Two years after graduating from Virginia Tech, Travis Whaley still remembers the moment his fingers touched the keys of the Grand Organ and his first chord reverberated in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The Virginia Tech music major had not hesitated to take the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play during a service at the world-famous site.
To continue the tradition of offering music students such extraordinary opportunities, Dwight Bigler, director of choral activities in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, is leading a concert tour to Spain in May 2019. And to allow as many members of the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers to participate as possible, he has launched a campaign through JUMP, the university’s online crowdfunding platform.
The campaign will continue until November 1 at noon.
With travel costs estimated at $3,800 per person, some of the singers will not be able to afford the 10-day trip. Historically, in fact, only two-thirds of the 33 members of the Chamber Singers have been able to attend similar trips, such as the one to Italy, where Whaley, now a graduate student working toward a master’s in musicology and organ performance at Indiana University, played his postlude.
“My study-abroad opportunities helped broaden my education,” said Whaley, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2016. “I had the opportunity to compete in an international competition, which helped prepare me for the intensity of a graduate performance degree. More importantly, leaving the country provided me with new perspectives and a better appreciation for other cultures.”
Bigler is hoping funding from the JUMP campaign will help offset the students’ expenses, and more Hokie voices will resound in performances from Madrid to Seville.
This will be the third time in his decade at the university that Bigler has led the Chamber Singers on an international tour; previous trips were to Italy and Ireland.
Although the performances are important for individual growth, Bigler cites a deeper reason the Virginia Tech community should support student opportunities abroad. Many of his students have not traveled outside the United States.
“Visiting other countries and learning about their cultures opens our eyes to recognize the value in diversity,” said Bigler, who is also an associate professor of music. “The experience sparks our intellect and helps us see the bigger picture of our human existence over time. We see there are many good people in the world. Some of them may do things differently than we do, but we still share the core of being human.”
To encourage this exploration of humanity, Bigler is allowing plenty of time for touring Spain’s historic and cultural sites. These include the Prada Museum, royal houses, palaces, cathedrals, and a mosque.
During rehearsals for the performance tour, Bigler will hold discussions about the unique culture of Spain and the peaceful coexistence there of three principal world religions. He believes showcasing positive examples of religious and cultural harmony is important in fostering good global stewardship, and the talks will add context for the music the chamber singers perform.
Along with a selection of sacred music, including African-American spirituals, the choir will learn 16th-century Spanish music written for the specific spaces in which they will perform. And during the tour, they will visit several composers’ birthplaces.
Three other groups will travel with the Chamber Singers. Bigler has extended invitations to both the Virginia Tech men’s and women’s choruses, along with the Blacksburg Master Chorale, a community-based choir he directs.
Blacksburg audiences will get a preview of the program the choirs will sing for Spanish audiences. “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual” will be performed March 23, 2019, at the Moss Arts Center. In addition, the Virginia Music Educators Association has invited the choir to perform during its annual conference in November in Hot Springs, Virginia. The group is the only university choir invited to perform during that time.
To Bigler, the JUMP campaign offers an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Virginia Tech students. Donors will also be helping to bring together individuals who create art and beauty, and to share their gifts with another culture.
“Singing together is a vulnerable and personal experience,” Bigler said. “It uses the very first instrument — our voice. It’s so unique to every person, to every student. To be able to breathe together and sing together — to share voices like that — really illustrates the whole as greater than the sum of the parts.”
Written and photographed by Leslie King