All posts by: Steve Fisher

The boys are off with Martha and the chaps enjoying a well deserved day at a water park outside of Prague.  I stayed back to blog – hardly a minute to write when you’re singing with, and keeping safe and sound, 59 boys.

Speaking of the boys, they have done a noble job of absorbing a lot of very heavy subject matter on the Holocaust and specifically, Terezin.  While we’ve attempted to moderate the information flow based on age, and certainly the boys have been well prepared to handle the topic gradually over time, there’s no way around it – this is heavy stuff for any age, let alone young people. They more than deserve a day off to just be boys on a careless summer day.  What better way to achieve that than Europe’s largest water park?

Yesterday we had the great honor of being guided around Terezin with Inge.  Everywhere we walked, we were regaled with stories of her time there – filled with hardship and tragedy, though she pointed out that there was always hope.  As Stephen Schwartz wrote in the song “When You Believe”, though hope is frail it’s hard to kill.  Inge commented to me at one point that “she doesn’t know why she’s here, why she made it.” The odds of survival were so low (out of 15,000 children, 100 survived), and fate was so random with no rhyme or reason.  And yet, yesterday, it was clear to me why Inge made it – to charge 59 American boys in a most profound way that they are now her ambassadors, to pass onto the next generation the warning of what can happen when hate prevails.

There were many incredible moments yesterday. Some highlights:

-when we arrived at Terezin, Inge had us hold hands, commenting that if people had always held hands, there might not be a Terezin Museum

 

-taking a photo with Inge under the “Arbeit Macht Frei” entrance

-standing in a small, one room living quarter for 90, realizing that the number of people who were forced to live there was the same as all of our boys, chaperones, staff plus 16 more people.  one toilet. wooden bunks. #incomprehensible

-seeing the cell where the assassin who started World War I was imprisoned. (our history buffs were blissed out)

-walking through the extensive tunnels that are part of the Terezin fortress walls. #boyheaven

-having the KSB Vedem boys perform Vedem poems in the very room where the Vedem boys lived and published their magazine. #surreal

-having Immanuel perform a late Brahams piano piece in the attic of the Magdeburg Barracks, where many of the musical performances that took place in Terezin were rehearsed, often in secret – Verdi’s Requiem, Bizet’s Carmen, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Krasa’s Brundibar.  Normally the attic is off limits to tourists but we had a VIP among us – Inge! It was amazing to add our music to that space – with music from past years that represented hope to so many – including many children.  Inge added that never in a million years would the Terzin kids, who felt like the world had forgotten them, could have imagined that a bunch of American boys would return there to do just that – remember them.

-the Grads singing Oseh Shalom at the Terezin moratorium and crematorium. (over 50,000 Jews died in Terezin itself, and another 90,000 perished after being transported out of Terezin to camps East)

It was incredibly touching to see the boys instinctively take care of Inge throughout the day.  They freely offered her hugs.  Without instruction, they would take her hand, or her arm, and walk with her along the cobbled streets of Terezin. They would ask if she was okay.  They would put her arm around her when she would cry a bit, perhaps when she would remember a friend who didn’t make it.  And sometimes the boy showing Inge the most tenderness was the boy none of us would guess had the capacity to do so.  And that is the beauty of tour – it can bring out the very best in the boys.  #growth

Know that all of your boys are okay, and that, whatever loss of innocence has resulted in their journey, they are forever changed by this experience in ways that are important to our world today, where hate continues to prevail.  The ways in which Terezin and knowing (and loving) Inge will inform their lives, will mostly be subtle, but they will be profound and vital.  The ways that it has transformed their lives is real and permanent and invaluable.

And at the end of the day, Inge was happy to have dessert, as were the boys, and in the great tradition of KSB tours, there were Magnum bars for one and all, and so we continue on the road together.

More later…

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On Friday night we had our first full concert, a joint program with the Heidelberg Youth Choir, at the Heidelberg Music School.  The performance opened with hundreds of American and German young people singing South African welcome songs, led by Tabong, South African artist in residence at the school.   It was great fun to see his reaction as our boys absorbed the pieces so quickly – ones they had never heard before.  Fast forward to the end of concert, when KSB surprised Tabong with our South African medley.  How he beamed!  He was truly astounded.  He joined in with all of them even though he didn’t know our songs.  Of course he did!  That is the South African way! That is UBUNTU!  He told me afterwards that hearing our boys sing brought him home to South Africa. We plan to collaborate next year in South Africa.

The other highlight of the concert was when Alexander Minch joined us for some standard rep pieces. Now a grown man working for Lufthansa, Alex also beamed  as he “came home again” to sing with KSB.  He and his brother Konstantin sang with us for many years.  A million thanks to his mother Angela Wende, who did so much planning to make this tour a success.  She is serving as our Tour Manager, with us every step of the way.  ANGELA,WIER LIEBEN EUCH!

Yesterday, Saturday we travelled to Stuttgart to perform with the Hymnus Boychoir of Stuttgart.  They hosted us for a concert back in 2008 on our first tour to Germany. We then hosted them in 2014 in Philadelphia, and so this is a growing friendship that both choirs treasure. They took such good care of our boys – especially the Hymnus choir moms who made sure our boys had plenty to eat at every turn.  Some things are universal!  A good opportunity to thank all of our parent volunteers for all they do for KSB – back at home and abroad. We have an amazing group of chaperones who are taking such good care of us.   To Jachai May, Linda Deis, Chris Day, Lori Flynn, Sarah Foster, Aimee Hydock, Susan Klein, Sarah McMenamin, Chris Simcox and Tom Wamser…VIELEN DANK!

Today, Sunday, we will perform in surely one of the most beautiful, unique venues in KSB’s history.  More later on that, as well as our truly profound experience yesterday with Inge visiting the railway platform from which she departed for Terezin.  The opportunity we had to share this sacred place with Inge is something that will stay with all of us for our whole lives.

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Hello from Germany!

We have completed our second full day of tour and all is well.  It takes a few days to “get the wheels on the bus.”  Jet leg to get over.  Extreme heat to deal with.  Lots of protocols and tour rules to follow. Grace period is now over and fines will begin tomorrow.  We’ll start at 1 Euro.  Fines amounts for infractions will increase as the tour goes on.  The reality is, hitting their spending money is the fastest way to get their attention.  And following the rules of tour is not just about order.  It is vital to keeping the boys safe and sound.  And of course, the boys always have the opportunity to earn their money back.  With stand out performance faces, offering a kind word or performing a random act of tour kindness…

Our itinerary has been quite full with singing and cultural opportunities. A full schedule is crucial for happy boys free from homesickeness.  They need to stay busy and to fall into bed tired.

And of course the homestay experience is a great gift.  The chance to live as other cultures live is invaluable and will shape the boys, giving them a global, open, tolerant perspective as they move through their lives.  Look for photos of your boys and their homestays soon.

Tomorrow, Friday, is our first full concert – joint with our hosts, the Heidelberg Youth  Choir.  Up until now it’s been schools concerts (very well received) and mayoral meet and greets.  Germany loves its mayors!  #rathouse.

And can I tell you how INCREDIBLE it is travelling with Inge.  She is AWESOME. She is always POSITIVE and HAPPY. A great lesson for all of us, considering what she’s been through.  What a great gift to me.  When the boys are complaining that “it sucks” that they didn’t get to have ice cream, I simply invite them to sit with Inge and have her tell them how much “it sucked” to go to Terezin.   Inge also has an amazing sense of humor and remarkable perspective about her journey – and a great capacity to forgive and see the good in people.

The boys are able to sit with Inge during bus rides – we always keep her seat empty for visitors.   They can ask her questions that come up as they’re reading her very famous book “I Am A Star.”  Once they finish the book, she rewards them with a book signing.  And then they get the privilege of holding the Star of David she wore in Terezin.  I have told the boys that THIS is their college essay.  To travel with a Survivor, literally following her journey from Germany to Terezin.  Wow.

Most lovely of all, Inge trades in hugs.  That’s all she asks in return for sharing her story.  And the boys freely give them.

#sweet

#powerful

#IngeHugs

More later…

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If you were not at the “KSB Remembers the Holocaust” Concert last night, you missed something very profound.  We hope to do it again next year, so don’t miss it!  The days when we have the honor of being in the presence of survivors are numbered.  Your sons’ children will not have the opportunity to meet someone who endured the unthinkable.

I want to share something that happened after the performance. Following the concert, the boys got a priceless opportunity to sit at round tables and get to know one of our 11 new friends, all “hero” survivors. I was a table with Manya Frydman Perel – and she stole my heart.  She was born in Poland in 1924 and was sent to live in the Radom ghetto, and then subsequently five different concentration camps – the last being Auschwitz. In 1945 she was on a death march from Auschwitz when she and a friend escaped into the woods. They were later found by Russian soldiers.

Manya told the boys at the table and I that 80 years later, she still has trouble sleeping because of  nightmares. When she was rescued, she was a skeleton, but could not swallow, and therefore still could not eat right away.  She said to this day, she saves a “little bit of bread” on her dinner plate and freezes it, fearful that one day she may not have food to eat again.

When the boys left, Manya took my hands in hers, and proceeded to sing “Ani’Ma Amin,” a song she remembered singing in Auschwitz.  Its significance in the history of the Jewish people, and especially during the Holocaust, is deeply moving, haunting, and ultimately hopeful.  The boys sang a simple but stunning arrangement of it last night as part of the program. Mayna told me the boys made her so happy when they sang it that she will be, in her words, “happy now until the day I die.” May that not be anytime soon!

Along with remembering the Holocaust, we should also remember the power of KSB to bring healing and happiness to people – including people who have endured the worst of human behavior.  Be proud KSB parents and boys that we represent the very best of what humankind can do in the world.  And so, all of the rehearsing, travelling, trouble is indeed worth it.  How do we know.  We know because of Manya.  Take a moment and contemplate her life, and her words: “happy now until the day I die.”

Shalom indeed.

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Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Alice Parker in a summer workshop at Westminster Choir College. Alice is a legend in choral music, our choral matriarch, if you will.

The pearls of wisdom she offered us on a daily basis were an embarrassment of choral riches. But one pearl stood out to me and has stayed with me, continuously revealing its wisdom to me over the years. At the very end of the week, Alice said, “I’m going to leave you with this parting thought and it’s the most important thing I will have said all week.” I was hanging on every word. “Above all,” she said, “be musical in your mistakes.” She went on. “It’s easy to be musical when all is going well. The mark of a great musician is to be calm, collected, and musical while the mistake is happening so that you can do what is needed to ‘right the choral ship.’ Teach yourself and your singers to ’embrace the mistakes.’ That is musical greatness.” As a young conductor, I remember being a bit deflated by these imparting words. I thought, “Isn’t the ultimate goal as a choir director and as a choir to be PERFECT?” I was determined to reach a point in my career where there were no mistakes.

Since then, I’ve learned there is no such thing as “perfect.” There is no perfect person, no perfect job, no perfect life. There are no perfect choirs, no perfect singers, no perfect parents, and certainly no perfect choir directors. As conductors, as much as we try, as high as our standards are for ourselves, as often as we do our job well and get it right, there are times when “life happens” and we fall short – perhaps in poor repertoire selection, or in our lack of effective rehearsal preparation, with our less than perfect concert programming, in less than perfect conducting, or less than perfect tour planning. Choir Directors are human. We make mistakes. A lot.

Over the years, I’ve imparted Alice’s pearl of wisdom about mistakes to the boys of the Keystone State Boychoir. Before and after every performance, I remind the boys that the measure of success is not whether we were perfect – though “near perfect” is always a laudable goal and wonderful when it happens. The ultimate goal is to at all times be musical – and especially to be musical in our mistakes. I remind them that in the history of live performance – no matter how stellar the ensemble or performer – there has never been a 100% perfect performance. In the choral art, sometimes we do get to bask in a perfectly performed piece. Therein lies one of the great beauties of our art form. Our performances are typically made up of a bunch of musical “moments” – aka, songs or movements. With each new one on the program, there is the possibility for perfection, even if the piece before it was less than perfect. I’m reminded of the lyric by Stephen Sondheim: if life were only moments, then we’d never know we had one. And so, ironically, we actually need the less than stellar performance of a piece so we know when a stellar one happens.

When KSB was invited to perform in Minnesota at the ACDA National Convention, despite that pearl of wisdom from Alice I’ve always held on to, I immediately began having hopes (delusions) of choral perfection.   That is what all choral conductors dream of when such a high stakes opportunity comes. And somehow implicit in that dream is the secret hope that our choir will be considered one of the “better” ones, and that we will be deemed one of the “ better” conductors. Certainly, some degree of competitiveness and ego is healthy – necessary even. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, what drives us to persevere through the thousand challenges that come with attempting to do something extraordinary. But gone too far, competitiveness can cause us to lose sight of what’s important. I definitely experienced some of that blindness as we arrived in Minneapolis.

Enter Eph Ehly, twenty-five years after my crossing paths with Alice Parker. Eph is another choral legend. He also lost all his worldly belongings in a terrible house fire, and shortly after lost his beloved wife. He’s known success, and he knows all too well that life is not perfect.

At the ecumenical service where the Grads were singing, Eph, who was preaching, ended his sermon by telling the congregation to listen carefully. “I don’t have a lot of important things to say,” he said modestly, “but this is really, really important. In fact, it’s the most important thing I’m going to say today.” These words sent me back to Alice’s almost identical words on the final day of the workshop so many years ago. I hung on every word once again. “Stop competing with each other!” he ordered us. He named the elephant that is so often in the middle of these kinds of events. Eph went on to point out, with great eloquence, that each of us is placed in a specific corner of the universe, assigned to care for and nurture and lead a specific group of singers at this moment in time. And therefore, we and our singers are the most important, “best” choir director and choir there is. Wow! This was a new pearl of wisdom, one that upon hearing it, I knew immediately would inform and inspire me and my work with KSB in the next twenty-five years. They were words I needed to hear. I was nervous about KSB’s national ACDA debut, worried about whether we would be considered “worthy” and “good enough,” and at the same time was secretly hoping audiences would place my choir and me in the “better” category. With Eph’s words, all of that worry fell away, and I was able to take a deep breath and just be happy to be performing at such a wonderful event with wonderful people like him, and also be at peace with however KSB would do, knowing that we had prepared well and would give it our very best.

Sure enough, in the four performances we had in Minneapolis, along with all of the incredible, stellar, musical “moments,” there were a few mistakes. But thanks to the combined wisdom of both Alice and Eph, I am able to embrace them as part of the experience. In fact, my proudest moments came when, with me in the audience powerless to help the boys, they remained musical all on their own, during mistakes that were not theirs. I know Alice would have been pleased. I certainly was. What skills choral singing gives our boys for life! In both live performance and life itself, you have to keep going. There is no “stopping the world and getting off” when things go wrong. You just have to take a breath and work together with those around you to right the ship. Learning how to do that is, I believe, choral music’s most valuable gift to us all.

As a choir director, I’m always striving for stellar performances of the highest musical standard. But should I strive for a “perfect” performance if there is no such thing as “perfect?” Should we strive for a perfect anything in life? I think Alice and Eph, with their words, are encouraging us to perhaps redefine our notion of perfect. I think they are asking us to do a little less comparing, a little less labeling of “better” and “best” and “less than.” They want us to bask in the important, vital, and unique work we are doing in our place and our time with “our people.” And to embrace – in music and in life itself – both those stellar moments as well as those moments where mistakes are made, and to meet them with calm, with musicianship, with grace. When we do that, maybe, we will have finally attained PERFECTION.

Let me add another pearl of wisdom, another one of my new favorite – a paraphrased lyrics by the great, late Leonard Cohen:

Sing the choir that still can sing

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That is how the light gets in

So THANK you staff, chaperones, parents and especially the boys, who all made this national success possible.

The KSB Trebles and Tenor 1’s knocked it out of the park singing Ceremony of Carols with the Cincinnati Children’s Choir (CCC). They have never sounded better, and their professional poise on stage was stunning. Doreen Rao, an icon of children’s choirs, sought me out to rave about the boys’ musicianship, presence, focus (#therecanbemiracles), and “most importantly, their joyful performance.” Those words from Dr. Rao are the highest praise one could ask for. (She gave a shout out to The Eight Sopranos,” describing their sound as heavenly, floating and free.) KSB and CCC received standing ovations at both concerts – not easily earned at an ACDA convention.

Likewise, Eph Ely sought me out to declare the Grads the best high school young men’s group he’s ever heard. “Astounding in every way … musically, their energy, their breadth of repertoire.” Agreed!

Finally, our joint concert with the Minneapolis Boychoir was one of the very best KSB concerts I can remember. The audience was on their feet twice – once for “Baba Yetu” and then at the end of the program. Like ACDA, this was earned. And as we know, you can’t just yearn it, you gotta earn it. Viva KSB!

 

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Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That is how the light gets in

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Whosoever Gospel MissionTonight we launched our “Song IS Home” Concert Series. The first performance of the series was held at the Whosoever Gospel Mission in Germantown, just two blocks from First Presbyterian Church in Germantown (FPCG) – KSB’s rehearsal home. Well over a hundred years old, it turns out that the Mission was founded in the late 1800’s by a member of FPCG.

Our KSB Grads brought a lot of joy to some admirable men who are striving to better their lives.

The purpose for the “Song IS Home” Concert Series is four fold.

  1. To help our young singers realize that there are many different kinds of places people call home.
  2. To remember that home is wherever one sings a song. No matter where we are in the world or in our lives, when we have a song on our lips, we are home in a way. This is the great gift of song.
  3. To bring the joy of song to people who might not always have the opportunity to enjoy choral music and whose spirit very well may need lifting through music.
  4.  To bring joy to our young singers by giving them the opportunity to sing with whom they might not ordinarily get the chance and, by doing so, expand their view of the world around them.

And so, we have invited the men of Whosoever Gospel Mission to join with our Grads to form a new ensemble …”Men On A MISSION!” We will rehearse each Wednesday at the Mission, with the goal of making our debut at the Germantown Friends School a cappella fest this coming February.

Stay tuned (get it?) for “Men on a MISSION!

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Well I have been to many, many cities of the world. It takes a lot at this point for me to be taken with a city, but St. Petersburg. WOW! It lives up to its reputation and more.

And as always, its the people you meet in a city that make it special. Irina, director of the TV and Radio Dethor of St. Petersburg, is my new BFF. Despite language barriers, we immediately connected. The joys and trials and tribulations of children’s choir directors are universal!

I so look forward to KSB’s visit to St. Petes. We’ll spend a night getting there on a ferry from Scandinavia, and then spend two magical nights in the city. We’ll do a concert in the Kappella Hall, and very famous venue with wonderful acoustics which is associated with the great Russian musicians Mikhail Glinka and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In addition, we’ll visit landmarks like St. Isaacs Basilica, the Hermitage, and my favorite the Church of Splitting Blood. Yes, that’s the actual name of it.  But I bet everyone’s favorite part will be walking along the River Neva. So beautiful.

Be sure you’ve signed up for Instagram and follow us at keystonestateboychoir. Twitter too – follow us at @ksboychoir. There will be a big KSB announcement tomorrow evening. But if you want to be the first to know, you have to follow us on Instagram and Twitter.

Kappella Concert Hall, St. Petersburg

TV and Radio Dethor* of St. Peterburg performing in Kappella Concert Hall.  “Dethor” means “Children’s Choir” in Russian)

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In just a few hours I’ll be arriving in St. Petersburg. Called Leningrad in Soviet times, this city is an incredible blend of Russian and Scandinavian cultures that makes for one of the most unique cities in the world. And KSB will take it by storm on June 30 – thru July 2nd.

I am arriving on the HRP “Maria” – a prominent member of the Russian royal family in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds. Once I’ve arrived,  I will have crossed the entire length of the Baltic Sea on three different ships. Seen one Baltic cruise ship, you’ve seen them all?  Sure, but you boys are still going to love it.  Everyone knows that boys never tire of three things: boat rides, food, and ta ti-ing.

You might have noticed I’ve been a little quiet. I did make one stop at an unknown location.  Wanna know?  Tune into Instagram on Sunday, November 1st to find out.

Map of St.Pete’s…for those who don’t have tour journals!

St. Petersburg – the Venice of Russia!

Famous St. Pete’s landmark…name it!

How about this one?

 

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  • Norway Ferry

Or at least on the cruise ship Mighty Viking.  That’s how we’ll get to St. Petersburg. It’s an overnight boat, three beds in a cabin. Restaurants on board, and a casino.  If you win, you have to give half to KSB.

Norway Ferry

This is way fun.  Boys, you’re going to looooooooove it.

Please be sure to sign up for Instagram.  Breaking concert tour news will be posted on Instagram in the coming days!

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