Dispatches from Incarnation Center – Issue One

Dear Saint Thomas Community,

As you well know, our beloved Choir School has relocated to Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Connecticut for the first six weeks of the school term. This newsletter is the first of three updates we are sending to keep you informed of the boys’ musical, academic, social, and spiritual progress. We thank you for your support and your continued prayers.

Your Pastor and Priest,

Carl

A Letter from the Head of School, Amy Francisco

“Come, labor on!” has been the theme of this spring, summer, and early fall for many members of the Choir School family. After several intensive months of planning, the Choir School successfully launched its six-week excursion to Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Connecticut earlier this month. Following a two-week quarantine period in which every community member completed a symptom checklist, limited their activities to ones deemed safe by medical authorities, and completed a COVID-19 test, the faculty and staff arrived at Incarnation Center on September 10th.  We were accompanied by two full moving trucks of classroom materials, music supplies, temporary choir stalls, bookshelves, tables, faculty and staff belongings, and more!

We spent the next few days in our new environment preparing classroom, dining, chapel, and dorm spaces, and working to make the Incarnation Center feel like the Saint Thomas Choir School’s home away from home. Parents, some driving from as far away as Michigan and Tennessee, dropped their sons off on September 13th in a carefully orchestrated schedule to maintain social distancing.

Our first two weeks at Incarnation Center consisted of small cohorts for all classes and activities, consistent mask-wearing, dining at a distance, and choir rehearsals conducted with the choristers twelve feet apart. Despite the limiting, COVID-specific rules, the boys and faculty have proven to be a resilient and happy team. Regardless of the time spent apart, the boys jumped right back into classes, choir rehearsals, and socially-distanced fun with their friends and teachers.

Last Friday, we achieved a major milestone: our second round of COVID-19 tests came back negative for our entire community, and we were—at last—able to take off our masks and be socially un-distanced! When they heard the news, the students and teachers ripped off their masks, cheering, hugging, and jumping up and down with excitement. This outpouring was followed by the boys attending their first full choir rehearsal since mid-March and our first time breaking bread sitting shoulder to shoulder around a communal table.

Our time together at Incarnation has been a powerful reminder of the depth of our bonds with one another, and of how much we draw strength from each other. The joy we all feel at being able inhabit a space in which we can safely enter into communion and community with one another have made these first weeks a truly remarkable experience. In this era of COVID-19, in which so little feels normal, our time here provides a deeply needed oasis. Although our classrooms look different, with portable white boards and projectors on walls taking the place of the SmartBoards we are used to in New York City, and field trips to Broadway shows replaced by contemplative hikes through the autumnal foliage, the depth of the learning taking place and the connections being built between students and teachers is the same. I am grateful to the dedicated faculty and staff who have worked around the clock for the last month (at least!) to ensure the success of our shared life together at Incarnation, and to the loyal parents who have taken a leap of faith by continuing to entrust us with their children despite the pandemic raging on around us.

Working with nearly 30 middle school boys is a constant reminder of how much goodness, love, and happiness there is in this world, and an endless fount of hope amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the world around us. We are looking forward to a wonderful six weeks with one another, and to laying the foundation for a successful 2020-2021 school year and beyond.

After two weeks of careful social distancing, and with everyone testing negative
for Covid-19, students and staff alike took off their masks.

A Letter from the Director of Music, Dr. Jeremy Filsell

We are nearly at the end of our third week here at Incarnation Center in beautiful, remote and rural Connecticut. We have thus settled into something of a routine now, particularly so after two weeks of mask-wearing and social distancing before everyone’s second negative COVID tests allowed us to behave and interact – and perhaps most importantly, sing – with some sense of normality. And what a blessing that has been.

Others will comment on the way the boys have been able to work and play together again at this time (a joy to have observed), but musically they have also been able to sing together in a way they haven’t for seven months. Seven months in a 10 or 11-year-old’s life is a significant portion of time, a period when many things, both musically and indeed vocally, can easily be forgotten! This seems particularly so when the boys’ daily diet and the fulcrum around which their lives hitherto spun has been those musical demands. The irony is that, while academic classes have been made to work so well online by faculty and students alike, music-making cannot and the lockdown sadly denied the boys the musical and social interaction that is so much a part of being in this choir. To revive that corporate spirit here has been balm for the soul – certainly for mine and, I am sure, for theirs too. The energy and alacrity with which they have returned to their singing here has been palpable, and our collective tasks have not involved courting lesser expectations in musical standard than that which we try and offer back at Saint Thomas. That the boys have jumped back into their musical pursuits so hearteningly has been to their remarkable credit.

During the initial two weeks here, we worked at musical revision in individual year groups since we were unable to sing together in ‘quarantine’, and there were some rusty skills and voices in evidence! However, there was a tangible uptick in recollecting those latent skills which gave momentum and energy to preparing our first formal service together last week. How gratifying it was to sing the Mass and motets in St. James’ Centre here. Mo. Turner’s presiding and leading worship gave our offering (where the choir certainly outnumbered the congregation … comprised of our own staff/faculty alone!) a real sense of what we should have been doing in the glorious space of Saint Thomas’ Church. We are all aware of our privilege to be able to ‘get back on our feet’ in this way here at Incarnation.

The introduction of late-night Compline to our cycle of musical worship (held on Wednesday in the outdoor chapel, overlooking the lake) has allowed us to be a little less formal, and to encourage musical leadership by the 6th, 7th and 8th grade boys (with Head Chorister Quinn in charge) themselves. We will sing our first Choral Evensong here in St. James on Friday and again, will make our space resonate with sounds reminding us of our spiritual-musical home back in New York. It is such a joy to have the boys singing again, and we remain hopeful that the momentum we are gaining here can be transferred to confines made safe within the Choir School ‘ere long.

A Letter from Mother Turner

How can I keep from singing?….is one of the refrains I’ve been humming to myself of late, as the weekly pattern at Incarnation Center has taken shape and our lives have been filled with ordinary — and indeed extraordinary — moments that mark each day.

In the early days at Incarnation Center, I would regularly find myself in a beautiful, large, and brand new event space called St. James. At first it was a blank canvas until, gradually, it was arrayed with multiple artifacts and furnishings from home, Church, and the School Chapel.

As I would go to and from St. James each day, I began to hear the sounds of boys singing or humming on the way to lessons, to games, to dinner or while digging in the sand, almost everywhere — except the waterslide! Even with masks still on, it was as if their song had never left their souls, and both their range and tone seemed to grow in strength, in tandem with their daily practices.

Initially we heard faint music being sung by small groups rehearsing in unexpected places, all at a distance: scales on balconies, plain chant carrying across the fields and even the sound of anthems from the dining hall. Soon other familiar melodies started to emerge, as different grades practiced, all growing towards a great crescendo, as they sang all together once again for yesterday’s Sunday’s service, our first Eucharist together since the Spring. It was a milestone celebration of community, enriched by those who served and read, and who came to support the boys by their very presence. It was a joyful day. The first of many to come, for sure, as the choir now prepares to lead Evensong at St. James, our very own Saint Thomas “on location,” and Compline in the Chapel by the Lake, in the coming weeks.

I mentioned earlier the daily moments — ordinary and extraordinary — that mark my days here at Incarnation Center. I’d like to share one of the most memorable so far: Picture if you will the literal leaping for joy, as masks were laid aside in release of a virtual “life on pause” button. And now, since we became a “pod,” the boys can be alongside one another: learning, playing, eating, singing and worshiping together, and thus those ordinary, everyday things, absent from our communal life since March, are once again interwoven with gratitude and song.

Today it still feels a little unbelievable that this familiar song-filled rhythm of life has returned and from small beginnings, something new and beautiful is being re-discovered, in which we are truly Blessed.

Notes from Dr. Matthew Gilbert (Science Teacher at STCS for 15 years)

We gave up the steel and concrete of Manhattan for the bark and branches of the woods of Connecticut. Now nearly halfway through our time at school-away-from-school, we have adjusted nicely to the serenity of our surroundings while maintaining the seriousness of our academic and musical programs.

While the rest of the world adapts to distance learning and part-time, in-person instruction, we have the luxury of an environment in which chipmunks, squirrels, deer, hawks and frogs are our nearest neighbors, and masks and social distancing are already a distant memory. While watching the children enjoy the life we have here, it’s hard to imagine that this must end, and we will re-enter the world and once again help shoulder its burdens. This has been a tremendous gift, as we constantly remind the children, and we are doing our best to cherish it to the fullest.

 

We asked some of our 6th, 7th and 8th grade boys about their experiences so far.

Here’s what they had to say:

When you first heard the Choir School would be temporarily relocating to Incarnation Center for the Fall, what were your thoughts?

Gio (CT, 6th Grader): My first thought was, “Yeah! I get to see my friends!”
Jovon (NY, 6th Grader): I thought, “That’s cool that we’ll be at the place. At least we are all together!”

Leighton (NY, 8th Grader): I thought it would be fun, and I had loads of questions. I was also looking forward to it.

Is it different than you expected? How so?

Grayson (NJ, 6th Grader): It is a little different because I didn’t know that we would be using different buildings for classes, singing, and eating.

Wells (MA, 7th Grader): There have been more classes than I expected. For the first two weeks, there was less choir than there usually is, since we couldn’t all sing together, but now it feels a little more like normal.

What was arrival day like, when you first saw your classmates and your teachers?

Jovon: It felt really good, but also kind of normal. Even though it had been so long since we had seen each other, it felt like we were all still the same.

Leighton: Great, like always. A little awkward because it had been so long and we had to stay far apart, but it was extremely exciting to see all of my friends. I was also feeling a little sad to be leaving my family.

What is it like to sing standing 12 feet apart?

Gio: It was really hard to sing standing far apart. I like singing close together. Now that we can sing together again it has been really fun because the choir sounds better together.
Jovon: It felt good to be singing together again, and kind of normal to be singing, even standing far apart.

Wells: It was hard to adjust to not having the “surround sound” of the choir, but we got better at it. Now that we are back singing together, it has been great. It felt thrilling the first time we could stand close together like we usually would. My favorite rehearsals are always the first ones after we come back from a break, and this felt like an even more extreme version of that.

How is school at Incarnation Center different than it is in New York City? How is it the same?

Grayson: School here is very different because you get more free time and you have more freedom walking from place to place. It is similar in that we have the same classes with the same teachers, even though we are in different classrooms.

Jovon: It was weird having to wear masks for the first two weeks. Now that the masks are off, it is different because there aren’t all of the people around that there are in New York, and we have much longer walks between classes. Lots of things are also the same, though. It still feels a lot like normal school because we have the same teachers and classes.

What was the experience of taking your masks off and becoming a “pod” like?

Grayson: It felt very relieving to take off my mask.
Gio: It felt invigorating!
Jovon: It felt happy and freeing. Now it feels like we have lots of free space!
Leighton: It has meant that do a lot more singing.

Wells: It felt more like school then, and not like you had to remember to put your mask on all the time.

How does singing in the services at Incarnation Center compare with singing in the services on Fifth Avenue?

Grayson: The services are very different here because we sing with fewer people in the congregation. The acoustics aren’t the same as in the church either, especially when we sing Compline outside.

Wells: The services are a little shorter, which has been a change. Without the full, choir, though, the pieces are different, and we can’t sing some of my favorites.

What has your favorite part about/memory of your time at Incarnation been so far?

Grayson: My favorite part about being at Incarnation was when we got to take off our masks. It was hard to have to wear them around all the time, and when we took them off, we could finally sing as a choir again!

Wells: My favorite parts have been all of the time we spend at the waterfront—I love going down the waterslide and playing on the water trampoline—and the meals! It has been so great having Chef Heidi here with us and eating together again.

What’s it like going to school with 3 dogs?

Leighton: It has been AMAZING because they are fun and cute, and because it was my idea. I told Ms. Francisco last winter that we needed a dog to play with at school, and now we have three!

Wells: The. Best. It has been great to be able to play with them during free time or when we’re getting ready for bed. I also like when the dogs come wake me up in the morning: it’s much easier to get up that way!