Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Day 6

At 8:30 this morning, we left for the hanging bridges and rain forest by the dam at Lake Arenal. When we arrived, we were greeted by a beautiful macaw just sitting on a post. It wasn't tethered to it or anything....it was just there as a part of nature. We took beautiful pictures of scenery  with the volcano from yesterday in the pictures. We broke off into smaller groups because the hanging bridges can only hold so much weight. 

We had wonderful tour guides who took us through the rain forest on hanging bridges and paths going up the mountain. Our main tour guide, Max, said that too often groups come to Costa Rica expecting to see monkeys because national geographic channel tells them they will! He just kept saying to us, don't be disappointed if you don't see monkeys. Most groups don't see them, so ease don't be disappointed. Not only did both of our groups see monkeys, but we saw 2 different kinds of monkeys! We saw spider monkeys traveling quickly through the trees (and just as a note, Mrs. Biddlecombe spotted those for our group!:) and we saw howler monkeys that were about 200 yards away from us eating lunch up in the trees. It was absolutely incredible. 

We saw snakes and frogs and birds and beautiful trees and views that we just can't imagine in Tennessee. We did a LOT of walking...uphill, downhill, on pretty intense paths. The girls were champs! Ask them about this hike...it was really neat!

From there, we went back to the hotel and packed to leave the beautiful lodge and go to the double tree to get ready to leave the next day.  We had a lovely lunch at the hotel (as a side note, the food on this trip was absolutely fantastic....all of it!) and then we went in to town for a little shopping! From there we loaded the bus and drove back to San Juan through the mountains over the scary roads. Our driver was a champ and everyone did a great job of sleeping a through it:) 

Our evening was very relaxed. A nice dinner at the double tree and after that we had a little bit of pow pow time with Dr. and Mrs. Biddlecombe. Dr. Biddlecombe asked the girls questions about 3 topics: Costa Rica itself, the musical aspect of the trip, and what they learned about each other. We had wonderful discussions about all three topics. All the girls spoke about one thing or another. They thought of things to say that we don't necessarily think of.  After that, it was ticket nominations and then prize winning. Gaby was our winner of the ticket prize! Yay Gaby! She actually leaves for Guatemala tomorrow instead of heading back with us. What a treat for her!

Tomorrow is our travel day home. Well be sure to blog one more time before the end. What a fantastic trip.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Day 5

Woke after a much needed good night's sleep, and packed our bags for loading onto the bus. We said goodbye to our youth choir friends from Chicago (The Young Naperville Singers) as they had arrived ahead of us and went to Arenal, before the choral festival. We hope to have them visit Nashville for a collaborative event sometime next year.

The bus ride to La Fortuna was pretty rough. We had to travel through the mountain range that divides the Pacific and the Caribbean sides of CR to get there, and even those of us with strong stomachs were queasy. If you dared look out the bus window, often you saw nothing beneath you but a sliver of road and the tops of trees. Many of the bridges along this route were one way, portable bridges, but they proved to be sturdy enough to get our bus across. We arrived in La Fortuna, a quaint little tourist town at the base of the Arenal volcano. The mountain was encased in clouds when we arrived, but we could tell this would be an incredible day and a half.

After a great lunch with authentic CR cuisine, we headed up the volcano to the SkyWalk zip line establishment. For a lot of our students, this was the aspect of the trip they were most looking forward to. After sitting in a very short line in which a group of well trained and excited Costa Ricans outfitted you with a harness, attachments, a pulley, and gloves - we heaed up the volcano in a lift. Amazing views of the volcanic lake, as well as the face of the mountain (still grey from its last eruption over 20 years ago) awaited us as we waited to zip line. After an instructional session, two short practice runs (with a last chance to chicken out), we were ready for our first long zip. As they send you out on the line, you gain incredible speed until all of a sudden, you're out over the gorge. It's tough to explain the thrill of this activity in writing, you're just going to have to experience it yourself! All in all, there were 8 different zip lines, each varying in speed and length. After a while, the panic in you subsides and you're able to enjoy the views and the experience a little more. It was raining a little (It is a rain forest.after all), so by the end of the run we are all pretty wet/tired/dirty/smelly, still with a concert to perform later that evening. We headed to our next hotel, the Volcano lodge.

After a quick shower and changing into our concert clothes, we met in the Biddlecombe's room for a quick rehearsal. Whenever you do Festival choral experiences, your vocal production becomes a little bit strained - lots of chest voice and overexcited young singers. It was nice to get our students back to the healthy and clean vocal production that we've been working on throughout the year. We made quick work of all of the music that we would be singing, and turned to the door to head for the bus. Just then, the heavens opened up, and a torrential downpour ensued. After a moment of high school girl panic, we were able to get our tour leader (John Witte, absolute pro in every sense) to have a car swing by and pick up the girls so they didn't get too drenched. Dr. Biddlecombe wrapped up our loaned guiter in his jacket, and we braved the rainstorm and made it to the bus only about half soaked.

When we arrived in the Catholic Church we were greeted with some strange looks. After all, we're all wearing black dresses - not the typical uniform for Catholic church in Costa Rica. After attending their mass (which some of our students took part in, and others just observed), the very large congregation was invited by the priest to stay for our concert. I would say more than half (over 100 people) did, and we got in our semi-circle position in front of the altar. The was no piano at this venue, so Dr. Biddlecombe pre-recorded all of the accompaniments, and we purchased a small, portable speaker to use in this performance. The space was very reverberant, and it was easy for the girls to hear themselves and the piano accompaniment (phew!). After saying a few words of thanks to the pastor and the congregation (artfully translated by Gabriela) we began our concert. We opened with Tango, then sang I Will Be Earth, and Bloom (both returned from the fall semester), after which Ms. Ruyten conducted 'My true love has my heart' making her international conducting debut! The audience was very enthusiastic and appreciative. Then we went into our Latin music set, and that's when the crowd really responded. A Pescar Camaron earned prolonged applause, and 'La Paloma' was greeted with a loud cheer! Many hugs were given from our local attendants, and photos were taken with some of the children and families who stayed for the concert. Overall, an incredible experience.

We walked to a lovely restaurant in La Fortuna and had a great dinner, but we all just wanted to hit the sack after a long, exhausting day. Tomorrow, we embark on a hanging in bridge hike around the volcano, then return to San José for our last night in Costa Rica.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Day 4

After a later wake up call, another yummy breakfast, and a short bus ride, we were at our performance venue - the National Auditorium located in the children's museum. This building was created out of the ruins of a dilapidated Costa Rican prison, making for a most interesting space. While the auditorium itself is reminiscent of a good high school auditorium, there was a full time staff tending to our every need. By the way, there is ONE set of choral risers in CR, and we used them for this performance. 

The dress rehearsal went off without a hitch. Our conductors have done a wonderful job of pacing the rehearsals so the choirs did not become exhausted throughout the rehearsal period. They were also inspiring and engaging to our students, exactly the reason they've gained the reputation they have. They also secured some incredible musicians to perform the concert with us - José-Maria is a top notch percussionist, and has been a highlight of the musical process. 

The concert was very well attended, mostly relatives and parents of the CR choir who joined us. Paul and Sean spoke about each piece, with Marcela (the Costa Rican choir's conductor) there to translate. Actually, the audience customs of our CR audience wasn't all that different from US audiences - complete with cell phone rings and babies crying. :-)

After the concert came the time that I will probably look back on the most fondly when thinking about this trip. Our students weren't exactly thrilled about hanging around the children's museum after the concert, but they ended up sitting in a big circle on the floor with a group from the CR choir. Now, you know how our kids are with wifi - they can spot it a mile away and disappear into their phones. The space had wifi, yet here were our kids, joking and chatting with these CR students, eschewing technology for real live human interaction. I paced a few meters away, smiling the whole time. I'm reminded that we can't force these things to happen, but if they happen organically, they're all the more special. 

Headed to dinner now at the mountain restaurant our guides have been raving about. Tomorrow: Arenal. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Day 3

Morning came early today. On the bus by 7:30! We enjoyed our breakfast buffet at the hotel again. Quite good again! Busses left for La Paz waterfall at 7:30 sharp. It was about an hour and a half track through San Jose and another city and then quickly into the northern mountains of Costa Rica. Our coach drive, Jorge, was amazing negotiating extremely narrow roads on mountainsides! One false move and we would have gone off the side of a mountain! 

Our guide, max, was extremely informative talking to us about what Costa Rica is best known for....their coffee! As we climbed in elevation, we came upon a variety of huge coffee plantations, with crops plastered all over the side of the mountain. Apparently, the best kind of coffee you can get is "shade grown" coffee. This is where the coffee plants grow under the shade of many different variety of trees, alleviating the need for adding chemicals to the soil. The shade of the trees allows for a natural cycle of nutrients. Costa Rican coffee is a consistently rated one of the top 3 coffees in the world, and we haven't had a bad cup yet!

We got to La Paz and were greeted by about 10 hummingbirds circling a feeder. The Waterfall lodge complex was as extensive and impresssive a structure as we've been in to this point. They made a special point of asking us to visit the restrooms, which were pretty cool! After some gathering time, we began our excursion down the mountain. W could immediately feel the humidity and environment change dramatically, it's kind of like breathing in vapor from a humidifier. There were man made stairs which allowed us to move along the side of the mountain path, when we came upon the first of several waterfalls. While there was little to no wildlife to see, the incredible vistas and unpredictable terrain made for an incredible hike. 

An hour later, we had lunch - by far the best food we've had so far according to Dr. Biddlecombe. Fresh chicken, pork, tortillas, pico de gallo, and fresh vegetables. The Biddlecombes have been on plenty of choir tours, and this tour has the best food we've ever experienced on one of them. A departure time of 2:30 sharp brought us back to the bus, and nearly everyone caught a nap on our way to the Instituto Nacional de Musica, and their choir, Coro Juvenil. Here's where the most important part of this tour was another to take place. 

After meeting the choir and their director, Marcela Lizano, we began work on 'Soy Tico', a favorite song for the Costa Rican people. The Coro Juvenil students had the piece memorized (there's a lot of Spanish) and gave us a much better idea of the context of this piece. Marcela told us that this piece is beloved because its about the 'green' of CR, a point of pride for every citizen. The combined choirs then worked and sang through 'Hope For Resolution', a piece that the composers wrote around the time that Nelson Mandela was released from captivity. The students sang with power and emotion, led by their wonderful directors. After that, the directors taught 'Vela Vela' to the combined choirs, an African wedding song with an accompanying dance!

Day 2

This morning, we began our day with breakfast at the hotel. Some of us had the buffet of fruit, muffins, meats and yogurt. Some of us had waffles and some others of us us had omlettes. It was quite the spread!

From here, we took a bs ride to INBioparque which is run by the Costa Rican national biodiversity institute. We saw sloths, creatures that looked like crocodiles but aren't alligators (I can't remember thier actual name) many birds, we saw a snake get eaten by a rodent (yes, you read that correctly) and several iguana. We ALMOST had an incident with an iguana pooping on one of our kids, but luckily, she was a quick mover:) There was a butterfly house where butterflies landed on the kids.....they say its good luck! There were HUGE spiders (according to Rebecca), Jessica had a picture taken by herself (mom told her she had to:) in front of the rain forest, Kate had the coolest middle name....I could go on and on....we had a great time.

We had lunch in the cafe at the Bio Park which was lovely. From there we headed to the former prison which is now a children's museum. The kids rehearsed in there form about 2-5. They were champs! They worked hard the entire time. Maria has a spoken solo...it's nice and loud and with accurate Spanish! While we were in rehearsal , a HUGE rainstorm started. They had the doors/windows open so it got REALLY loud in the room so we took a break to wait while the storm passed. It did...quickly!

After rehearsal, we headed back to the hotel for food and the another 2 hour rehearsal. At the end of this rehearsal, the girls were treated to a question and answer session with our conductors who also happen to be the composers of several of our pieces on tour. The questions that were asked and the answers that were given were really neat. Ask the girls about thier directors....they're really interesting gentlemen and definitely yin and yang!

Off to the bed for the night. Tomorrow we are headed on a two hour bus ride to the waterfall. They say today it rained there all day. We might have some pretty soggy kids tomorrow! Oh, and there was a little earthquake last night during rehearsal...no one felt it...we were so into the music, we were oblivious to the earth shaking! Or, maybe they're so amazing, they made the earth shake....hmmm...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Day 1 continued....

In concert choir, we switch parts with every piece we sing. Why? Because it makes us smarter. Because we're all sopranos in high school. Because singing just one part all the time is just plain boring. Here in Costa Rica, we have almost 150 singers singing with us. Logistically, this makes it difficult for us to move from section to section during the performance. Our kids are currently learning brand new parts for this festival - different than the ones they sang in our most recent concert. There was no hesitation on our part in asking them to do this, because we have confidence in their ability to adjust and be advanced musicians. They are making the adjustment brilliantly, and being flexible, stable singers... Just like we expected they would!

Our conductors, Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory, are energetic, fun and eager to help us be the best choir we can be. Tonight it is just the 5 American choirs rehearsing together. Tomorrow the Costa Rican choir joins us. We can't wait to hear what the extra voices add to our choir!

After this, we will (finally!) be able to go to sleep:) I think we're all pretty excited about that. It has been a long yet wonderful day. Tomorrow we start with breakfast and then we leave at 8:30 for our first excursion. We'll post all about it tomorrow!

Good night from Costa Rica!

Day 1

Day 1of our Costa Rican adventure started at 6am when we all met at the Nashville airport with luggage and passport. Believe it or not, EVERYONE had their passports! The flights were rather uneventful....even kids who don't necessarily like flying did extremely well.  Parents, you can rest easy about that!

Our coach was a little late picking us up. We found out later that they had 2 students with passport issues in two different choirs. Again, not us thank goodness! We got to our hotel and the rooms are lovely! We only had one room that wasn't ready when we arrived. Not too shabby!

At about 4:45, we went on a walk with Dan, our Witte representative around San Jose. We went over and saw the Teatro Nacional. The outside was very interesting, but the inside was beautiful! We were only able to go into the lobby, but even that had marble statues. Very impressive! From there, we went to The Grand Hotel. It was built about 100 years ago and it is where famous people and dignitaries stay when they visit San Jose. Apparently, there are plaques noting where famous people have stayed in the hotel. In front of The Grand Hotel were coffee bean plants that we were able to see and take pictures. Also in front of The Grand Hotel was a churro stand. We all had great fun trying to figure out the Costa Rican currency (colones) and how to order in Spanish! We were very thankful we had G
Gabby and Victoria with us to help us avoid making fools of ourselves. The girls did a great job with both the money and the ordering.

We have rehearsal and our first meal in Costa Rica in about 9 minutes, so we'll let you know how all of that goes! Leave us messages that we can share with the kids!