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A Musical And Spiritual Journey To Scotland



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A Musical And Spiritual Journey To Scotland

By Jan Howard

Members of the Valley Presbyterian Church choir in Brookfield have returned from a 12-day tour of Scotland with joy-filled memories of well-received concerts, good times, and new friends as well as the good feeling that comes from helping others.

From August 3 to 16, the choir members saw their year-long dream of performing in Scotland become a reality. The trip was made, in part, to give the choir members a connection with the country where their church had its beginning. Reformer John Knox founded the church in Scotland about 1537. But the trip became more than just a chance to connect with the church’s Scottish heritage.

 It was also about people creating relationships that did not exist before. It was about forging a bond between each other and between churches.

It was also a way for the choir members to lend a helping hand with Scottish mission projects. A goodwill offering at a farewell concert July 30 prior to the choir’s departure for Scotland was divided between the four Scottish churches.

“It was not just a personal link, but a lasting link,” according to Valley Presbyterian Music Director Sue Yackel of Newtown, who organized the concert tour. “We were looking for unifying elements, to find how we can be together.” Mrs Yackel has been music director at the church for almost 14 years.

“The trip was not only sanctioned by the Presbytery of Southern New England, but we received a commissioning document that made us official ambassadors of goodwill through sharing of sacred music with the Church of Scotland,” she said.

“For me, the best thing about the trip was to hear everybody talking about the experiences they had. I wanted people in the choir to experience what I believed was possible in making connections,” she said. “It was the most fulfilling thing to feel they had experienced something unique. It was the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship.”

While in Scotland, the 25-member choir, which includes residents from Newtown, Brookfield, and Danbury, performed concerts at St Machar Cathedral in Aberdeen, St Brycedale Church in Kirkcaldy, Wormit Parish Church in Wormit, and The Glens and Kirriemuir in Angus County.

Members from Newtown were Roger Yackel, Sue Yackel’s husband, and their children, Mark and Kate, Kathy and Don Mueller, Pat and Don Collier, Peg and Bob Daley, and Greg Beams. 

The choir’s program, “A Journey Through American Sacred Music,” included a sampling of American choral music from the early church to the present. Included were colonial anthems, Shaker music, spirituals, and popular songs of contemporary worship by William Billings, Charles Ives, Randall Thompson, and Aaron Copland, and others. The encore was a setting of a Robert Burns poem.

“We tried to get a variety of music to show the different cultures on which we have drawn,” Mrs Yackel said.

An Overwhelming Response

Choir members said there was overwhelming response to the music and to the choir’s spirituality.

“People in the audiences felt the love we were trying to convey,” Mrs Mueller said.

Because the concerts included several songs, audiences were asked to hold applause until the intermission and after the final number. “In one place we had a standing ovation,” Mr Collier said. “In another place they were stamping their feet on the floor to show their enthusiasm.”

A year was spent in preparing for what was to be the church choir’s first concert tour. It all began with a member of the congregation whose close friend was a retired minister of the Church of Scotland. The minister visited his friends in Brookfield in the spring of 1999 and attended a worship service at Valley Presbyterian.

“He said, ‘I would really love it if your choir could come to Scotland,’” Mrs Yackel said. Then in the summer of 1999 the minister’s friends went to Scotland and made contacts on the choir’s behalf.

“It was through these contacts that the invitations came to us. Everybody got so excited,” Mrs Yackel said. “We wanted to go someplace together to sing. It was time to quit dreaming and start thinking, because people would need to get time off from work.”

Mrs Yackel passed around a sign-up sheet to see who wanted to participate in the concert tour, and every choir member signed up. Only two eventually were unable to go.

While in Scotland, choir members received the hospitality of members of the congregations where they performed. Prior to the trip, Mrs Yackel had sent mini biographies of the members to the four churches, looking for common interests with potential hosts.

“We stayed with a wide variety of families,” Mrs Collier said. “Everybody seemed to join in the spirit of it.”

 The choir members also benefited from the experience. “Our choir is unified in a way it never was before,” Mrs Collier said.  “Everyone became better acquainted.”

“We really got to know each other,” Mrs Yackel said. “It was a spiritual connection. The first Sunday we were back, when we saw everyone, we had this connection we never had before. We relived everything.”

“It’s a connection that never will be broken,” Mrs Collier said.

During their stay in Scotland, the choir visited several castles, and sang in the chapel of the ruined Melrose Abbey, but a highlight of the trip was when Lord and Lady Airlie invited them and their hosts for a personal tour of Cortachy Castle in Kirriemuir. Lady Airlie is a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, and the Airlies are members of the Kirriemuir congregation.

“They don’t ordinarily open their castle to the public,” Mrs Mueller said. “They had 50 people for the tour. Some of the artifacts and portraits in the castle go back to the 1300s. They were so hospitable to us.”

Seeing The Queen

 Another highlight was seeing Queen Elizabeth as she was being driven to Balmoral Castle. “She was sitting in the car so you could see her very clearly,” Mr Collier said. “She was very actively waving.”

The choir members and their hosts also enjoyed a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish dance, at Kirriemuir Old Parish Church. “They made a point of teaching us the ceilidh,” Mrs Collier said.

The choir members also heard a lot of bagpipes during the Edinburgh Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle, a celebration of 50 years of performances of the Military Pipes and Drums representing the commonwealth nations.

They also experienced Scottish food, including neeps and taddies (turnips and potatoes), and stovies (hash cooked on top of the stove).

The people and the countryside are among the memories and the many photographs the choir brought back with them. “They are the friendliest people,” Mrs Collier said.

For Mrs Daley, the highlight of the trip was the host families and their lifestyles. “We saw a lot of different architectural styles in the homes, and stayed with young and older hosts,” she said.

One family served high tea every day, and meals consisted of three or four courses, she noted. “The families made it for me,” she said. “I am definitely going to keep in touch with my hosts.”

Mrs Mueller loved the Scottish countryside. “It was just beautiful,” she said.

“Scotland impressed me a great deal,” Mr Collier said. “There were no highway billboards. Everything was very clean, and there was no graffiti.”

Several choir members made a connection with their personal heritage as well as their religious heritage while in Scotland, Mrs Collier said.

“I didn’t think I had a Scottish connection, until the last day,” Mrs Mueller said. “I found I had a clan and a tartan for my Anderson family. I have a coat of arms.”

It is expected that some of the people the choir met in Scotland will visit here in the future. “We created friendships that will last,” Mrs Collier said. “It was a wonderful and emotional experience as a choir.”

Because Mr and Mrs Yackel are moving to New Jersey, the final concert in Kirrimuir was the last time the choir would sing under her direction. Everyone was so emotional, Mrs Collier said, “By the time we got to the end of the last song nobody could really sing.”

“It was the first time I heard that final phrase, ‘I will come again,’ soft enough,” Mrs Yackel said, laughing.

Mrs Yackel’s arrival at a gathering of choir members on September 8, proceeded by a bagpiper, Bill Warner, was a fitting aftermath to the concert tour she brought to fruition. During the evening, with Scottish music playing in the background, choir members shared memories and photographs of an experience none of them will ever forget.

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