On Tour with the Choir

By LCHS Associate Principal, James Cartnal

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On Thursday, March 23, the La Canada High School Choral Artists journeyed to Italy for an 8 day concert tour. I was lucky enough to accompany them and see their brilliance on full display. The La Canada Choral Artists were comprised of students from Dr. Brookey’s Concert Choir class as well as members of the Chamber Singers. Our journey took us from Venice in the North, through Florence and Assisi, and finally to Rome. For this article, I will offer reflections and memories about our first and last stops, as well as a summary of what I learned while traveling with the choir.

In March of 2016, I went to Chicago with the Concert Choir, so I had some experience with traveling with this wonderful bunch of musicians. I had never been overseas with a student group before and hoped that everyone traveling on four international flights, departing over a span of about six hours from LAX, would all find our ways safely to Venice, luggage and concert wear all present and accounted for. We all did arrive safely, and, thankfully, all 134 students, chaperones, doctors, and parents on the shadow were tour ready to take Italy by storm.  

We arrived in Venice and got checked into our rooms. Our first adventure that night included a quick walking trip to a nearby market. It was great to see and hear the experience of students having to negotiate foreign currency and the different way that this supermarket was arranged. While most just wanted to get some bottled water and a light snack after a long day of travel, I still wonder if the student who purchased eight two-liter bottles of Fanta lugged all of that deliciousness across the Italian peninsula?  We had dinner at the hotel and got to bed, some of us resting more soundly than others, to hear the chaperones on late night hall duty tell it.  

Our first full day in Italy welcomed us with extraordinary weather, bright, sunny, and clear.  Our buses took us into to a large parking lot where we boarded a boat and made for the Grand Canal in Venice. As we approached, the famous Tower in St. Mark’s plaza came into view, as did the cathedral where the students would sing later that night. We were really lucky, as we arrived in Venice on the feast day of their patron St. Mark and we were going to sing mass that evening in the cathedral named for him.  We met our tour guides for the day in the piazza San Marco and headed for the Rialto bridge by way of this back alley and that winding narrow street. The kids saw sights familiar and not - from stores and food that were known, to people hanging their Saturday laundry out to dry from a third story window. Students and chaperones alike were given about two hours to explore the city on their own and most students found a sunny piazza to get lunch and begin their particular education about Italian gelato. We came together in the early afternoon to prepare for our concert that evening. This remains one of many genuinely exceptional moments of the trip for me. Standing in front of the cathedral in the piazza San Marco, with Dr. Brookey in the middle, the students gathered around him and began the process of warming up and practicing their songs. This drew a crowd of a couple hundred people, all with cameras and phones out, recording the artistry of our instant Youtube stars. For my part, I went around asking the on-lookers do they “parli inglese?” and regardless of whether they responded si or no, I told them our story. We went into the church about an hour before the mass to dress. The church was gorgeous and our students sang brilliantly. Our evening ended with a boat tour of the Venetian waterways by night replete with a delicious pasta dinner that included frutti di mare. Good on the kids that tried the octopus that was included in the pasta. The choir sang happy birthday to a student who turned 18 and everyone appeared to have a good time, even if I could tell that some students were ready to fall asleep at the dinner tables.  We got back to the hotel late and students and chaperones headed to bed, as we had an early morning call time so that we could continue our journey southward. 

We arrived late in Rome, our last destination of the tour, because we stopped for dinner en route from Assisi at this beautiful restaurant overlooking this wonderful valley. This restaurant is the kind of place where one gets married or where we would host the LCHS Prom. Once we got to Rome, we checked in and got to bed, as we had another early morning call time, since we needed to get to Papal audience early the following day. While I had been to the Vatican a couple of times before, I had never participated in the public mass before. The weather was great and it struck me that the kids found the spectacle of it all fascinating. As the Pope approached, Dr. Brookey climbed on a chair and began conducting the students who sang, our sound competing with the shouts from the Spanish and Brazilian delegations near us. After the Papal audience, the students were given a few hours to amuse themselves in Rome. 

Now, before the trip, I must confess that I had some apprehension at the stated itinerary that planned to give the students “a few hours to amuse themselves in Rome.” From the perspective of a high school administrator, this is a patently bad idea. I had dreams (nightmares, really) about Roman traffic, crazy drivers, kids getting lost, pick-pocketed, or worse. And, this is why one must travel, as it provides an opportunity to experience life lived, rather than the worried apprehensions of what could be. I received routine group text messages from the students that I chaperoned, letting me know what they were up to. One included a wonderful video of a student eating two gelato cones - one cardinal in color, the other gold - at the same time. Kids went to see the sites, had lunch, bought some really cool souvenirs for the folks back home, and all found their way back to the rendezvous point at the correct time. We headed back to the hotel to freshen up and dress into their performance attire. Our kids, Spartans through and through - great in the classroom, brilliant on stage, and so thoughtful and responsible, handled the independence and autonomy perfectly. 

Our final concert of the tour was at a church located near the Circus Maximus. The church was beautiful inside and had a garden area in the back that had a million Euros view of St. Peter’s and the rest of Rome. As I was waiting for the concert to begin, I had the delightful experience of seeing one of our recent graduates who had just started her study abroad experience in Rome. She came to the church to see her younger sister sing. Now, most of you who will read this are not teachers nor work in the field of education, so you will have to take my word for it that what follows immediate hereafter just does not happen to people who work at schools. Students come back to say hi all the time for sure, but rarely does one lean in and say, “want to see something cool?” As I try to live my life by the mantra of wanting to see cool stuff, I followed her out of the church, then she said, I want to show you a peephole. Since I was in Rome, I did as I imagine the Romans would do, which, in this case, was to go see the peephole. By the way, educators, as a general rule, do not look through peepholes much, particularly when encouraged by students, so when I bent down to look through the keyhole of the building next to the church where our students were waiting to sing, wondering if this was a career changing moment, I was blown away by what I was gazing at. It was a perfectly centered image of an illuminated St. Peter’s Basilica, framed by the tree lined walkway of the courtyard that I was spying into. Brilliant! I was so grateful to have such a little adventure shared with me by one of our former Spartans inside one great big adventure that was the Italy choir tour. The singing was extraordinary and the students emotions genuine and true, many of the seniors taken by the emotionality that this was their last formal concert as part of the choir.  It was difficult to find a dry eye in the church, everyone sensing, I think, how special this journey really was. That said, I did not really know what the next day held in store. 

Our final day on tour began with an early breakfast, then a bus ride into Rome, then to a guided tour across the city. We visited the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Trevi fountain, to name only a few, then allowed the kids some free time and adventure. More gelato and pizza was enjoyed, along with, what I understand, was a very expensive cheese plate that had a sticker shock that still smarts nearly a month after our return. After our tour, we returned to the hotel to freshen up, get dressed, then we headed back to the Vatican for our Grand Finale - singing mass in St. Peter’s, a private tour of the Vatican museum, then a recital in the Sistine Chapel. I really wish that I could convey to the readers of this post the sharp focus of sunlight that was beaming into the Basilica, how the students sounded, filling up that great church, and the sense of wonder that the students and chaperones had when the priest who gave the mass let us know that he had heard many choirs before, but few that sounded as extraordinary as our own. He even asked if we could become the regular choir of that great church! I was beaming, humbled to have heard them there and even more astounded that several students gathered around me, a former European history teacher, as I attempted to wax eloquently over why Michelangelo’s Pieta is such an amazing sculpture and why this church is so important to the history of western civilization.  

After mass, we walked out of the sovereign nation of the Holy See, back into Italy, then back again into Vatican City. I still await the donation to LCHS from the food vendor that was right outside the entrance to the Vatican museum, as our hungry students bought him out of everything save his bottles of beer. The Vatican museum was amazing, and overwhelming, with so much to see in a short time, particularly as the students knew what awaited us at the end of this tour. We entered the Sistine Chapel with quiet reverence, students and parents taking in the wonder of the building. Dr. Brookey gathered our students together and they performed several songs that filled up that historic place. We all felt how special this moment was.

Going on tour was an honor and I was humbled by many things that still animate me all these weeks later. First among these was how our students engaged with the classroom of Italy. They took to the new with energy, flexibility, and a sense of wonder. They negotiated the money, the language, and all the rest well. Second, it was humbling to see how many parents were present to support their students. I will forever carry the memory of students who just sang in the Sistine Chapel finding their parents among the crowd to hug and say thank you for this opportunity. It also made a deep impression on me how much our students supported one another through feeling poorly to the emotions of being away or the hurt caused by a personal matter. I see their kindness often on campus, but being on tour with this group of students gave me a turbocharged dose of optimism about the future, as these brilliant students will be in it, and that is a good thing! The volunteerism of our community was also on full display, as the chaperones and doctors that traveled with the students gave of themselves fully - sacrificing sleep while doing bed checks and hall duty - sometimes until 2 to 3 am, and then answering the same early morning call time to begin the journey to another location. Finally, and I could have written my entire entry to our fourth newsletter of the year about this single topic, is how fortunate the school is to have an educator like Dr. Jeff Brookey on our faculty. Not only does our Maestro command the room, he has created such a wonderful rapport with the students. As a teacher at LCHS myself for nine years before transitioning into the administration, I experienced that feeling of having the students with you. Dr. Brookey has his students with him and has engaged not only their musicianship, but also their minds and emotions. Thank you students, chaperones, doctors, and parents for letting me journey with you. Thank you Dr. Brookey being my colleague. I was honored to have been part of this widely successful tour and look eagerly toward what may come in 2018. Viva l’Italia!