St. Andrew's Choral Scholars and Director Nathan Costa spent the first week of their spring break traveling to Cuba for a concert tour of that country. Choral Scholars participated in musical exchanges with Cuban choirs; performed works from their own repertoire; learned new pieces from the Cuban singers; and explored a newly opening Cuba's traditions and culture.
"There are nine professional choirs in Havana," Costa said, "so the musical exchanges alone are an important reason to go to Cuba. Musical exchanges require choirs to step up and sing without a lot of rehearsal in a new space. So they were a great chance for our singers to work with other choirs and other directors and to learn new techniques and repertoire from our hosts. Our students learn so much from living in that moment of travel and performance."
Students and chaperoning faculty—which, beyond Costa, included History Department Chair Emily Pressman, Classics Department Chair Giselle Furlonge, III Form Dean Matt McAuliffe, IV Form Dean Julia Smith, and Spanish teacher David Miller—first traveled to Washington, D.C. on Sunday, February 28, where Choral Scholars sang a joint Evensong with other mid-Atlantic Episcopal schools at Washington National Cathedral. They then traveled from D.C. to Havana, connecting through Miami.
The group spent seven nights in Havana, and during their stay, participated in three exchanges, two joint concerts, and one solo concert. Musical excursions included a workshop with local choir of music teachers, Voces de Ebano; a joint concert with Voces de Ebano and Novel Voz, a Cuban a cappella jazz ensemble; a learning workshop and joint performance with Vocal Luna, one of Cuba's principal professional choirs and Havana's only all-female ensemble; and an exchange with Coro Diminuto, a fine children's choir based at Alejandro García Caturla Elementary School of Music. At the end of the week the Choral Scholars gave a standalone performance of their repertoire at the Iglesia de Jesus de Miramar in Havana, the second largest church in Cuba.
"I had no idea, before we actually went there—most of us didn't—that Cuba has such a great choral music culture," said Shridhar Singhania '17. "I picture Cuba as beaches, gorgeous waters, old vintage cars, and maybe tango or salsa music, but not choral music. All of the choirs we exchanged with were amazing. The first choir we exchanged with was all-women choir, and the sound they produced was absolutely fantastic. They had female tenors!"
"The kids are doing so many different things at St. Andrew's over the course of a week," explained trip chaperone Emily Pressman, "so the fact that they get to spend a week focusing together on making music is a really remarkable experience for them. For all of the incredible places that the Choral Scholars have gotten to go to over the years, the kids often talk about this as one of the more powerful parts of the experience: to have that kind of intensive, singular, collaborative focus on music."
One standout musical experience cited by many Choral Scholars was the exchange with the middle school students of Coro Diminuto. "My favorite exchange experience by was when we visited the school," Shridhar said. "The kids were younger—most of them were sixth or seventh graders, I think, and there were no instruments, and we were in this tiny room, maybe a little bigger than one of our classrooms. The school was so basic in terms of its resources, but the sound the choir produced was some of the best I've ever heard. At the end of the performance they sang 'Imagine,' by John Lennon, which was particularly beautiful."
"The Coro Diminuto students blew us away when they concluded their performance with 'Imagine'," agreed Austin Brannan '19. In an unexpected moment of harmony, when it was their turn to perform, Choral Scholars sang "Let It Be" by the Beatles for the Coro Diminuto students. "The local students were truly overjoyed to hear our performance and to share theirs with us," Costa recalled. "There was such life and joy in their sound."
"Because it was an arts school, you could tell that the students really appreciated the music," said McAuliffe. "Younger kids who weren't in the choir were lined up outside the classroom windows to watch the performance. A Cuban student next to me was talking, and all the girls around him were saying, 'You need to Shh! We want to hear this music.'"
Following the performance, students rushed to trade choir photos and concert recordings. "It was kind of this joint rockstar moment," Costa said. "I think the students absolutely loved it."
"We got to know each other a little bit," Shridhar said. "After the performance we were all in a line, shaking hands, and then we started hugging and talking. These little girls came up and kissed some of us on the cheeks. We gave them some recordings of our music, and they signed things for us. It was really cool."
"The Cuban students were a little bit younger, so they were just infatuated with the Choral Scholars," McAuliffe said. "They wanted autographs. They gave us posters and stickers. Our Choral Scholars would ask the kids to sign them, and then the kids would ask the Choral Scholars to sign things for them."
"Going into a Cuban school, seeing it in action, seeing our kids interact with this group of younger singers and engage with them across cultures, and seeing how excited both groups were to have this opportunity, both musically, but also to just sort of see one another—that, for me, was a real highlight," said Pressman. "Music was a way of bridging all of that."
""You could see how the exchange of language and of music can transcend the wrangling of international politics," Costa noted. "There was no sense of jadedness on either side; it was just this innocent communal experience of singing for one another."
Choral Scholars participated in a number of non-musical excursions around Havana and the surrounding countryside. "We had lot of different cultural experiences on top of the singing with different groups," recalled Jack Sohm '16. "Every detail was planned out really well. The first day we had this walking tour of Old Havana, and we went to this old military fort. That night we had salsa dancing classes. I'm not a dancer whatsoever, so it was—interesting. But it was really fun. Everyone was just so relaxed and we were goofing around and enjoying it."
"Normally with a group of 30 adolescents, there's going to be some kind of peer imbalance," noted trip chaperone Matt McAuliffe. "You know, 'Oh, these people aren't salsa dancing, so now I don't want to salsa dance.' But there wasn't any of that. They were all very into the salsa lessons, and they took full advantage of it."
"The best part was," McAuliffe continued, "the next day at lunch, we were eating outside in Old Havana, and this live music started, and the kids spontaneously got up and started salsa dancing with each other. To me, that showed how fully immersed they had become in the experience. They weren't salsa dancing because it was part of the night's activities. They were salsa dancing because it was beautiful, and they were in Cuba, and they kind of knew how, so they might as well try. There was certainly a sense among the kids of: when in Havana, one does such things."
"Every time we had a meal, there was live music," Jack said. "We were outside in this kind of courtyard area eating with another group, Voca Luna, that we sang with, and this live band comes over and starts playing. And I think it was Uche [Amakiri '16] and Taylor [Jaffe '16] stood up and just started dancing what we learned the night before, and then everyone else started to go."
Other outings included a trip to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Atres, Cuba's national museum of fine arts; a lunch at Xanadu Mansion, a former duPont family vacation home in Havana (now a B&B); a visit to a cigar factory; a traditional Afro-Cuban dance performance in which Choral Scholars were pulled up on stage with dancers for the grand finale.
"When we went to the cigar factory, a few of the kids got the opportunity to sing," Pressman said. "Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Even in the cigar factory there's a reader employed to read to the workers. He reads the newspaper in the morning and then a piece of literature in the afternoon. So Jack and Rachael [Lurker '16] went up to where the reader usually sits, and sang for the workers."
The group also made a daylong excursion to a nature preserve in the Viñales valley, where they explored underground caves and took a boat ride on subterranean river. "We were in this cave for at least three hours," recalled trip chaperone Giselle Furlonge, "and Ruth [Puryear '17] and Augie [Segger '19] and some of the other students started singing Bogoroditse Dyevo [an Old Church Slavonic version of Ave Maria by Estonian composer Arvo Part]. They were leading themselves in song."
"We certainly learned a lot through just the act of traveling," Costa said. "We learned about taking care of ourselves on the road, and taking care of others. It helped to be traveling with very little internet connectivity, too. I think we all enjoyed having a genuinely connected experience with new people who were so open and welcoming of us, in what was truly a new place for us."
"Usually, when you're traveling as an American, you at least have McDonald's as a reference," Furlonge continued. "But that's not possible in Cuba. There's no physical familiarity. So the only thing to tether you was the group, and the music—the power of song. The music was their purpose for being there. I felt that, and I wasn't even singing. It was different than your typical high school trip."
"We were definitely working while we were there," Jack concluded. "We went to perform, to practice, to meet new people. But it didn't feel like we were working because we were having so much fun with all of it."