Vulnerability

Megan Larkin '17

Being in the Cornell University Chorus taught me more than some of my hardest classes. The lessons that it taught me, though, were not always about practical knowledge or general skills.  While there could be many names for an overarching theme to what I learned, I feel that none fit it better than vulnerability. When people go to college, they want to gain a lot of adjectives: intelligent, engaging, innovative, hard-working, determined, or strong. We imagine ourselves becoming a better version of ourselves through positive experiences, friends, exceptional teachers, and success.  An instructor I had once told me something that has stuck with me: “Become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  If you are comfortable in the worst situation, you can be confident in any situation.  To me, this means learning how to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability can take multiple shapes, especially in a choral environment: being alone in an audition, singing next to strangers and knowing that they can hear you, and understanding that if they can’t hear you, you’re partially letting the group down.  These generic choral experiences expose singers to criticism.  The Cornell University Chorus helped me understand vulnerability from multiple perspectives. I was generally nervous about having other people hear me sing, but also about letting them know my personality.  Learning to be vulnerable came through on my first tour, where I learned how to have a conversation with a stranger in whose house I “home stayed”.  It came through living with members of the Chorus and the Cornell University Glee Club, when I had no idea about people’s living habits. It came through traveling to a different country where I didn’t speak the language but learned to communicate with people regardless. It came through finding my best friends by chance, or sometimes by forcefully introducing myself. It came through being abroad for a semester and worrying that people would move on without me and later from understanding that these people would never let that happen.  Chorus taught me to enter to new experiences wholeheartedly, and that there are always people there to support you through it.  It came through helping friends with difficult times and having them help me with my own. It showed me that being vulnerable is not a display of weakness, but of true strength.

Being in the Cornell University Chorus taught me much more than many of my classes.  It not only taught me how to be a good singer, but also a true friend, a world traveler, a Cornell ambassador, an innovator, and a professional.  It taught me to be okay with being completely exposed to new experiences, and to even look forward to them. It taught me to thrive and show my strength in being vulnerable.

Warming Up

Marta Faulkner '20

“You are a tortoise. Shrink your face into a tiny little wrinkled walnut. Now, expand into a big huge face. Fill the room—big, hulking shoulders, that’s it.”

This is a part of Chorus warm-up routine that by now, after almost a year of being part of the group, is nothing I’ll raise an eyebrow at. But when I first joined the Chorus, shrinking faces, throwing invisible balls, and growing organ pipes through the top of my head took me by surprise, though not the way you might think it did. I’d met choral and band directors before and was well-acquainted with their penchant for strange imagery, but I had never encountered a musical group who responded to it so enthusiastically.

Being enthusiastic about anything was taboo in the high school ensembles I was in. Kids slogged through warmups with limp limbs and monotone voices, and the expression of disgust on their faces was proportional to the choir director’s attempts to energize them.

I found early on that warm-ups and everything that follows are more fun and rewarding if I take them all the way. But even though I was engaged physically, there was a constant sense of dragging the rest of the group behind me—and it was pretty embarrassing to be the only one really doing the warm-ups in our small choir. The overall atmosphere of apathy was exhausting, and because of this, my own enthusiasm often fizzled.

But in the Chorus, as I discovered on the first day I was told to become a tortoise, I don’t have to drag anybody; far from it. In the Chorus I can ride along with the enthusiasm of others. There’s no casting your eyes around to check whether everyone else is engaging with the warm-up before you take it seriously. Chorus members dive into every task, silly and serious alike, with equal intensity and equal enjoyment.

This made a profound impression on me when I first joined the Chorus, and I think it’s one of the things that makes the group so great. But it also means a lot to me personally: in the Chorus, I can lip-trill and invisible-hula-hoop and buzz like a bumblebee and enjoy it. In the Chorus, I can be myself without ever feeling ashamed.

Tour Throwback: Charleston, SC

Samantha Reig '17

Here’s what I learned about the Chorus from day six of our tour: there is nothing that breathes life into the Chorus more than a day of exploring a spectacular city followed by a concert with a spectacular audience. I also learned that no amount of rain can stop us, but more on that later.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Tour Manager Liz Mueller ’18 more excited than she was at the moment when it dawned on her that we’d arrived in Charleston (and if you’ve ever met Liz, you know that this is saying something). I knew from working with Liz that this tour stop had been in the making for many months, and that it therefore had special significance to her. She shepherded us all into the church, through a door next to the pews, down a narrow corridor, across a courtyard, and into the room where we’d store our bags. In rehearsal, it was a challenge to figure out our standing positions: we started out sufficiently squished on a set of steps that was taller than it was wide, but director Robert Isaacs encouraged us to use all of the space we had and connect with the resonant surfaces in the room, and by the time we all-too-eagerly dispersed for our free time in the city, our sound was satisfyingly strong.

We had the afternoon to ourselves, and I went with some Chorus friends to Charleston’s historic City Market and Rainbow Row. Walking along the beach and through the market made for a fantastic afternoon and a nice breather from the hard work of rehearsals, concerts, and running from place to place.

Next came the concert. Christina Lee ’18, who manages this blog, asked me to write about what I can already tell will become one of my most treasured Cornell memories, and I hope I can do it justice.

By this point in our travels, we’d already dodged three tornadoes, one by a few hours and two by a few miles. We were bound to get stuck in some crazy weather at some point. This was the only venue of our tour – and in fact, the only venue I can recall ever performing in during my time at Cornell – for which lining up “in the wings” before going onstage meant lining up outside. This worked well up until intermission. But it was exactly as we lined up for the second half of the concert that it started pouring.

If you’d been standing on Anson Street at about 8:00pm on April 5th, here’s what you would have seen: fifty-one singers of the Cornell University Chorus in long black dresses, hugging their folders to their chests as they stood, shivering, single-file under the awning that snaked around the outer walls of the three buildings that constituted the church grounds. Those at the back of the line straining to hear what Robert was saying to those at the front, about how the two pieces we were about to sing would be especially potent in this church which was built by slaves, for slaves, and which stood as a reminder of elements of our country’s past, the progress we’ve made and are making in the present, and all the work that’s left to be done in our future. His message making its way to the back of the line, telephone-style, reminding us of the power of music in bolstering community, especially given the cultural and historical context. Last-minute shuffling of papers as we put our music in order. And Megan Larkin ’17 perched in the doorframe, extending her arm to help Chorus members jump, one by one, through a section of passageway to avoid a heavy stream of rainwater that was coming down from the gutter of the awning just outside the entrance to the sanctuary.

We processed in, singing the Namibian traditional Meguru (arr. Mike Brewer), sopping wet. Intermission had forced us to walk outside, but the audience had stayed inside – it was clear that they sympathized. Once in place on the steps, we went on, without pause, to sing the spiritual Heaven Bound Train (arr. Stephen Hatfield). Our audience, consisting of St. John’s Reformed Episcopal congregants, Cornell Club of Charleston members, and friends of the Chorus from the area, gave us a standing ovation and cheered. From my second-row, right-of-center position on the steps, I looked over at the people at the bottom right of the risers; hair dripping and makeup running, they were all smiling. The rain had stripped away all nerves and any superficiality; we sang from the heart all the way through the Cornell Songs at the end of the concert, which got a sizable portion of the audience singing along.

After a wonderful reception at which Chorus favorites The Hill and The Road Home and numerous Cornell Songs made an appearance, we hopped back on the bus to head to our hotel. Still in high spirits from the fun day we’d had, and knowing we still had our Richmond and Washington, D.C. stops ahead of us, we listened to jokes courtesy of Amelia Pacht ’18 and told each other stories along the ride. Late at night, I ran through more rain – this time, from the hotel to the grocery store nearby – with Marissa Grill ’17, Katie Forkey ’19, assistant director Steve Spinelli, and a few other adventurous souls, to buy supplies for breakfast the next morning. I packaged them up and headed to bed, ready for the long drive to Richmond, Virginia.

Tour Throwback: Tour Day Four

Brianna Cox '20

I stepped off the bus and immediately regretted my decision to put on jeans and booties that morning. It was 75 degrees out, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we had one hour to experience the beautiful beaches of Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Corralling my fellow freshmen and leading the way, I could feel every moment ticking by as we waited for sandwiches at Subway. As much as I wanted to eat lunch, I was desperate to experience a taste of summer on this tour. Spending spring break singing with my best friends beat going to Cancun and partying all week, but I wasn’t going to let a time constraint come between me and my lifelong love, the beach.

We rushed to the shore as soon as we paid for our sandwiches. The warm, powdery sand felt so soothing against our tired feet. While we sat on the sand eating our lunch, the warm wind blew around us, tangling our hair and threatening to blow our Subway bags halfway across the island. Vacationers lounged or swam in the gentle waves. In our travel attire, we stuck out on that beach like a sore thumb, but we didn’t care. We took pictures by the water and drew our names and Chorus’s Instagram handle in the sand.

A few of us began wading in the water, and my friend Eri was fascinated by the way her feet sunk into the sand with each passing wave. It made me so happy to see her experience the beach for the first time. To me, every time I come to the beach it feels like my first. Having forgotten I wasn’t wearing a swimsuit, I waded deeper and deeper, and before I knew it, my jeans were soaked up to my knees. We could only enjoy the beach for a few more minutes before we had to rinse our feet and head back to the bus. I pulled my socks over my wet and sandy feet and slipped my booties back on.

As the grains of sand grinded against my feet and the breeze chilled my wet legs, I felt a little angry that our schedule didn’t allow for a full beach day. However, I pushed away the tour rage and reveled in the fact that I had a full hour to enjoy the warm southern weather. When I got back to the bus, I shared a laugh with Lauren K, who’d gotten so excited that she’d jumped full-body into the ocean, soaking her hair and dress in the process. That’s when I realized that our little adventure of squeezing a beach day into one hour was worth it, little as it was. We’d made the best of our situation and had an amazing Atlantic Coast beach day. Weeks after tour, this hour still stands out to me. After all,  it’s the little moments that we always remember when things get messy.

Atlantic Coast Tour: Day Three

Brigid Lucey '18

We woke up early Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina and drifted downstairs to our homestay’s kitchen for a 6AM breakfast of pancakes, fresh fruit, and coffee!  The night before, we’d arrived to find gifts on our pillows: travel size amenities and North Carolina t-shirts, and we six Chorus members had all slept soundly after our long drive the day before. 

Sunday was a TRAV day, so I donned a sea foam green dress reminiscent of the 1940s and a pair of heels.  (Note: TRAV is a business casual dress code the Chorus adheres to when we travel to perform.) The weather in Atlanta was predicted to be sunny and warm, so I didn’t even bother to wear a jacket.  What luck to be able to steal away from Ithaca and enjoy some warm weather before spring truly arrives!  We packed up our bags and new treats from the Williams family and they drove us to the bus pickup point as the sun rose over the city of Charlotte.  We passed enormous churches on the way; I thought forward to the rest of the week and of how many beautiful spaces we’d get to sing in.  We reached the bus and our driver, Penny, helped us load our bags under the bus.  A final goodbye and “Thank you!” to the Williams and we were off! 

The tour bus is, as you’d expect, a unique experience capable of bringing groups together but also of creating an arena for tension and stress to mount.  Before embarking on the tour, we decided to combat the fondly nicknamed “Tour Rage” with movies during particularly long rides.  Some Chorus members brought music, homework, logic puzzles, or light reading.  I brought a coloring book!  On Sunday, we watched The Breakfast Club during the ride to Atlanta.  Robert and Steve, our Director and Assistant Director respectively, admitted to the front of the bus that they were pleased with the selection and hadn’t expected us to have good taste.  (We later destroyed their newfound impression by watching Pitch Perfect and High School Musical.  Oh, well!)

On the way to Morehouse College we made a pit stop at the Ponce City Market, where we enjoyed about two hours of free time.  I made sure to get some fresh air in the outdoor areas, and a small group of us ventured to the park across the street to soak up the sun. 

Finally, we arrived at Morehouse.  Their Glee Club is an ensemble of talented, disciplined, and professional young men who demonstrated the epitome of “southern hospitality” to us during our evening at their school.  During our joint sound check, we marveled at how quickly they assembled on the stage (a speed which Robert joked that the Cornell Glee Club could never achieve).  They treated us to dinner at a dining hall on campus where we socialized and compared the inner workings of our groups, and then we all trooped back to the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center where the concert would begin at 7:00. 

The concert hall was almost completely comprised of wood, which made for one of the best acoustic spaces of the tour.  We enjoyed sitting in the audience to watch the Glee Club perform, then we rounded out the first half of the concert with our own individual set.  After intermission, the two ensembles combined to sing Meguru and Walk Together, Children in a powerful SATB choir.  We were honored to perform with such a wonderful group and their director, Dr. David Morrow. 

 

Atlantic Coast Tour: Day Two

Katie Forkey '19

Second things are forever underappreciated. No one looks forward to their second time moving out or their second car with keen anticipation. Second place is never quite worthy of celebration. We don’t remember the second person to discover the light bulb. And love at second sight is hardly romantic. Gone is the newness and thrill, the pride and pedigree that is reserved only for those rare and deserving firsts.

The weight of the dreaded second place was heavy on the night of our concert in Charlotte. After a seven hour bus ride, I sat at our second venue of the Atlantic Coast Tour, mindlessly taking in the beauty of the arched ceilings and stained windows of the church. The milestone of first concert had passed, and the excitement from the first day had disappeared along with the many hours of sleep intended for the past two nights. I rehearsed, ate, changed, and lined up with the rest of the Chorus, all relatively cheerfully and willingly, but not particularly zealously. The same feeling lingered as we walked out into the sanctuary and greeted the few audience members who had chosen choral music over the last game of March Madness (little did we foresee the dangers of performing in North Carolina on April 3, 2017). Nevertheless, there we were: we were given our first pitch, and began.

There is something about the making of music that cannot quite be captured by any explanation or imitated by any experience. I stood there looking out at our conductor and the dozen or so people behind him, surrounded by these fifty women who have so quickly become my comrades and friends. I felt the exhaustion palpable in the air, mingled with the eager but a bit wary anticipation of the eight more days to come. Now more than ever I could tell that this concert was in the place of the dreaded second. Yet together with these simple sentiments there was another, one that cannot quite be grouped in with them but still cannot be separated. It didn’t matter that my eyes were already demanding effort to stay open. It didn’t matter that I and everyone around me still smelled faintly like the bus. It didn’t even matter that we were beat out of an audience by basketball. The only relevant thing was the weaving and crafting of sound, the floor beneath us and the walls around us vibrating and echoing, the mingling of fifty one voices into one concise and articulate statement of beauty.

At times like this, one of my few remembered high school lessons comes back to me. There is something which the ancient Greeks dubbed “kairos”: undefined in our age, it comes closest to quantifying this strange melange of joy, excitement, satisfaction, and longing that we cannot quite grasp. It is the moment when the human meets the divine; the infinite instant that unites the mortal and immortal, the mundane and sublime. It is this kairos which makes music-making worthwhile. So often we say that the music is its own reward, but without kairos, without that euphoria of creation, that claim is empty. It is kairos which we attempt to communicate, not the sounds alone, when we perform. It cannot be stopped by exhaustion or apprehension or low attendance, because it is the very thing which dispels all three. That night in Charlotte, it certainly did. For with kairos there can be no seconds.

Atlantic Coast Tour: Day One

Christina Lee '18

       I won’t lie, this year’s tour started off a little rocky for me. I woke up to the sound of my housemate’s voice asking if I was ready to go. “It’s 7:41!” She said. We had to be at the tour bus by 7:45. Needless to say, I was a bit frazzled. Was I completely surprised? Considered I’d stayed up until 3 AM packing, not so much.

            Lucky for me, our bus was having some technical difficulties and wouldn’t be ready to go for at least another half hour. My housemates and I arrived at Statler Hall damp with rain and sweat, but thankful that we weren’t the sole reason the Chorus would be a little behind schedule.

            After a quick bus switch, the Chorus was on its way to Hershey, Pennsylvania. The morning’s sour start was definitely sweetened by the prospect of lots of chocolate later in the day. We arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and started our day with a workshop with a couple of high school choirs at our Tour Manager’s old high school. Liz introduced us to her former teacher and two really talented groups. I always love workshops because it gives the Chorus space to reflect on why we continue singing after high school (because we love it) and allows us to share our music with others (which we also love doing). Plus, we get to play fun rhythm games and perform in rounds with the other choirs. It’s always a really fun way to engage with music differently in new places.

            Next, we were off to Hershey Chocolate World. There, we grabbed a quick bite to eat in the gigantic gift shop. The food was all chocolate themed. I loved the pulled pork sandwich topped with chocolate sauce so much that I literally dreamt about it later on tour. Then, we all hopped onto a historic Hershey trolley for a tour of the town. After an hour filled with fun facts and free chocolate, we were back at Chocolate World, hopping on the bus to head to our concert venue.

            Our concert was at the beautiful Messiah Lutheran Church in Harrisburg. The first performance of tour is always a bit interesting. It’s our first chance as a choir to show off our sound in a brand new place with an audience who, in many cases, have never heard the Chorus perform before. However, the concert typically comes after a long day of travel and exhaustion. Maybe it was a leftover sugar high from Hershey or maybe it was the pure excitement of the first day of tour, but the Chorus overcame our sleepiness and pulled together a lovely concert. It felt good to hear pieces we had been working on for a semester reinvigorated and gave us a good idea of the aspects of pieces we could really dig into over the course of our ten day tour.

            That night, I was home stayed by my friend Sarah’s wonderful family. A few other chorus women and I spent some quality time bonding over food and Sarah’s dog, but before we knew it we had to go to bed. The next day, our wake up call was 5 AM and we needed to rest up! Tour Day One: check. Only nine more days to go.

A Note For New Members

Johnna Margalotti '19

Here we are, at the start of another semester that now sprawls dauntingly ahead of me but will once again be far behind me too soon.  Just the other week, I sat in Lincoln Atrium welcoming another round of nervous callbackees, and couldn’t help but become a bit nostalgic thinking of my own Chorus audition freshman fall.  I remember it all so vividly – chatting with upperclassmen who were younger at the time than I am now yet who somehow seemed so mature.  I laughed when a few of the auditoners thought I was a senior, but was instantly humbled to think that they might look up to me just as I looked up to the older Chorus members who calmed my nerves before my own audition. 

That’s when it dawned on me: I am now a middle-aged Chorus woman. I am entering my fourth semester in the group, with nearly half of my career behind me and only half remaining.
As bewildered as I am that so much of my time in the Chorus has already elapsed, I am excited for what lies ahead.  Most importantly, I am excited to welcome a new batch of members to share my remaining time in the Chorus with.  I am excited for them to sing in their first Twilight concert, their first Vespers, their first Commencement.  I am excited to make memories and jokes with them, to make them feel welcome as I was made to feel welcome when I first joined the Chorus. 

So, to my lovely new friends – Katie, Lucy, Gauri, Somi, Dana, and Grace – welcome! I implore you to cherish every moment of your time in the Chorus, because I promise you nothing will prepare you for how quickly it passes.  There will be times sitting in rehearsal when you are forced to tediously sing the same three measures over and over again in pursuit of some yet undiscovered new musical idea, and you will think that those two hours of rehearsal have managed to defy the laws of time and space and stretch out to infinity.  And then, before you know it, you will have survived infinity 40 times over, wishing you could live it all over again because it is such a privilege to be able to enter into this realm that exists outside of time, outside of the daily stress of Cornell.  Enter into this realm willfully and joyfully, always with the awareness that your time here is a finite resource, and glean from this experience all that you possibly can.

My advice to you, and the advice that I hope to heed myself in the next half of my Chorus journey, is to immerse yourself fully – not only musically but also academically and socially – in the incredible experience that lies before you. Be open to new people, new ideas, new ways of thinking and being.  Go to Chariot nights, sing the “Evening Song” on Ho Plaza even when it only 15 degrees outside, sit next to someone new every rehearsal, visit Sage Basement often.  Bring a pencil to rehearsal (and use it). Sing boldly.  And when the next set of new members comes along, remind yourself what it felt like to be in their shoes, and welcome them with open arms.  Keep the circle unbroken.