Singing Across Ireland

HRV students sense the magic of music


Music Director, Hood River Valley High School

It has been often said that music is the international language, and indeed the way in which melody, harmony, and rhythm transcend borders and cultures is truly magical. I recently had the opportunity to usher thirty-five student musicians and 12 adult chaperones through Ireland, and without a doubt, it was the music -- sweetly sung in cathedrals and played in 17th century halls -- that we will remember most from our journey.

Just as it was in 1998, when we visited England, and in 2000, when we toured Scotland, music was our passport and a series of five concerts the backbone of our itinerary. During the seven months of fundraising, planning, organizing, and musical rehearsal, it was the thought of making and sharing music that remained our focus and driving force. I shared with students some special memories of past tours, such as the incredibly moving performance in Scotland's mysteriously powerful Iona abbey, or standing in the cloisters of England's Salisbury Cathedral, where singers had been making music for well over a thousand years. I knew that this tour, like those of the past, would be filled with special musical moments and I wanted the students to be prepared for them.


Our first performance of the tour was not in some ancient vaulted church but the Atlanta International Airport on March 21, during a long layover between flights. As we stood singing in the nearly empty international terminal, amid Muzak and intercom noise, we attracted a small but interested audience, including the music master for Buckingham Palace, who was in Atlanta with members of the Royal Band. I've noticed that no matter where we perform there are almost always one or two people knowledgeable about music and happy to share insights and offer compliments.

This first leg of our journey was long and exhausting, including three different flights and a nearly four-hour coach ride from Dublin to our first destination, Waterford. Along the way we were joined by our courier/tour guide Lauren, a personable and energetic young woman from England; and Denis, our coach driver for the week.

As they were guided through the ancient streets of Waterford, once a Viking settlement, students began to feel the weight of the history and culture all around them. Here was a sixth century tower, there a street of buildings that had been occupied long before Europeans set foot in America.

The next morning, Sunday, we performed as part of a Palm Sunday service at St. Carthage's Cathedral in Lismore. This impressive cathedral was begun in the twelfth century and features more recent stained glass by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Bourne-Jones. For many students, this was the first time they were able to hear their music performed in the kind of acoustic environment for which it was written. In the old, drafty stone cathedral, the music became a real, living thing for them, and not simply an exercise in singing correct pitches and rhythms.

Our day was hardly over after the service and a warm community reception, however, and we were soon back on the coach and driving through lush green meadows on our way to Blarney, where we stopped for lunch at the woolen mills and a visit to Blarney Castle. Most of us climbed the narrow stone steps to the top of the castle and bending backwards over a harrowing precipice, kissed the "Blarney stone," a ritual said to bestow the gift of eloquent speech.

Our hotel for the next two evenings was in Killarney, and was set on the shores of a beautiful lake, where early in the morning swans gracefully traced the shoreline, reminding me of a poem by William Butler Yeats. There was the ruin of an ancient abbey and in addition to the extravagant food and accommodations, the place had a restful sense of stillness and peace. At dinner, the students stood in the dining room and entertained the guests with their music.

After a morning visit to Muckross House -- an 18th century manor house once visited by Queen Victoria -- and a nearby abbey, we headed to Kilorglin, where our students met their counterparts, the Kilorglin Youth Choir from the local secondary school. Within minutes, the students from both countries were laughing easily and after a short combined rehearsal, we headed back to Killarney for dinner and a change to concert attire.

The concert that evening was truly memorable. There was an appreciative audience of well over 300 parents, local school administration, and town residents. After performances by the Kilorglin Choir and our musicians, the evening concluded with a combined performance of Bruckner's "Locus Iste," and a choir and audience number, a setting of an ancient Celtic chant. There was a profound sense of appreciation for the talents of the students and an obvious love of music.

As I shared with our students that evening on the ride back to our hotel, what they experienced was the ability of people of very different backgrounds and cultures to make music together, to communicate in a very deep way, and to share instantly the ability to bring beauty to others. I hoped that this was a lesson our students would long remember and treasure.

Although there were no scheduled performances the next day, Tuesday, music was still an important element of our experience. At Cashel, students toured the ruins of a fifth century cathedral, stood in the hall where their medieval counterparts lived, and sang in the spot where the sounds of voices had been heard for millennia. In fact, the students were now using every opportunity to sing, using their music to capture the shared moment in each place.

Another ride through the lovely hills and meadows brought us to Kilkenny, one of the most ancient cities in Ireland and a friendly, colorful place in which to walk and explore. Our modern hotel featured perhaps the most elaborate and delicious food of the entire tour, truly gourmet fare and the first experience many of our students had of such extravagant meals. That evening I took a group of senior students and chaperones to search out some authentic Irish folk music.

Wednesday, we backtracked to Waterford, and after a morning's tour of the famous crystal factory, performed in The Large Room, a beautiful, 17th century building that housed legal offices and a performance area with splendid acoustics. Our lunchtime performance wasn't particularly well attended but the audience was receptive and friendly, and it was inspiring to sing and play in a room that had hosted the likes of Handel and his contemporaries. After dinner at our hotel in Kilkenny, many students walked to a nearby cineplex, and spent the evening happily dozing through a movie.

Thursday morning we packed our bags and boarded the coach once again, this time for a journey through the Wicklow Mountains, a stop at St.Kevin's Monastery in Glendalough, and finally, on to Dublin. Our chaperones, as always, did a fantastic job of helping the students check and organize their bags, concert attire, and music; they supported them in dozens of ways as they had throughout the trip. It was a great team of chaperones, committed to the kids, and constantly watching out for the students' health, well being, and happiness.

After the serenity of the country, Dublin was a bit of a culture shock. A bustling, busy, fast-moving city, Dublin is home to nearly half of the population of Ireland. From the vantage of our heart-of-downtown hotel, it seemed like everyone was on the streets.

Before settling into our hotel, we paid a performance visit to St. Patrick's Cathedral, perhaps the most beautiful and famous Cathedral in Ireland. Performing a cappella, the choir filled St. Patrick's with the sounds of Palestrina, Victoria, Bach, and others, and the music seemed to hang in the air for seconds. For many students, this performance was their favorite. I too will remember the sweet upwelling of their voices in the hushed cathedral and the reminder that moments such as that were worth all the effort.

Our evening in Dublin was free, and so we went in many directions: some went to see an Irish comedy in Yeats' theatre; some went to the Dublin premiere of "Beauty and the Beast;" some went to a concert of "The Celtic Tenors;" and some spent the evening exploring the nearby bohemian district.

Our last full day in Ireland, Friday, began with a bus tour of the city and some free time for shopping before we headed to the town of Greystones and a final performance at St. Patrick's Church. Although the acoustics weren't particularly flattering, it was a nice old church and the musicians were treated to a warm post-concert reception. We drove back to Dublin, had a short dessert banquet, and prepared for a long day of travel home.

It is unavoidable that when we study music and arts in school, it is often divorced from its original setting and intent. Madrigals are sung in a concert instead of around the dinner table, and the great arching melodies of renaissance choral music echo not in the stone caverns of a cathedral but against the walls of a music room. It is my hope that through tours such as this, our students can hear and experience their musical heritage and feel the power and satisfaction of sharing their music with others. This is what I hope they will remember long after the other moments have faded.

Mark Steighner gave his thanks to chaperones Alison Fitts, Jody McFarlane, Marbe Cook, Carol Emmerson, Nancy Merz, Joyce Jennings, Marcia Page, David Burton, Dave Sylvan, Ron Phillips, Ken Apland, and Tom Schaefer.

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