I spent a few minutes yesterday afternoon wishing the Carthage Choir bon voyage as they left for their 3-week European tour, which of course brought back memories of a similarly cold January afternoon back in 2000 when the choir left for tour with me as their not-so-fearless leader. . . and those memories are a very weird tangle of lovely and terrible. It is an enormous responsibility to take 50 students to Europe and I got very tense in my shoulders and queasy in my stomach just thinking about it- and as I walked up and down the aisle of the bus yesterday. . . giving high – five’s to various voice students, bear hugs to others. . . those feelings swept over me to a surprising degree. And as I quietly heard one of the officers says to another officer “we have everyone except Andrew….. is he on campus?…… someone said they saw him….etc. “ I felt this little clutch of panic and had the stop and remind myself that this was not my problem, and that in a few moments I would be getting off of the bus and watching it pull away from the curb, and breathing a GIGANTIC sigh of relief. And when I called my brother Steve back (who had called when I was right in the middle of the bon voyage) he asked me if I wished I was going along and I am a bit amazed at how quickly and almost fiercely I told him NO. Which is sort of strange to say, given that I like so many of the students in the Carthage Choir so much, as well as their director . . . and Europe is so wonderful . . .
but no, that tour back in 2000 was one of the most draining, challenging experiences of my entire life – as it was for Kathy – and I’m not sure how many teams of wild horses it would take to get me to do that again, even if I was only going as the accompanist. There were all kinds of things that made it tough, including an exceptionally tough winter that complicated some of our logistics – some tough personalities in the choir who made things harder than they would otherwise be – my own inexperience – and a little thing called alcohol that seemed to be an irresistible temptation for certain choir members. That last matter should not have been a big surprise to me but it was – but what was even more surprising to me how that seemed to bring out the General Patton in me. I will never forget our first night in Prague when Kathy walked into our hotel room and informed me that she had very clearly heard a drinking game going on in one of the student rooms (in a million years I never would have known that’s what they were doing- that’s now naive I was) and I suddenly felt 7-feet-tall as I marched my way down to that room, pounded on the door, and proceeded to lower the proverbial boom on those students who had been caught red-handed, some of whom were among the straightest arrows in the choir. There was something almost sort of exhilarating about finding something within myself that I had no idea was there (namely, toughness) . . . but at the end of those three weeks in Europe, I felt like someone had taken an ice cream scoop and emptied me out like a pumpkin prepared for carving. I was so drained from the challenge of keeping the group together / of responding to some challenges to making good music, including dealing with some incredibly awkward venues for our concerts / and most of all of doing what I could to keep everybody happy (which I should not have tried to do) . . . There are dozens of balls to keep up in the air even on a regular domestic tour – let alone on one that takes us from Germany to the Czech Republic to Austria to Switzerland to France – and by the end it felt like the toughest gauntlet I had ever run.
Which is not to say that there weren’t some joys – some amazing mountaintop experiences, including a literal mountaintop experience in Arosa, Switzerland . . . or singing in Notre Dame Cathedral and seeing tears stream down the cheeks of students who had never ever shown me that side . . . or bringing the choir at long last to Wolfentbuttel, Germany- Kenosha’s sister city- and welcomed as though we were royalty . . . or hearing the Vienna Philharmonic in concert . . . or meeting a star of the Metropolitan Opera, soprano Carol Vaness, who came to our performance in Paris . . . or the night in Augburg when the choir sang in an unheated church, and the guys ended up giving up their tux jackets to the women so they wouldn’t freeze to death. . .
but I think in some ways my favorite moment came on our last day in Paris. We stayed at a very very very cheap motel called Mister Bed, in a not-so-great part of Paris, and so it should not have come as a huge surprise that our bus was broken into . . . twice . . .. and then that last night, a prowler snuck into one of the student rooms and stole the backpack of one of our tenors- a backpack which included gifts he had bought for his girlfriend, his wallet and all his cash, and worst of all, his passport. It was about as disastrous a theft as someone could suffer, but this young man – Nick Terry was his name – could not have been more mature about it. He was just glad that he or someone else hadn’t been hurt – and all he was really worried about was getting on the plane safe and sound and on his way home. (Which we managed to do.) All these years later, I don’t think any memory of Europe resonates with me as powerfully as the way in which Nick handled this nasty turn of events so graciously and wisely, smiling through something so rotten. And I guess if I had been taking 49 Nick Terry’s on that tour, it would have been completely different. But no, the choir was of course a mixed bag including some young students who were largely overwhelmed by the experience and others who really found it as challenging and draining as I did, if not more so.
And yet, somehow, we survived.
And I think before Kathy and I had even walked off the plane at O’Hare and into customs, we both knew deep in our hearts that we had just undergone what would be and should be and had to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” is an old saying, and I believe it. But it sure can exhaust us as well- and life is too short for us to put ourselves through that. So I am content in my new place on the curb, waving as the bus heads down the road. It is more than okay. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.