wish I would have done.  Moments I wish I had clung to, sounds I could have lived in forever, but such is life.  We are thankful for what we’ve been given, and the best thing we can do is to turn that into something meaningful for someone else.

At the final concert, I realized something. Throughout this entire experience, our music became the one thing that would consistently lift my spirit.  Though our return marked a new and frightening beginning for me, while the Chamber Choir sang, all was well.  Every concert renewed my soul and allowed me optimum reflection on all I’ve learned, experienced, and enjoyed throughout my time at Drake.  I can honestly say that this group of individuals has been the most consistently musical, wonderfully committed, and graciously joyful I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of.  When met with challenge, they would always rise to the occasion.  Though young, I have no doubt that each and every one of them will grow into incredible human beings (goodness, I sound elderly).  It should be known that all of them have shaped me throughout these past couple weeks.

In conclusion, I’d just like to add that I am absolutely terrified by the prospects of what life has in store for me.  I constantly doubt if I have the confidence, skill, or courage to go out into the adult world and make something of myself for the world.  However, this trip and, truly, all of my time at Drake, has convinced me that no matter what will come, I will keep standing.  I will always fight for beauty and perfection, subtlety and nuance.  Life is too precious for judgment and ignorance, so I know that I must live for what I love every day.

Northern Lights: Pacific Lutheran University's The Choir of the West (Richard Nance, conductor)

Lightly Stepped a Yellow Star: Brigham Young University Choir, Ron Staheli

Lightly Stepped a Yellow Star - Michigan State University University Singers; David Rayl

I Will Be a Child of Peace - Elaine Hagenberg

A Soft Day (USC Thornton School of Music Chamber Singers - Jo-Michael Scheiber, conductor)

Final journal entry: Tour take-aways

Wednesday, January 23, 2014
By Tom Florian, senior tenor
Majors: Marketing and Finance 

We enjoyed one final dinner, complete with the customary tour awards, after seeing Les Miserables Tuesday evening and then caught a few precious hours of sleep before our extensive day of travel. Our coach whizzed through London, making its way to Heathrow. Luggage in hand, choir members filed into the terminal, many giving Anita, our beloved guide, a warm hug of thanks. Then, after a total of 18 hours, we set foot into the frozen tundra of Des Moines. After spending 12 days together, we each went our separate ways. Our tour through England is history, but the learning that took place will continue for a long time to come.

It can be difficult to identify things that were learned by individual members and the choir as a whole. I can assure you that 99.9 percent of the time, the choir is not learning notes. Of course, musical learning and growth occurs throughout and fine details can be sharpened. Choir tours provide the ensemble the opportunity to develop consistency since we are called upon to do multiple rehearsals and performances (we did 8 in England, as well as the pre-tour concert on the evening before our departure).  The ability to perform at a high level of concentration, expressivity, and physical engagement is challenging.  However, this Chamber Choir never experienced a shortcoming. I will say that consistency was present throughout and each performance was better than the previous in certain ways. Resiliency was a major test and the choir passed with flying colors.

Another lesson learned by the ensemble was trust. Not a single thing went awry aside from a sticky situation when our bus found itself in the mud. Even then, no one pointed fingers, no one complained, but every single person looked to one another and came together to solve the issue at hand. A sense of community is important in any group, especially when the group relies so heavily on each member to do his or her part. Whether we acknowledged it or not, all of us relied on one another to stay positive, keep us on track, maintain energy, and be a friend. This was not just a choir tour of 30 individual choir members. This was a choir tour of a 30-person ensemble. Even to the last minute, when we claimed our baggage in Des Moines, choir members enjoyed each other’s company.

Professionalism in stressful situations was another large lesson learned on this tour. Singing Evensong in Gloucester Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral was a new experience for every member of the choir. Although we had learned the music needed for the service, we still had to rehearse the intricate details of the processional and overall pacing of the evening. In Gloucester, we found ourselves in a time crunch, since we were expected to learn new music, which had not been sent ahead or even mentioned to Dr. ABC, at the last minute.  But everyone remained calm and pulled through. After this test of professionalism, the choir was ready to handle whatever was thrown its way, even a motor coach stuck in the mud.

And let me not forget to mention the historical knowledge gained by each student as well as the cultural experiences that occurred throughout the tour. Thanks to Anita Baker, our brilliant guide, each of us learned more in 12 days by listening to her than we could have reading any tourism guidebook. In addition, we found ourselves immersed in English culture for nearly two weeks. I am a strong believer in the idea that the best way to learn about a culture is to dive right in and absorb every possible detail. The best example I can think of is our Friday night concert in Witham, a town in Essex. Halfway through the concert, we broke for what is called an interval (similar to what we call intermission). The glorious thing about the interval is that audience members and performers meet and greet one another over snacks and drinks. It was such a memorable and moving experience to converse with local English citizens about their lives, experiences in music, and so much more.

Traveling abroad with a group of 33 other people sounds a bit daunting, but in reality, I would do it all over again. Every single person learned something new about themselves, about each other, about the group as whole, and more. Magical moments presented themselves each and every day.

As we look towards the new semester and look back on our journey abroad, I can confidently say that all of us have changed for the better. We have grown as individuals and as a group. We have gained intellectual knowledge and have developed musical and professional skills that only the pressure of tour can provide.

And so we come to the end of a magnificent journey. As a soon-to-be college graduate, I am thankful to have shared this experience with the best group of students I know. Not only did I learn about each of them, but they helped me to learn more about myself, too. Now that’s something that doesn’t always happen in a classroom. The benefits of touring may not be easily visible to the outside observer, but I assure you that an immense amount of learning occurs. And to make things better, everyone had a wonderful time throughout. What more could you ask for?


January 21, Tuesday: St. Martin-in-the-Fields concert

Trevor Bridge, sophomore tenor
Major:  Pre-pharmacy

Hello from London! It seems like forever ago that we left Des Moines and it is strange to think that we will be returning tomorrow. We all awoke to our third day and our third excellent full English breakfast (which I will be loath to leave behind) in the Bloomsbury area of London and, as we are all accustomed by this point, departed for singing and sight-seeing with Anita, our tour guide. In our charter bus, we tooled around the bustling streets of central London and noted the beautiful homes, green spaces, and historical landmarks found all around us. Of particular note, we passed the church on whose steps John Wesley sermonized.  This drew an appropriately reserved ‘’Woo!’’ from the Methodists among us. Our tour ended on the south side of the Thames from the Houses of Parliament that, along with Big Ben in the distance, provided a superb backdrop for a picture of the Chamber Choir by Dave Collier, our resident photographer.

After hustling back onto our (perhaps slightly less than legally) parked bus, we continued on to the beautiful 18th century St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church.  I was especially struck by the modern window behind the altar, which suggested Christ’s slumped head at the crucifixion (this is an ancient tradition in English church-building and one we’d seen in several medieval chapels and cathedrals. To be certain, singing in a space in which Mozart had performed was very powerful, and we were delighted to be sponsored by the American Embassy as the new St. Martin-in-the-Fields Embassy Series was inaugurated with our appearance today.  Almost 300 people attended the concert, which was remarked upon by audience members as “stunning,” “exquisite,” and other superlatives.  The concerts manager told Dr. ABC that it was, in his estimation, the best choral concert he’d heard at the church, which is the site of hundreds of performances a year, given by outstanding musicians.   Several Drake and Drake Chamber Choir alumni were in the audience as well as some US expats from Des Moines.
We have since returned to the hotel to enjoy the precious few hours of free time we have remaining until tonight, when we will enjoy a performance of Les Miserables, followed by our farewell dinner.

Before the concert, we all had the opportunity to reflect on all the wonderful sounds, sights, and feelings we have experienced on this tour. I feel so lucky and blessed to be able to be in the United Kingdom with such expert musicians and nice people, keeping the tradition of choral music alive in a place with such a rich, sprawling history of singing. I must say there are things I miss about the United States (regular access to drinking fountains among them), but I will be very heavy-hearted tomorrow as our plane takes off from Heathrow to whisk us all across the Atlantic and back to our real lives. I am so grateful for this time we have been given, and very thankful for all our supporters: namely, the people who are invested enough in the group that they read this blog every day, and all who supported the tour with financial contributions.  Without you, this tour would not have happened. Thank you, and cheerio!

Westminster Bridge:  The traditional chamber choir photo!




First year students





The Bridges on the bridge

Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields

The concert, with 277 in attendance

January 20, Monday PM: St. Paul's Cathedral, Evensong

Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral
On the way