Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in something remarkably special. I returned to Louisville, Kentucky to celebrate Dr. Kent Hatteberg, greet friends I haven’t seen collectively in twelve years, and join our voices together to make some music.
When I was in undergrad, I sang with the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, a choir that had a pretty amazing trajectory of memory-making via world travel. From 2003 to 2005, we ended up (quite unexpectedly, I might add) making a name for ourselves on the world stage of choral music.
I suppose folks in the United States enjoy a good choir should they bump into one, but there are places around the world that actually make a really big deal out of choral singing. Over the span of three years, we ended up competing in four world competitions that just all happened to be in Germany (Wernigerode, Bremen, Limburg-Lindenholzhausen, and Marktoberdorf) and the World Choral Symposium in Kyoto, Japan. The event that really put us on the map was the 2004 Bremen Choir Olympics.
I suppose it seems ridiculous that there is such a thing — a Choir Olympics, that is; I picture choristers trying to sing while jumping hurdles — but in actuality, this was an incredible event with 350 choirs from around the world that competed in different styles of music. We entered three of the categories: Chamber Choir, Contemporary, and Spiritual/Gospel. I will never in my life forget the utter shock and joy I felt during that award ceremony. The emcees began by announcing the results of the Chamber Choir competition, which was kind of the overall category.
They started at the bottom of the list, announcing the choirs in order. They never said any of the place names — “And now, in 23rd place!” for instance. They just went up the list. At some point, they started naming choirs that had amazed us with their music and artistry.
“Oh no, they forgot us. . .” I thought.
Then all of the sudden, two TVs lit up with the word CHAMPIONS in all-caps. At first, I was completely confused, but then as we looked at each other, we realized we were the only choir that had not yet been named. We actually won.
We were aware that we had done some of the best singing of our lives in this competition, but never once, did we even imagine this scenario as a hypothetical situation. We were all totally stunned. In fact, we didn’t quite know what to do. Then we realized we were supposed to leave our bleachers in the stadium and head to the front for the national anthem. We all received gold metals.
Then we received two more gold metals for our other categories of singing. Such a random thing in my life: I have three gold metals from the Choir Olympics.
But, of course, that’s not ultimately what I gained in this experience. Over those years, as students, we built really incredible friendships with one another. Collectively, we’ve kept in touch on social media, but until this last weekend, I haven’t been in one place with so many them since 2005 when I was 23 years old.
Kent Hatteberg, our conductor, made all these friendships and experiences possible. This year, he is celebrating his 20th year at the University of Louisville. In honor of this, we decided to throw a surprise party for him! It was also his birthday, so this was a double occasion. In fact, we had a cake for each.
We rented out space at Flanagan’s Ale House on Baxter Avenue in Louisville. In addition to catching up, the best part of the night was actually singing together. We had about 100 people present — all former students who had sung with the Cardinal Singers over the span of 20 years — in one place making music together. Dr. Hatteberg seemed so content conducting all of us.
At one point, during a piece called Hymne à Saint Martin, I just couldn’t keep it together anymore and cried grateful tears. This was just so very special, and I kept thinking about everything this community gave me during a critical time in my younger years.
And in the midst of it, I thought about the practice of return.
I suppose we could say that return is a spiritual practice —
to return to our memories,
to return to our emotions,
to return to our voices,
and most of all,
to return to one another,
actually recognizing how sacred it is.
In light of all of these, thanks to Dr. Kent Hatteberg and the Cardinal Singers for a sacred practice of return this weekend.
If you click this link, you can hear us singing Shenendoah, arranged by James Erb, at Flanagan’s Ale House.
Later, I had a laugh noticing the TVs behind us, which included some funny commercials and Jim Harbaugh clapping. I suppose there was a taste of Ann Arbor, my home, in this experience as well.