Choir Olympics

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We had a 7:15 am call time by the lake at Gresford where we assembled in concert dress and warmed up in the road until the bus arrived. The bus dropped us off at the Eisteddfod grounds and we warmed up backstage in the hold. This differed from 4 years ago when I competed as an alum of my college choir. I think it had to do with the fact that we were the first competition of the day and we had a smaller ensemble.

There’s a big screen backstage where you can see the what’s happening on the stage (rather, watch the performance before yours). I remember just staring at it this time around and watching all the tech guys working at a quick pace to get the sound and stage set up for the day. After a few trips to the mirror to make sure my red lipstick was under control, we lined up like a line of cattle on the ramp to the stage. No nerves, just calm and excited this time around.

It was finally 9:10 am- go time. The techs wished us luck as we filed on stage and we whispered words of encouragement to each other. Once set, I had a few seconds to take in the view. The sun illuminated the tent and the sparse morning crowd which consisted or our homestays and a few older people. They smiled at us as we waited for the ok to start from the judges.

Singing on stage is such a rush. I thrive on the adrenaline and fun I have performing for others and being in a competition heightens those feelings exponentially. Months of hard work and practice are put on the line in one set. Like the Olympics, victory is earned and sweet.

Once the conductor’s hands went up, I was locked in for what seemed to be the fastest 12 minutes of my life. We knocked out piece after piece and only during the pauses in between did my mind wander to think about if the camera caught me flubbing a lyric in the third piece. When we went backstage, I remember feeling satisfied from the rush, unsatisfied about some of the performance, and then bummed that that was our only competition. I was riding a singing high and I didn’t want that set to be our only performance on the international stage.

We ended up getting third place (though deserving of second) so that was a tough pill to swallow. I shrugged it off and thought how lucky I was to be back at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod and went into town with the roomie to sit on the river rocks and enjoy a post-competition lunch.

Addendum: Chamber Ensemble Rules

Each choir (no more than 30 people) should prepare a contrasting programme of up to 12 minutes of music which must include the
following:
 A work composed before 1800 (Cantate Domino, Monteverdi)
 An unaccompanied work (Deep River, Spiritual)
 An original work composed by a living composer from the choirs native country (In Green Underwood, Ed Rejuney a member of our choir)

We tacked on an additional piece to close out the program (Hallelujah, Sunt, Spiritual… UK people LOVE Americans singing spirituals)

Wedi Ei Fragu Yng Nghymru (Llangollen Brewery)

Taken with my Nikon D3000 DSLR

Llechwedd Slate Mine + Things

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We arrived to the slate mine later in the afternoon just in time to catch one of the last tours since we were such a large group. The first part of the tour was a walking tour of 10 chambers 500 feet below ground. Each of us were given hardhats, and a yellow “train” with cars that snugly fit 4 people took us down into the mine. The docent unloaded us and disappeared so we were on our own guided only by audio prompts and lights.

It was absolutely fascinating to learn about mining and its strong vocational connection to Wales. Each chamber had 4 guys, usually family, that worked a single chamber (which took about 40 years to completely mine). The lights were turned off during the tour, only leaving the faint glow of a candle to illustrate just how dark it was. It was astounding that any work was done in the dark like that especially because one of the guys was required to climb up the rock face, ignite the dynamite, and scramble out of the chamber before the explosion- all in pitch black.

Boys around 10 years old were allowed to start work in the mine and would often run messages between the foremen. At 17 they could begin their apprenticeship though few made it past 30 years of age due to lung infections. Once the self guided tour ended, we hustled back to a tram (with 25 miles of track) that took us into another part of the mine for the 2nd half of the tour which was guided by an actual person. It was just like being on an amusement park ride though it was much slower with all the stops! 

Things: 

A few months before my Wales trip, I read a great Ken Follett book whose story line centered on a small mining community in Wales during WWI. I recommend reading it before making the trip across the pond.

When we got back to Gresford, our homestay had beers, cheese, and crackers out for us so the roomies and I chilled in the garden. This is also when I found out just how much my one guy roommate loved the show ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ 

We had dinner at the Golden Lion (ham steak and mash accompanied with a Strongbow cider for the win) and sang some of our rep at the table much to the delight of the other diners who flocked to our room to hear us.

Also, one of my fellow choristers had his second beer ever that night. Ever. He was in the Navy, has grandkids, etc. and that night was the second time he had beer. Awesome!

Castle Day!

I’m a morning person and have always enjoyed time to myself to explore and take in my host country before anyone else is awake. Travel journal, postcards, and DSLR in hand, I headed in the direction of the church, past a local school (Ysgol in Welsh) and up the lane to a small quarter mile path that led to a cemetery. The path had tall hedges on both sides with wildflowers cascading toward the ground. To my right and left were wheat fields and a cow pasture dotted with white farm houses. I found a bench in the center of the graveyard by a great old tree and watched the sunrise as I wrote and breathed in the crisp morning air of Gresford. 

After a home cooked meal of scrambled eggs, toast, and tea, the roomies and I headed into town to meet up with the rest of the group for our bus ride around Northern Wales. We drove through the Snowdonia region past beautiful green rolling hills, quaint Welsh houses and villages, and hills of slate abutting a lake. An hour into the drive, we stopped on Mt. Snowden to stretch our legs. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect! Blue skies, green grass, and bold views met us as we explored a nearby hiking path.

After taking pictures and walking around, we boarded the bus and about an hour later reached Caernarfon. The old city was located inside an enclosed stone wall that Edward I constructed so the English could safely colonize Welsh lands. The town itself was really cute- lots of shops, flags, and pageantry hanging overhead as we wound our way to the castle.

Caernarfon Castle was quite large and impressively intact. I wandered off and randomly chose my point of entry. I walked along the outer wall, went in and out of narrow hallways, climbed towers that led to other towers only to end up in another tower with the bedchambers. The rooms were octagonal shaped with hardwood floors, high ceilings, big fireplaces, and a fantastic echo. Up a nearby spiral staircase (super steep, movies fight scenes lie- there’s no way you can be agile) I was led to the top of a tower with an incredible view of the castle grounds. Straight in front of me was the harbor filled with boats and in the near distance was Angelsey Island where Prince William and Princess Kate live.

After successfully not face planting on my descent, I ended up in a multi-floor museum of Welsh military history. Interesting stuff, of course, but I was short on time so I moved fast through the exhibit and stuck around for a 30 minute video of the castle’s history. I dipped out of an impromptu rehearsal in the castle and headed into the town to look for souvenirs and explore. I sat in the town square and wrote a postcard, then I went down to the water before heading back to the bus.

Next on the agenda was a visit to Harlech Castle, a half hour away from Caernarfon, and home to one of the best golf courses in Wales. The streets to the castle were very narrow and up hill, much like a Tuscan hill town. Harlech was less of a touristy castle and wasn’t as large. Some of my group went inside, but I stayed on the outside enjoying the views of the valley and the stonework of the castle. My roomies and I even sat on some nearby picnic benches and enjoyed a lunch of french bread, pesto, cheese, Pringles, and apples (so decadent). It was an idyllic way to spend the afternoon before heading off to the last attraction of the day: the Llechwedd Slate Mines.

Enthusiasm is the sparkle in your eyes, the swing in your gait.
Henry Ford

Snowdonia, Wales

Taken with my Nikon D3000 DSLR

Parade of Nations & The Plough

We arrived in Llangollen at the Eisteddfod grounds in the early afternoon and my heart soared to be back in the town once more. Since I competed in the Eisteddfod 4 years prior, my group relied on me to show them the ropes from the get-go. We dropped our stuff off in the trailers near the welcome area- the same ones with the same attendant (Karen!) as before and went inside to get our home stay assignments. After, we made our way toward the opposite entrance and got in line for the Parade of Nations.

We were decked out in matching red National Philharmonic Singers t-shirts and Washington National hats with little American flags to boot! The energy was electric as the large Eisteddfod crowd of competing musicians and dancers waited to go into town. Groups broke out into song, people formed circles around dancers, and random jam seshes just happened. My group was sandwiched between a South African Group and a Belgian Group who came prepared with songs to sing during the parade… we just kind of winged it as we went along (Yankee Doodle, anyone?). The turnout from the town was great. There were hundreds of people lining the streets as we walked by, including the mayor. (We even got interviewed by the BBC!).

When the parade ended, we used our competitor meal ticket and had dinner in the cafeteria tent. The line was long so my friend and I ended up playing ‘Big Booty’ with the German girls behind us. They played it differently though so instead of trying to throw off their opponents (number 1 number 9 etc.) they went in numerical order until someone stumbled (lame)… needless to say, I ended up in the middle on the first try.

After dinner, our bus took us 20 minutes North to Gresford where our group met up with our home stays for the duration of our competition. My host was a cheeky and witty grandma- she was awesome. Her house and garden looked like it came straight from a Harry Potter book. My three roomies and I unpacked our things and met some others at the local pub, The Plough, recommended by Karen and her husband whom we met at the Eisteddfod trailers. We sat outside and had a few pints, learned some Welsh (popty-ping!), and had tons of laughs. Steve the owner even loved us (Americans!) and gave us a free round of shots before we left. Maybe we were a little loopy from being up 24 hours, or maybe it was the cider, but the core group of us instantly bonded that night setting the stage for an awesome week ahead in Wales.

Half a Day in Chester

After arriving in Manchester on an overnight flight, my group hit up Chester, England for a few hours before we ventured to Wales. Chester is a smaller city of about 400,000 inhabitants and was originally built as a Roman fort so there were a lot of ruins (amphitheater, Roman garden) once we passed through the main gate of the city. We walked along the wall that circled the city to get to the old center and found the Eastgate Clock, the second most photographed clock in the UK after Big Ben. The clock was placed on the Eastgate arch in celebration of Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1899.

Not far from the clock was the sandstone cathedral where we entered a beautiful garden with the most fragrant yellow roses I’ve ever smelled. Inside, we were only allowed in the cloisters and garth (medieval word for garden) because all the local middle schoolers were in the sanctuary for a graduation ceremony. I spent most of my time in the garth. It was so peaceful with the sunlight pouring in from above. All around me were beautifully kept flowers, including Foxgloves which are native to the region. Also, in the center was a very lovely modern statue called The Water of Life

Across the street was the Town Hall. Our guide took us around the building and showed off the plaques adorning the central staircase from visiting organizations. Above those were four full length portraits of men worth half a million dollars from the 1500’s. Large paintings of all the Earls of Chester and the mayors adorned a large hall next to a judicial room (used up until the 1980’s) with a King George III portrait ominously placed above the judge’s seat. Our guide also mentioned that the clock tower only has three faces due to a shortage of money. The English joke that the clock is missing the face that is toward the West because they don’t give Wales the ‘time of day.’

We then headed back to the main part of town with The Rows- the famed two story waddle and daub black and white architecture that is quintessentially English. At the center, called the Chester Cross, there is a stone marker that denotes where the four original Roman roads of the city intersected. We walked around the streets for a few minutes but were running short on time since we had to get settled in Llangollen that afternoon. Our ‘pubmaster’ (a bass we put in charge of finding the good pubs while abroad) led us to a historic ale house for lunch where the beer was flowing and the food was delicious (risotto!). We left Chester with a song in the pub and good cheer in our bellies :)

Hughlett Point, Northern Neck of Virginia

7 Wonders of Wales

                            Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple, 
                            Snowdon’s mountain without its people, 
                            Overton yew trees, St Winefride wells, 
                            Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells.