“Are you coming to the UK on holiday or business?” Asked the border patrol guy.
“I’m taking a class.” I said.
My jet-lagged brain scrambled, In? In what? What’s a class? I don’t know–don’t be mad at me! “Here!” I said and handed him the letter of acceptance from Oxford, because apparently choral composing was too hard to say or remember.
Surprisingly, they let me in the country, and it’s a good thing, because there followed two of the most enriching and enjoyable weeks of all my travels.
I landed a few days before I had to be in Oxford to spend some time in London. I arrived to my hotel around 4pm and since it was a Friday night in London, I decided to go out into the city. I discovered St. Martin-in-the-Fields had a Vivaldi’s Four Season’s concert within a few hours so I hopped back on the tube and headed to Trafalger Square.
I was super jet-lagged, and so I just sat there with the weird combination of tears running down my face because it’s so beautiful and head nodding because I’m about to fall asleep.
The next day I spent the morning walking all around central London and decided to do some serious damage at the discount tickets booth. I saw two shows. The first was a one-man show with the magical Andrew Scott.
It was in a bare, empty stage, house lights on with just him in street clothes. He was even standing there wordlessly as we entered the theater. I was drawn to it because of the reviews saying what an emotional punch it packed, and I was intrigued both as an Andrew Scott fan and as a writer, what kind of 30-minute theater could hold this kind of weight. I think I’m still processing the brilliance of that show, both in writing and performance.
And in the spirit of “now for something completely different” I saw 42nd Street, which got increasingly gargantuan and ridiculous in the absolute best way possible. Such a fun show!
The next day I attended this beautiful church:
(recommended by one of my pastors back home) and then packed up to head to Oxford.
The sight of the Oxford Tube Bus and that journey out of London, into the rolling pastures of Oxfordshire always feel like a kind of homecoming. It’s been two years since I graduated but I managed to find a way back both of the subsequent summers.
While my previous studies at Oxford were in literature, this was my first taste of Oxford’s music education. The class took place at St. Stephen’s, a small almost abbey-like campus that our professor described as “platform nine and three quarters” because you knock on the door of a very unassuming neighborhood and and enter a beautiful ecclesiastical world complete with cloisters, courtyards, gardens and three chapels.
The choral composition class took place alongside a choral singing class and was structured so that the composition students participated in all the choral singing sessions as well, which was an added benefit I didn’t anticipate when I applied. I kept going back and forth which one to take and in the end I got to do both! Our days started with breakfast at 8 and our last rehearsal let out at 9:45 at night. We had choir rehearsal most of the morning and early afternoon, then the five of us had composing seminars, and the evenings were a mixture of rehearsals, workshopping the pieces we were composing and even conducting. The schedule was full and every minute was glorious. The added benefit of the packed schedule was the quick bonding that took place over the course of the week. It was an exceptionally quality group to spend the week with for sure.
Our professor held that golden combination of brilliant and kind, and he was tremendously helpful and generous with his time. He also brought in a stellar line-up of guest conductors and composers to work with us. Between them they had experience rich in Oxford history, the BBC, the royal weddings, and even worked with composers like William Walton. They had incredible stories and anecdotes, and at the same time were so helpful and approachable.
At the end of the week we made a recording of some highlights of the repertoire, and I know that when that is released, the songs will be such a treasure and hold so many memories that have since faded.
After leaving Oxford, I went up north to a little town called Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria. For reasons too cumbersome to unpack at the moment, this town features heavily in my novel, and I wanted to spend some time there. They have a few tourist attractions there, but for the most part it’s the kind of town that I could guarantee that walking down the street they would notice I wasn’t from there. Most visitors seemed to be also from the north of England there on a day trip. I loved being immersed in the culture of that town, away from hordes on busses and American tourists.
One of the highlights of that visit was the train ride back that took my right through the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. Jane Eyre Country! I could see why so many novels take place there. I would go back there and write for a few weeks if I could.
Immediately upon getting back, I went straight into work on a project that has been many years in the making and is at last coming to see the light of day. Stay tuned…