From the White House to military hospitals, Chamber Singers take their holiday repertoire to Washington, D.C.
The drive from Asheville to Washington, D.C. might be a long one for the university's choir ensemble, but they know when they're getting close to the capital. That's when the music starts. For five years, the UNC Asheville Chamber Singers group has been invited to perform seasonal music at the White House and nearby military hospitals. And according to Joe Tracey '12, the bus ride really comes to life when they're within about an hour of the Beltway.
"That's when everyone wakes up from their naps, and we start doing some warm-up (vocal exercises) and practicing our songs," said Tracey. "The sound is terrible inside the bus, but it doesn't matter because everyone is so excited to finally be there."
This year, the group of about 26 students, led by Assistant Professor of Music Melodie Galloway, spent two days in Washington, D.C.
They performed for three hours in the White House, starting at 8 a.m., on Tuesday, Dec. 13. "Every year we've performed in the Atrium, which is the prime spot along the White House Holiday Tour," said Galloway. "It's where they typically place larger groups, and it's the last stop along the tour." The Atrium is also near the entrance to the first family's residence area. As Tracey puts it, performing in the White House feels like caroling, but without all the walking. "The people are coming to you."
"It was a wonderful, almost 3-hour event," said Galloway about this year's exteneded performance. "After the first 2 hours, the White House staff asked if we could continue our show for another 30 minutes for more people to hear it. The students were amazing, and never showed how tired they were getting!"
Each year, Galloway sends an application to the White House for this opportunity, not knowing if they will be one of the roughly 30 groups invited to perform. Regardless, the ensemble spends the entire semester practicing the songs that make up the 20- to 30-minute repertoire that they will perform in Washington. "We also have a few special songs and patriotic songs that we can add to the program, for instance, if the President shows up," said Galloway.
Each student has heard many stories about these exciting trips in the past. One year, there was a run-in with celebrities after they performed for the troops. Last year, Bo, the Obamas' family dog, trotted into the room with full Secret Service attaché in chase just to sit and listen to the Chamber Singers perform. And two years ago, "[the President] passed through the hallway while we were performing, and he told one of his Secret Service agents that he liked our music," said Galloway. "So that was very exciting."
On Dec. 14, the ensemble performed at a holiday party for wounded military personnel at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. In the past, the ensemble has performed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but has moved to the Naval medical center since Walter Reed's closure. Their performance will be part of a holiday lunch party for personnel who have returned from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Galloway, their schedule usually involves some singing, some time to meet with the soldiers and their families, and then more singing.
For students, performing at the medical centers has been a moving experience. Tracey admits that practicing the repertoire all semester long can leave a singer tired of carols, "but when you see the emotion it evokes in the people there and in the soldiers themselves, it brings a new perspective to the songs," said Tracey. "We're not just singing for ourselves, we're singing for these people. We want to bring something extra to them – for the season."
Asheville singers perform "Cool Yule" at the Holiday Concert on Dec 4, 2011 at Lipinsky Hall.