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Leaving Home

29 May 2017

Stella on Lake Tekapo

Queenstown was the perfect conclusion to our wonderful adventure. The drive itself was phenomenal – we took the longer route, to drive through the Southern Alps and get to see sights such as Lake Tekapo and the lovely stone church by its shore. By the time we’d gotten to Queenstown it was dark, so when the sun rose the next morning we weren’t prepared for the incredible beauty surrounding us. The town is nestled along Lake Wakatipu, surrounded on all sides by the Southern Alps, with the buildings picturesque and staggered so that every window has a spectacular view of the waterfront. We began early with a jet boat ride around the lake, and it was early and cold enough that in some areas clouds still lingered on top of the water, creating a dreamlike atmosphere with the sun shining through. Following that we found a delicious coffee/gelato/chocolate shop – Patagonia Chocolates – before riding gondolas up to one of the mountaintops. The day was clear, sunny and crisp, and looking out from the mountain over the city, the lake, and the surrounding Southern Alps was spectacular, but then we were all able to ride the luge track which followed the side of the mountain. It was hard to focus on the driving – the view was too distracting! Following that we ate lunch overlooking the Cliffside, and were able to watch parasailers glide down across the town.

Lake Wakatipu

Then came the time for our final concert. We all anticipated devolving into tears at the end, but we somehow still gave the best concert of our entire trip. We sang in a small, gorgeous stone church, and the combination of high emotions, perfect architecture, and joy from that day’s adventure was just so to allow us to put on an incredible performance. Then it came time for the “Nunc Dimittis” – the song written by Morten J. Luvaas for the original Allegheny Singers, which has since been sung after every Allegheny Choir concert. To say the least, the song has a very special place in all of our hearts. Before we could start, however, the pastor of the church stood up to give us wonderfully touching and praising words, which unfortunately just got us all that much closer to tears. Professor Niblock had us sing a short and lighthearted song after that, only to try and calm us before diving into the emotional conclusion to our concert – our last performance in New Zealand, and the last Allegheny Choir performance for those who graduated. It went about as well as expected – the singing was still lovely, though with much additional vibrato from trying to hold back the sobs (somewhat unsuccessfully). But when it ended, though we were all in tears, every face was smiling and full of joy and love.

Now, sitting in the San Francisco airport back on US soil, though I already desperately miss New Zealand, I cannot get over the feeling of peace, of happiness, and satisfaction that those two incredible weeks gave me. That place has a kind of magic to it that has become embedded in each one of the chamber choir members, and that won’t leave us for the rest of our lives. We have made memories and connections that will last forever, and I cannot truly express how thankful each of us are for the gift that New Zealand was. All I can say at this point is I’ll be back – New Zealand holds my heart.

New Zealand in Photograph

I am sure that we are all familiar with the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” And I have come to the conclusion of presenting our experience thus far in a medium of only photographs taken during this trip with brief descriptions. My intent is that this exhibit will offer you, the viewer, the opportunity to revel in this fantastic voyage through our actual lenses as if you were right here with us. Please enjoy.

Māori Gathering House in Rotorua
Students propose a toast to Dr. Niblock in honor of their first night in Auckland and New Zealand for the Chamber Choir’s world tour.
Louis looks out onto the Sea at Devonport, Auckland
One of the sea caves near Cathedral Cove in Whitianga.
Sunset over the bay in Whitianga.
Samantha gazes in impressed wonderment from the SkyTower in Auckland.
The ladies in front of Hotties at Hot Water Beach in Whitianga.
Dr. “Chief” Jeff Webb accepts the palm peace offering from the Māori at a Hangi meal event in Rotorua.
Boats on the beach off the bay of Shakespeare Point, Whitianga.
Dr. Niblock leads rehearsal at the first venue in Auckland.
Sunset in Whitianga from Gyrocopter.
Sun up at midday in the bay of Cathderal Cove in Whitianga.
Chamber Choir students enjoy a day out on the water in Whitianga.
Louis on the pier in Whitianga’s bay post-boat trip.
Ashley, Letti, Megan, and Ben enjoy a pint and mussels in Auckland.
Beach from the top of Shakespeare Point, Whitianga.
Dr. Niblock stands next to an endangered Kauri tree on the north island of New Zealand.
Emma poses in front of the Methodist curch in Auckland where the Chamber Choir had its first workshop with Dr. Grylls of the University of Auckland – 6th cousin of television survivalist star Theodore “Bear” Grylls.
(Left to right) Emma, Johanna, Morgan, Letti, Samantha, and Stella pose with a dredging wheel in Davenport, Auckland.
Audrey, Stella, and Letti pose on the beach in Whitianga.
John revels in the spraying water of the Pacific Ocean.
Lauren surveys the beauty of Whitianga’s paradise.
Morgan admires the beach where the Chronicles of Narnia was filmed near Cathedral Cove.
The tide coming in over the rocks in Whitianga as the sun sets – also known as Heaven on Earth, where I will be moving to whilst living on a boat.
(Left to right) Stella, Audrey, Dr. Niblock, Megan, Ben, and Brennan all smile for the camera on the ferry in Whitianga.
(Left to right) Ben, Spencer, Kyle, and Louis dig a natural hot tub in the sands of Hot Water Beach: where water is naturally heated by an active fault line in the area.
Chamber Choir students and professors enjoy the warmth of a natural hot tub soak at Hot Water Beach in Whitianga.
Louis experiences the Universe in a new capacity, basking in the setting sun over the sea in Whitianga, while the waves engulf his legs in their tidal embrace.
Dr. Niblock finds his peace with the Universe on a boat tour of Whitianga’s stunning and expansive coastlines.

From Students to Teachers

One of the most rewarding things we have had the pleasure of doing on this trip is working with young singers who are eager and excited to grow in music. We’ve been working on our own pieces for this tour for quite some time now, about two years from some songs, and every rehearsal is geard towards not only learning the pieces, but being better musicians each time we sing them.

What is so wonderful about working with these kids is that we now get to teach the things Professor Niblock has taught us over the past couple of years to these talented young singers who are just as excited about music as we are.

In Whitianga we worked with two groups of students who shared their music with us. The first group sang a popular song called “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. We taught them about singing with tall vowels and enunciated consonants. We then got to share with them our own demon song, “Daemon Irrepit Collidus,” to which one of the students in the workshop told us we were “singing ninjas.”

The second, younger group shared with us their song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. As none of these kids have ever been to West Virginia, we got to share what West Virginia and the United States is like, and we worked with them on how to tell a story with their songs and what it is like to sing about home. Our example of songs from home were our beautiful Alma Mater and “Coffee Grows on White Oak Trees,” a play party song that references the practice of boiling acorns from white oak trees as a coffee substitute during the American Civil War when coffee was too difficult to come by. We talked with the kids about what these songs mean, and showed them that the way we sing the words helps tells the story. A young boy eager to help us tell the story of “Coffee Grows on White Oak Trees,” informed us us, “you don’t grow coffee, you make it!”

After the workshop, we had a little extra time to sit with the kids and learn about their interests and let them ask questions about singing or about America.

Beyond the wonderful bonding experience our choir gets to have with other student choirs through these workshops, we’re also learning a great deal about music from a different perspective. Hearing the sound of a choir is much different coming from the audience, and different still coming from a teaching point of view, so we started listening to the music in an entirely new fashion. We got to hear for ourselves what a difference diction or changing our vowels can make, a distinction that is harder to hear from inside the choir. This perspective will ultimately make us better musicians and gave us a deeper understanding as to why Professor Niblock gives us certain singing instructions.

We have another school visit tomorrow morning in Christchurch, and I can’t wait to meet more inspiring kids who are excited to sing.

The Maori Stronghold

I sit here in the small airport at Rotorua.  The cafe is well-priced, the cappuccino greater than Starbucks quality.  This regional airport is not unlike Erie’s.  The only difference–which is reasonably jarring–is that there is no security.

Our tour is about to depart for the South Island, also known as Middle-Earth.  But in doing so we must bid adieu to the kind city of Rotorua, New Zealand’s geothermal capital.  It feels as if we are about to return to earth after a junket on Venus.  The city is speckled with vents constantly releasing sulfurous steam.  Sure, it was unpleasant to smell, and I may never eat an egg again, but it felt as if we were transported back in time.

You could easily imagine the first Maori tribes discovering the area, confounded by the ethereal mist as were we.  We were fortunate enough to witness two Maori cultural presentations, both of which elucidated the islands they call “Aoteoroa.”  Appropriately for us, each time vocal music was highlighted, serving to bridge the wide gap of the Pacific and bring their culture close to our American hearts.

Beyond geysers and  ceremonies, we had the privilege of singing with a high school choir at a small Anglican church.  One of their songs featured a Karanga, which a microtonal Maori chant invoking ancestral and natural spirits to come welcome guests of the tribe.  It soared straight through the diatonic choral background and moved every man, woman, and child towards its attention.

Middle-Earth awaits us next.  If it can live up to Rotorua, we are surely in for a treat.



23 May, Whitianga to Rotorura

The comment I hear most thus far is “I keep saying this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done/seen, and every day it’s something new,” which just about sums up the general feeling at this point. Every part of every day is some new wonder, some new adventure, some new breathtaking view, and each moment feels like the greatest moment of your life. We’ve done such a variety of activities and each is absolutely mind-blowing in a different way. The feeling of bliss, of awe, is spread throughout the entire choir, and only grows with each new experience and interaction with the wonderful community of people here.

Day 4 we left early in the morning to drive to Whitianga – about a 3-hour drive around a bay area, through jungle-like, prehistoric-looking wilderness. Upon arrival, we had lunch and a rehearsal with the Mercury Bay Community Choir for our concert that evening. The concert itself was truly the best performance we’d ever put on as a choir. The audience was incredibly receptive – audibly and sometimes physically reacting to our pieces – which meant we sung them better than we ever had before, putting our whole collective soul into the music. Then we retreated to our host families – mine was with Lesley and Phill, who had known Professor Niblock from his earlier visits, and were so welcoming and kind to us.

Day 5 was the first big sightseeing day. Whitianga itself is gorgeous, located right on a bay, but exploring outside the city we were able to see such incredible sights hidden from the main roads. We woke early and went to see the Hot Beach, an area along the coastline where people bring shovels and dig in the sand, which causes hot steaming water to swell up and create natural hot tubs. The water was scalding, but we mixed it with the cold ocean water to balance it out. After that, Phill took the choir out in separate boat tours along the coast, where we were able to see Shakespeare Cliff, Lonely Bay, and Cathedral Cove (if you’ve seen “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”, the beginning scene in Narnia was filmed there). The water was the clearest turquoise blue I’d ever seen, and the rock cliffs were stunningly white.

Once everyone had gotten a chance to go out, we all drove to go meet a local artist who combines his concepts with music, and explore around his home and the beach by him. We watched the sun set over the ocean, and all felt that now-familiar, all-encompassing bliss and peace sweep over us. That feeling only grew when we returned back to Whitianga, and the choir members and their host families all came to Lesley and Phill’s home for a potluck, which soon turned into a group singalong. I’d never felt such a feeling of family and love from people who had been complete strangers just the day before. Niblock truly did welcome us to his family here, and we could all see just what that meant to him, and understand why he returned so frequently.

Day 6 began with working with 4th and 5th graders from Whitianga’s school district, giving them constructive pointers and then performing a few songs for them. The students were much more receptive and engaged than we were expecting, and at the end they had us all sign autographs for them, insisting we’d soon be famous. We left there for a 3 hour hike up to Shakespeare’s Cliff, down to Lonely Bay, and across a couple of the mountains where the original Maori defensive position was. At the top of Shakespeare’s Cliff, we gathered and sang “Hine e Hine”, a traditional Maori song. The piece that we’d been singing for a year now suddenly had an entirely different energy and meaning to it – looking out across the bay at the cliffs and the islands with the sun shining on us, we felt the roots of the song, the inspiration for it, the connection with the island and the people and its history.

From Shakespeare’s Cliff we trekked down to Lonely Bay to see the beach cove, and then began hiking up across one of the mountains. This was my absolute favorite part of the day – seeing thee incredible scenery and looking out across Whitianga, but also getting to follow the small side trails and climb on the rocks and trees in the jungle, eyes wide with childlike wonder and joy. It was the most picturesque and lush playground I’d ever climbed through. After the hike we were dropped at our respective host families, entirely exhausted from the past few days, and spent the night having a last meal and packing to leave early the next day.

I cannot truly say how spectacular this trip has been thus far, and we are only halfway through. Each day brings some new wonderment, and elevates our joy and our sense of family as a choir. We don’t mind how much time we spend together, we don’t mind losing sleep to see the sights, we’re all so caught up in the beauty and the magic that is New Zealand. Many of us have mentioned that we don’t want to leave, that we truly would love to live here, and that’s a testament to just how welcoming and loving the people have been – it’s not the views that make Whitianga feel like a home, it’s the people. We don’t want to just be travelers, pass through and leave again, we want to be a part of the community, get to know the families and the histories even better. We came to New Zealand full of excitement and a thirst for adventure, and New Zealand took us in with open arms.

City Kiwis

19 May, Auckland to Whitianga

Though we have only been in New Zealand a short while, and this is only our first stop, I am already in awe of the country. Auckland is a beautiful city, and experiencing the people and the culture is wonderful. Our days haven’t been packed yet, but that is much appreciated, because we are all still getting over the jet-lag, and enjoy having the freedom to explore the city in small groups.

Day 1 we landed in Auckland at 6 in the morning (NZ time), and spent the morning driving around the city and exploring various parts of it. We were all exhausted at this point, and to be honest I don’t think a single person was able to stay awake for the entire tour, but it was still exciting getting our first look at the place we’d all been dreaming about for months. We grabbed lunch in Devonport and explored around, before all going up 60 stories into the SkyTower overlooking the whole city. The view was wonderful, especially because we could see all the places we’d been wandering through that day.

Day 2 began with a choral workshop with Dr. Karen Grylls, and then we went to see the Holy Trinity Cathedral which has been in construction for 3 years, just now putting on the final touches. We sang “Le Pont Mirabeau” in a side chapel of the church, and then “Daemon Iripetit Coridus” in the main area – the final climactic chord echoed through the building up to the ceiling, shocking and somewhat startling us all. After that, we explored the War Museum and Memorial area. Being introduced to the rich history of New Zealand and the Maori people was incredibly interesting.

Day 3 we were set loose on Auckland, and allowed to go wherever we desired in the city – some went to art museums, others to the park, and myself and some others just wandered the city and the wharf. We reconvened in the afternoon at Takapuna Methodist Church, to have our first concert – a joint concert with the Auckland Youth Choir. Performing a couple of songs with them was phenomenal – their choir has about 100 members, and the sound we made singing together was incredibly powerful. It was also neat getting to meet Kiwis our age, and talking about the differences in their experiences and ours. In particular, we discussed American versus New Zealand slang, and the various phrases we used daily but almost never thought about.

The trip thus far has been phenomenal; all of us are in awe of just how beautiful the country is, and cannot wait to see the sights that await us.

Whitianga and the World’s Kindest Paradise

I know that it has been several days since my last post and the only excuse that I can come up with is that the chamber choir has been so engrossed with performing for the residents of Whitianga (pronounced “Fit-tea-anga”), being welcomed into their homes and lives, and walking around for the last three days with our jaws dragging on the beaches.

For as flowery a writer as I am, it is tremendously difficult to explain how strikingly and mesmerizingly beautiful this portion of New Zealand is. Our host families have been utterly welcoming and accommodating of us and our presence in their homes.

Mike, Ben, & Louis at Whitianga concert.

For Ben and me, we had the pleasure of staying with our host-father Mike – an engineer with a home that faces one of the areas beautiful and numerous beaches. The view from my room on the second floor looked onto the beach into the bay. It’s pretty fantastic, folks.

Our first true chamber choir concert on May 20th was a massive success, where we performed twenty-three pieces of our repertoire with two of the songs performed with the Mercury Bay Community Choir – “Hine e Hine” and “Holy Spirit, Don’t You Leave Me.” A successful performance to say the least!

The next day was wrought with Hot Water beaching, cafés, boat rides around the local and stunning coastline – particularly to Cathedral Cove and to the beach where the arrival to Narnia in the second movie was filmed.

Cathedral Cove

This was followed up with another beach visit to further encourage me to move to New Zealand where I am going to live on a boat in the bays: this is going to happen. Oh! And have I mentioned the food and fellowship that these loving folks offered us! Green lipped mussels, pavlova, and New Zealand wines to name some of the bounty! All capped off with singing, life lessons, and astronomy lessons about our brand new celestial views of the southern stars.

Our last day consisted of a visit to the local area school where we hosted a residency for the students of Mercury Bay and collaborated with them to increase musicality and the transfer of shared musical experience between cultures and ages.

Allegheny College Chamber Choir students host a music workshop with Mercury Bay Area students

Followed by a day trip hike to Shakespeare Point and the surrounding area. Megan, Ben, Dan, Troy, and I were fortunate enough to be invited around to explore Whitianga from the air in a two-seat plane, built by Mercury Bay Area high school students, and a gyrocopter: the only one in the area and one of seventy in all of New Zealand.

Louis in the gyrocopter before takeoff

A perfect three days in paradise; unrivaled by anything I have yet seen or experienced in this realm. I have not stopped smiling since landing in Aoteoroa (Land of the Long White Cloud: New Zealand).

Who Are You Calling Chicken?

Yesterday, after we all got settled in, and after our first real sleep since Monday, the choir had the priviledge of visiting the Auckland War Memorial Museum to learn about New Zealand’s vast natural, military, and multicultural histories. The first floor of the museum focused on the indigenous Polynesian and New Zealand people, the Māori. We experienced the intricacy of the artwork, the resourcefulness of the clothing, and the careful carving of the waka (giant canoes), all created with great precision and symbolism at the hands of Māori people. Each piece held insight into the culture of the Māori people.
The second floor took a look at the natural history of New Zealand. We took a journey through time to look at the land, plants, and animals of the past and present. The most notable animal of the Island’s past has to be the Moa, New Zealand’s “chicken.”

This chicken stood a shocking 12 feet tall and weighed approximately 570 pounds. The Moa has been exstinct for several hundred years, but lives on in its unique nature. Other featured birds of the museum included the kiwi, a New Zealand symbol. The kiwi is a flightless bird that still lives on the Islands. When explorers first sent back specimen of the kiwi to europe, people believed it was a hoax because of the bird’s fur-like feathers and unusual shape.

The final floor focused on New Zealand’s contributions in the first and second World Wars, as well as the New Zealand Wars of the 19th Century. A stone wall with golden carved names commemorates the thousands of fallen during these times.

We’re all eager to continue learning about the multiculturalism of the country as we head into historical Rotorua in a few days to experience traditional Māori customs.

New Zealand, Kiwis, & Choir – Oh my!

I don’t think that one can truly appreciate the island nation of New Zealand until they have set foot on its volcanic and sub-tropical soil. Upon arrival,  the state’s rabid insistence on biosecurity was evident as they required declaraton of all things organically foreign being brought to the country – and I can absolutely see why! The natural beauty of the primarily indigenous flora is both breathtaking and inspiring: the impetus for art, clothing, children’s metaphors, and cathedral stained glass.

At the end of our second day, I have finally found an opportunity to sit and write about our experience. If you wish to read about the San Francisco experience, I will direct you to Emma’s post. New Zealand has been filed with the most friendly and accommodating people, and the food has been fantastic!  From full bays opening to the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the surrounding islands offer a scenic view of beauty and serenity.

View from Auckland SkyTower

More to come with photos galore!