Dana Ayers and the Stillwater High School Choir stood with a foot in each hemisphere, embracing yet another historical moment in a country teeming with them.
The SHS Choir recently had the chance to go to the United Kingdom for the second time in five years as it was invited to perform in the prestigious London New Year’s Parade and International Choral Festival.
In its weeklong excursion abroad, the students had the chance to see not only the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – the home of Greenwich Mean Time, and where they stood on two sides of the Earth – but also Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and more, along with performing in some of the oldest cathedrals in England.
Ayers, the choir director, said she was so happy to have the opportunity once again to perform on such a grand stage.
“It is a tremendous honor to be invited to return to do that because you can’t just tap somebody on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’” Ayers said. “You have to know somebody who knows somebody, and you get the official invite. So a year ago, we had the vice mayor from London and an entourage who came here to the high school. We had a big assembly and we sang for them and that is when they presented us with the official ask and the documentation. They take it very seriously. We had a marvelous time, it was amazing.”
SHS students started raising money for the trip in September 2018 with the official invite coming on the 26th of that month.
The choir left the United States on Dec. 27, flying through the night to arrive in London on Dec. 28 as the UK is six hours ahead of central standard time. The first day, the choir took a tour of their parade route, which spans from the Ritz Hotel all the way to Parliament Square, a route of about a mile and a half. That night, the choir had their first rehearsal.
On Dec. 29, the group of 25 students, 10 chaperons and Ayers had the chance to take a luxury motor coach to Hampton Court and a visit to the Royal Gardens. From there, they went to Windsor – the namesake of the British Royal Family – and toured the castles and village there.
“The company that puts this all together just has it down to a science as far as keeping us on a schedule,” Ayers said. “Sightseeing kinds of things that they know high school students will be interested in. We took a tour up to Windsor, then up Windsor Castle and then did some shopping in the village. They took us to the Tower of London, where you can see the crown jewels and they have got re-enactors. They wear Elizabethan clothing and they sing and they have conversations with you. There are trumpet quartets and brass quartets, all kinds of things. It was really super cool.”
On the morning of Dec. 30, they had a tour of London before heading to St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, where the SHS choir had its own concert. Ayers and the choir put on an “Oklahoma Rising” concert for the people.
The concert was compiled of “Haec Dies” by Dr. Brant Adams, “The Rose of Midnight/A red, Red, Rose/Go, Lovely Rose from Dr. Z. Randall Stroope – both Oklahoma State University professors. Also in the set was “Welcome Home” by David Brewer, the state song of “Oklahoma!” by Rodgers and Hammerstein with the finale being “Oklahoma Rising” by Vince Gill and Jimmy Webb.
Ayers said it was amazing to play in such historic venues and it really put a perspective on things.
“It was a glorious experience to sing in this building where there is so much history. Just everything surrounding us,” Ayers said. “We think that we are a big deal because the State of Oklahoma made our 100-year mark and the centennial and all that, but they have buildings that have been there since 900 AD. It is absolutely wonderful.”
On Dec. 31, the choir took the ferry up the River Thames to Greenwich and saw the sights there and then had a New Year’s Eve party with pizza at their hotel.
On Jan. 1, the choir partook in the parade where there were cheerleaders, bands and many other groups from all over the world. The parade is the equivalent of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with Ayers saying that it’s in its 34th year, it keeps expanding. Not only does London put one on now, but there is one in Paris, France, and Rome, Italy, as well.
Since the choir didn’t sing in the parade, it had the chance to carry balloons – or inflatables as the Britons call them – through the route.
On Jan. 2, the choir got to go on a Harry Potter audio tour throughout London and a audio walk of the rock and roll history of London, walking in the footsteps of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Ayers said it was fantastic getting to go over to London and see the sights, even mentioning the food was great, as well.
“They fed us phenomenally well,” Ayers said. “Sometimes when you have some finicky eaters, there is some concern that I am not going to find anything to eat over there. They took very good care of us at the hotel we stayed at as far as breakfast every day and buffet dinners, so there is something for everyone. But also around every corner, just like in America, there is a Starbucks, there is a McDonald’s, there is a Burger King. Those students that are more accustomed to the comforts of home were not disappointed. They actually thought it was kind of cool that they could say they went to the Burger King on Gloucester Street.”
The night of Jan. 2, the choir performed in the prestigious gala at Southwark Cathedral, a historic building that is nearly a millennium old and has such history, including being the birthplace of John Harvard, a founder of Harvard University.
There, the choir performed music from Ralph Vaughn Williams, John Rutter, G.F. Handel, Johannes Brahms, Michael Neaum and C. Hubert Perry.
The choir would return home on Jan. 3, but Ayers said the students are using some of the music they worked on in their upcoming competitions and have memories of a lifetime now.
“It’s glorious. The closest thing we have here, unless you go to New York, is like singing in this humongous, glorious shower,” Ayers said. “You get all this reverb and all this sound back. … There is a wonderful, long supportive history of choir happenings over there, and we were fortunate to see some of that. Just singing this music that is 250 years old in this cathedral that is 900 years old and just knowing that there are some things that are eternal and everlasting. It was pretty awe-inspiring. Nobody got complacent while we were over there. I don’t know if Britons get that way, but we were awestruck every time we walked into one of those places and have the opportunity to lift our voices and sing.”