ON THE ROAD WITH TOUR CHOIR
Monday, February 10, 2014
Dear families and friends,
If it’s springtime in the Rockies, it’s tour time for the Children’s Chorale. I know I am probably a bit premature with the “springtime,” but a girl can dream. This tour finds National Tour Choir in the Mississippi Delta, and as we check the weather here and at home, it’s warmer in Denver!! We’re not complaining, however – we hear the birds singing every day, see the buds peaking out on the trees, and hints of new grass struggling through the rich Mississippi mud. Though, as I write this letter, they are anticipating freezing rain and snow for tomorrow! We say “no!” We have schools to visit and concerts to give, with no time for freezing rain and snow.
We left Denver very early Saturday morning or, as many complained, in the middle of Friday night. The staff call at DIA was 3:15am, and the kids were all there by 4am! The good news about that early arrival time is there is no traffic on the roads, at the check-in counters or in the security area. We were split for our air travel to Jackson, Mississippi, with 12 kids plus three staff on American Airlines laying over in Dallas, and 24 kids plus four staff through Houston. Both flights had a scheduled 6:00am departure time and arrival times in Jackson just 30 minutes apart. Ms. Burke, Mr. Branam and grad extraordinaire Ky led the charge on American Airlines; Ms. Smith, pianist Mrs. Wright, tutor Mrs. Proffitt and I headed up the United contingent.
Everything worked perfectly as planned. The American team arrived at baggage claim just as the United’s pick up their last bag. Our bus was waiting for us, complete with driver Horace, and we headed up the road to Cici’s for lunch. All the salad and pizza you can eat, complete with SIX custom-made pieces for William – no cheese, plenty of tomato sauce and pepperoni!
As we headed north to Greenville, Horace told us a bit about what we were seeing along the highway – cotton and corn fields, waiting to be planted; cypress swamps hiding alligators and snakes; and the magnolia, Mississippi’s state tree. We pulled out the Mississippi maps (thanks, Mrs. Proffitt!) and did our first map study. Find Jackson. Find Greenville. What road are we on? How many miles from Jackson to Greenville? How many different ways can you figure mileage on a map? Where are we RIGHT NOW? This had us staring out the bus windows for quite some time, as we discovered that road signs are few and far between on Hwy. 49, and there are no mile markers. We spotted some sky-balls (otherwise known as water towers), which sparked a discussion about why we call them sky balls, and why they are in the sky. And then we discovered they often have the name of their town printed on the ball, and we knew where we were! Whew. Fortunately, Horace knew all along.
We took a little detour through Belzoni, which claims the title “Catfish Capital of the World,” to see its 30+ giant catfish sculptures, adding to our collection of giant things spotted throughout the U.S. these past forty years. After checking into our hotel in Greenville, we had some time to relax and wash up before dinner at Tabb’s BBQ – the beginning of our gastronomic adventures on this tour. The chicken, rib, and pulled pork plates were the size of our heads, and everyone dug in with gusto. Our sponsors from the Delta Children’s Museum and Symphony Association were there to greet us and we were presented with charming little gift bags. Mississippi key chains, small buses and tractors, pencils and a Mississippi-shaped cookie. Yum! We met Dr. Engle, Judy and Betty, our hosts and companions for the next few days.
Sunday morning, after some homework time in our hotel rooms, we toured the River Road Queen Welcome Center, learning about the Great River Road, which parallels the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana. The Welcome Center resembles the Victorian riverboats that once ruled the river and is filled with wonderful exhibits describing the Delta region, its history, and the Mighty Mississippi. From there we followed Hwy. 82 along the levee to the new bridge (the 4th longest in the U.S.) and over the Mississippi River into Arkansas. Just because!
The highlight of the day was the B.B King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola. Bluesman B.B. King’s life and career are beautifully detailed in this state-of-the-art museum. From the introductory film to the historical perspective surrounding the civil rights movement, B.B.’s guitar “Lucille,” and the opportunity to sit in on a jam session with B.B. and his band, it was a rich experience for all of us. We had been listening to some of his music in the bus as we drove from Jackson to Greenville, learned about the 12-bar blues, and then became immersed in the culture of the early days of blues at the museum. With all of this information, we were prepared to write our own blues songs and, of course, the one hardship we are currently enduring, worthy of singin’ the blues…homework. For those of you who don’t know, blues lyrics are very simple, consisting of few words. Each verse makes a statement then repeats it, sometimes with more descriptive words, then a follow-up statement. You only need four chords, so get your guitars and sing along! Emma provided the first offering.
They say I need my homework, I say fine. (repeat)
And I’m glad, oh so glad, that my homework is all online.
I ask how many hours, they say only nine. (repeat)
And right then I’m glad, oh so glad, that my homework is all online.
Now I’m going away, there will be no wi-fi. (repeat)
Then I’m not glad, in fact I’m mad, that my homework is all online.
How do they do it, I say? (repeat)
Those kids who have homework three hours a day?
Oh, my life is a-okay. (repeat)
“Cause homeschoolers never do homework. Hooray!
I’m wakin” in the mornin’, it’s a quarter to four. (repeat)
I got so much homework that I can’t sleep no more.
You break my heart and make me cry. (repeat)
You turn my brain to mush, oh Algebra, why?
Your letters, they confuse me – a, b, c, and d. (repeat)
Oh, Algebra, I already learned how to read.
Your graphing takes forever, my hand is falling off. (repeat)
And if I’m not done soon, I’m going to barf.
After two days of travel and sightseeing, we were happy to get to work on Monday morning, with workshops and performances at Trigg Elementary and Lucy Webb Elementary Schools. We had a blast!! All of the workshop participants, 70 at each school, had learned “Do Re Mi” and “Pasta,” and they were ready for the choreography. It is delightful to watch Tour Choir work in these situations. The shyest among us step up to the plate, bravely taking the lead, instigating conversation, and gently teaching the appropriate skills. They laugh together and cajole their young charges out of THEIR shyness and soon everyone is singing and dancing like pros. When that applause comes, they bow and come up beaming. I love it!
We did a show in each school, to large, very excited and appreciative audiences. I was so proud of this Tour Choir. It doesn’t matter if it is a school gym, a stage, a hotel lobby or the corner of a restaurant, they perform with enthusiasm and precision, engaging and delighting everyone who sees them. Following our morning performance, we had lunch at Trigg Elementary, sitting amongst the 1st and 2nd graders who were just at the show. We were rock stars!!
Just up the road from Greenville is the little town of Leland, birthplace of Kermit the Frog. Muppets creator Jim Henson spent his childhood in Leland, playing along the banks of the river and ultimately creating that loveable Kermit. The first incarnation was made from his mother’s old coat and a ping pong ball. The little house on the river is filled with vintage Muppets and memorabilia. And best of all, a gift shop. The bus has quite a few new passengers aboard!
At dinner Monday night, we were treated to a special performance by Billy Smiley and the Young Guns, a local blues trio. They had us dancin’ in the aisles!
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Well, if you are following the national weather at all, you might have an idea about what’s happening here in Mississippi! Since yesterday (Tuesday) morning we have been in a winter storm warning area. Based on the reports Monday night, they closed all of the schools and public buildings Tuesday, and everything is still closed today. We had a day off today, anyway, but our plans for travel to Memphis and GRACELAND in search of Elvis had to be scratched.
The ice really is something we just don’t see in Colorado. Here in Greenville it is not as bad as we are seeing in other parts of the south – there are no icicles hanging from trees and power lines – but any flat surface is literally covered in a solid sheath of ice. The highway in front of our hotel sees only an occasional brave car sliding by. We slept in, then joined our fellow travelers for breakfast. We’re becoming quite good friends with everyone! Yesterday morning we did an impromptu performance in the lobby, along with a birthday song for one of our new friends. The woman responsible for stocking the breakfast bar was worried that there would be no room for the kids, as other hotel customers were just hanging out playing cards and drinking coffee. She was going to tell everyone else they needed to leave. I assured her there would be no problem, as people tend to clear out when they see us file in. And I was right! We have received nothing but compliments on how well-behaved, polite, and delightful the kids are at every turn, and these breakfasts are no exception. Other guests nicely move from the tables, but they don’t go far, as they enjoy visiting with and about the kids. They even offer to make waffles for us!
We were scheduled to do workshops and performances for three different schools Tuesday. Instead, we slept in and “returned to our childhood,” in Hayden’s words, watching cartoons. Fortunately, the hotel has a small conference room and we assembled there for some Olympics action. The event? Quadruple Rhythmic Clapping and Dance. All entries were rated for originality, creativity, synchronicity and functionality. We opened the competition with time trials in the creation category. The first place winner in the time trials was Team Djbouti (Margaret, Elise, Caroline, Sarah) with a time of 7:14:01. They actually came in a minute faster, but unfortunately incurred a penalty for attempting to sabotage other teams with their very loud and distracting practice “rituals.” Team South Africa (Bella, Lillian, John, Warren) came in second with a time of 8:33:03, and Team Australia (XiXi, Aitana, Rhys, Sydney) took third with 13:27:56. Ms. Canada, or Burke, was the referee, with Ky, Mrs. Proffitt and me judging.
Team Siberia (Mallory, Sam, Emily, Leah) showed some excellent single over-under hand work, but lost focus toward the end of the routine. Team Canada (Ben, Anna, Clarice, Joey) exhibited questionable team chemistry, but nice balletic style and musicality. Team England (Emma, Parker, Kira, Cameron) suffered an unfortunate wardrobe mishap, with several sleeves not in the correct position, possibly due to their excellent rhythmic execution. Team New Zealand (Toby, Torin, Josh, Hayden) took some impressive physical risks, but couldn’t quite overcome their sloppy execution. Team Jamaica (Charlie, Josef, Lukas, Zack) were handicapped by their obvious height difference, but executed some technically difficult behind-the-head clapping. Team Independent (Quinten, Brennan, Devon) recovered well from their unfortunate false start, using a slower tempo to gain a definite advantage. Team Australia (see above) presented a well-conceived routine, with just one member occasionally causing a problem in their unison sections. Team South Africa (see above) suffered from a minor loss of focus at transitions, but their simple, but effective choreography pulled them through. And Team Djbouti (see above) suffered several unfortunate wardrobe malfunctions, with unauthorized use of socks and a BUS flying out of one member’s pocket! The judges are having some difficulty determining the final scores, causing a delay in the medal ceremony. Please stay tuned.
We were to have had lunch at one of our schools, but instead enjoyed the “best burgers in town” at Gino’s. The favorite turned out to be the slaw and chili burger. Yummmmmmy! In anticipation of the schools being closed, our sponsors sent notes home Monday inviting the kids to join us at the Bass Auditorium at 1:00 on Tuesday if they wanted to participate in the workshop and the evening concert. And they did! We arrived and settled in, then did a 90-minute workshop for 30+ excited 3rd through 5th graders, plus a couple of younger siblings. Again, they had all learned both “Do Re Mi” and “Pasta” before we arrived, so the choreography was icing on the cake.
After the workshop kids left, we set the show on the Bass Auditorium stage, with our only challenge being the electric keyboard. Trying to find the correct balance and adjusting to the artificial sound is always tricky. With Mrs. Wright at the keyboard, Mr. Branam on the sound board, and Ms. Burke’s ears in the house, we figured it out, along with spacing for all of our choreographed numbers.
The Bass Auditorium is in an old school, along with offices and art galleries. The smell of popping corn drew us down the hall to the gymnasium. We walked in and discovered…a beautifully restored, 100-year-old carousel! It is the pride of the Delta Children’s Museum, and rightly so. We were treated to several rides, along with the popcorn and drinks, and got in one last ride just in time for naps, and then dinner.
The workshop kids were returning at 6:00 for a final rehearsal prior to the concert, and they came spinning into the hall, all abuzz and screaming in delight, “IT’S SNOWING!!!!” The last time anyone can remember snow here, they think, was…maybe…nine years ago, but they’re not sure. None of these kids have ever seen snow before! At first we didn’t believe them, as it seems to us that their idea of snow is really just frost. We were wrong. It was SNOWING! Big, wet, slushy flakes. It only lasted for about thirty minutes, but it was, indeed, SNOWING! And by the time it was done, the ground was covered with slush, on top of a solid, thick sheet of ice. We ended up with all of our workshop participants back by about 6:30, and Dr. Engle, our sponsor, asked if we would start the concert early so that everyone could get home. No problem. We grabbed our formalwear and headed to the dressing rooms. Five minutes later, he came in and asked if we would consider a shortened version of the show, with no intermission. People were really starting to panic about the weather. Abort formalwear. While the kids were undressing and re-dressing I came up with a modified show order, got it to Mrs. Wright, flipped my music around, and we were on stage by 6:40. The kids followed every my every cue; Ms. Burke helped Mrs. Wright find music as I changed directions during the show, deciding on the spot to do this instead of that; and the workshop kids joined us for “Do Re Mi” and “Pasta” in their shiny new “Delta Children’s Museum” t-shirts. I wasn’t going to do “Baseball Games” because it takes a lot of time, but the audience was so receptive and warm that I changed my mind. They loved it. And then they just kept asking for more! We finished with “Tunes in His Head,” took multiple bows to an immediate standing ovation, followed by hundreds of photos with new friends, and we walked off stage at 7:40. Dr. Engle and his committee were beaming with congratulations and thanks. Workshop kids and their families were saying tearful good-byes to their Tour Choir buddies. And everyone was marveling at the snow.
Wednesday went something like this:
Wake up at 7:30. Breakfast at 8:15 for the boys and 8:40 for the girls. Homework in the comfort of our hotel rooms, with staff rotating through on a regular basis. Map and journal work in the hotel conference room. Lunch across the parking lot at Shoney’s. Bus to First Baptist Church. Rehearsal for our upcoming Classical Afternoon concert. Bus and tractor races in the gym. Basketball. Chair soccer. Popcorn and cookie snack break. More homework. Dinner at Super Buffet, the most extensive Chinese and seafood buffet we’ve ever seen, including crawfish! Judy, one of our faithful companions, happily showed everyone how to eat their crawfish, with Lillian and Luk2as bravely taking the lead.
We now know the meaning of “ice storm,” and we also know we don’t have them like this in Colorado. Everyplace you walk or drive is covered in a slick, thick sheath of ice. Our walk to Shoney’s was truly treacherous. You have to shuffle along, and struggle to keep upright. Stepping off of a step is downright scary. Your first instinct is to hold on to a buddy, and then you realize you’ll just pull one another down! Driver Horace went out this morning to test the roads, and determined that it would be safe to drive after lunch, so we were able to get out of the hotel. Dr. Engle arranged for the Baptist Church and we spent a very pleasant afternoon there. Horace wanted to be back at the hotel before 7:00 when the temperature was predicted to drop again, so we headed to dinner at 5, and back “home” by 7.
Ms. Smith is the hero of this tour. After spending days arranging all of our meals and activities, the snow days have completely upended all of her plans. She spent the entire day today on the phone re-scheduling everything. It’s supposed to be in the fifties tomorrow, and Horace feels it will be safe to drive by 9:00. We are scheduled to be in Greenwood at Bankston Elementary School, about an hour away, at 10. We have already told them we may be late, and they understand. We won’t be hurrying. Stacey was able to move our two afternoon performances, and we are hoping to make our trip to Memphis before returning to Jackson Thursday night. All systems are go, and things are looking up! We have been snowed in one other time in my Chorale memory, and that was in the middle of Nebraska, which is completely logical. But Mississippi???
Life is good here on tour. Keep your fingers crossed for us and hopefully my next missive will begin with, “Elvis was in the house!”