Message from Corey Landstrom, Vice President and Dean for Student Life

December 2016

I like to include student voices in my monthly piece for this newsletter. I hope that conveying to you as parents what students may be experiencing, thinking, or doing provides insight into the on-campus experience. Sometimes I am able to provide a direct student voice and at other times their voices come indirectly through my lens as vice president and dean for student life. This month I have a special treat: the voices of several students offering insights and perspectives on one of Luther’s truly magical moments—“Christmas at Luther.”

Over 600 students perform annually in “Christmas at Luther.” Their collective efforts and those of faculty and other staff who work diligently to deliver an amazing, transcendent experience is greatly appreciated. If you were able to attend one of the performances this year, you had the opportunity to provide your enthusiastic applause and appreciation at the end of the performance. If you were unable to join us in person, I hope that you can watch a streamed presentation of this year’s “Christmas at Luther”: “Out of Darkness, Light!”

I asked several students three questions regarding their experience with “Christmas at Luther”:

1. What is a highlight of your “Christmas at Luther” experience(s)? 

2. Do you have a behind-the-scenes account (current or previous year) that readers may find interesting?

3. Given the significant time necessary for rehearsals and the production, what lessons have you learned about managing time, other commitments, and personal health?

If your student has participated in a performance, perhaps you have asked these questions. If not, it may be interesting to compare notes with those whose voices are offered below. If you are an alumnus or alumna, what are your recollections of “Christmas at Luther” (or “Juletide”)? Please share on twitter to @lutherdeanland.

What is a highlight of your “Christmas at Luther” experience(s)?

Sanna is a first-year member of Aurora and hails from my hometown and the church where I was baptized and confirmed. One of the blessings for me being at Luther is discovering connections like this. Sanna said she loved “Still, Still Night” because she felt so connected to her choir and Dr. Robison as they all worked together to make it as beautiful and expressive as they could. And she said that while the choir members held hands, the emotional connection was just as palpable as the physical one.

Meredith is a senior member of Cantorei who said that “Christmas at Luther” builds community and connectedness through music, especially as the participants spend more than 30 hours rehearsing and performing together. She noted that a highlight is fostering opportunities for the community to support and get to know each other in ways that they would likely not have had in other campus settings.

The candle lighting was a high point. Abby, a junior member of Collegiate Chorale shared how much joy she feels to be giving the experience and to be part of the magic as the candles start to fill the room. It’s very powerful. Luigi, a senior member of Nordic offered that every year it has brought him deep fulfillment, with the lush sounds of the orchestra and choir, and the dimmed room lit only with candlelight; it is very breathtaking, truly. 

Alyssa is a senior member of Collegiate Chorale and had a different perspective on the experience, one that can be replicated. A highlight for her occurred in her kitchen at home, rather than in the performance. It all started as she put on a past “Christmas at Luther” DVD in her kitchen for background music. However, when Nordic sang “A Spotless Rose,” she was overwhelmed with beauty. She rewound the DVD up to 10 times to listen over and over.

Geoffrey, a junior in Collegiate Chorale, wrote of when Collegiate performed “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” and that he could feel the collective heartbeat of the choir. He also shared how fun it is to watch the Dr. Last as he conducts. I trust it is the look of pure joy. Trevor is a first-year member of both Norsemen and the Symphony Orchestra, and the highlight for him was the last performance this year, where his entire family was present. He said that everything felt flawless.

For Emma, a junior member in Nordic, it was the middle section of “O Magnum,” where the women sing about the Jesus’s birth in the manger with all the animals lying down in anticipation. The music was glorious, but it was the energy and connection that she felt among her choir mates that was unforgettable. Emma said, “I think we took peoples’ breath away, and that really touched me.”

Highlights differ among students,  yet they all intersect on aspects of the Luther experience that many hold dear: community connectedness, the beauty and power of music, and the joy all receive through offering their respective gifts, talents, and strengths.

Do you have a behind-the-scenes account (current or previous year) that readers may find interesting?

For many, the presence and importance of devotions before a performance is a powerful component. Meredith shared that the devotionals connect “Christmas at Luther” endeavors with personal insight and spiritual meaning. She said the devotionals fuel her energy to share the love and meaning of this experience with the audience. Geoffrey said that pre-performance devotionals range from heartfelt goodbyes from seniors to enthusiastic pep talks from juniors. Sanna shared that Aurora would come together each night and a different member of the choir would lead a devotional. The gathering space would become holy ground as they all listened to the words of the woman in front of them and prayed together. They became focused and were reminded of the reason they put on this show: to glorify our Lord with their talents.

And from the deep, spiritual meaning that comes with this performance and the practice of devotionals also comes the behind-the-scenes moments that offer lightness and joy.

For example, Meredith appreciated the opportunities to bond with ensembles backstage. She noted they have the chance to chat, laugh, and even exchange back massages. The collective excitement to make beautiful music and to support each other is exhilarating. Emma said it would be fun to be a fly on the wall backstage during each performance. She talked about how small traditions are formed from concert to concert, just little things that people do to entertain themselves back stage. For example, making funny shapes out of their robes, resting their eyes while sitting in strange positions,  and singing along with whatever ensemble is performing (by the end everyone seems to have memorized each others’ songs).

Alyssa shared similar memories from her junior year in Collegiate. She said the time off-stage was especially a blast. She remembered getting together with their aisles  from Collegiate to take some form of silly, themed picture. In one of the photos, they tried to make a nativity scene, and she played a sheep. In another one, they took a “Brady Bunch” photo. Those moments helped them all feel part of a fun, loving community. 

Luigi offered a bright moment from this year when he wrote that Dr. Last was explaining to everyone how to light the candles and he mentioned something about candles getting "lit." Luigi explains, lit means "to be active and hyped," which made everyone in the room cheer supremely loudly, and then Eric Ellingsen, music coordinator, did a DAB amidst the laughter and the hooting and hollering grew louder. It was a pretty great moment.

There are, of course, logistical challenges of moving about between sets. Abby said it's so funny seeing everyone run around backstage! This year she was apart of Collegiate and there was one moment where the singers had to move from below the organ to the isles of the balcony—really having to run to make it in time for the descant of the last verse of “Hark the Harold Angels.” They always made it JUST in time and would be laughing as they rapidly tried to catch their breath before they had to sing! It's quite the workout, and the audience has no clue! (Now you do….) And sometimes just finding time to tune an instrument before the performance, as Trevor experienced, can be a challenge. When that happened, he had to tune as he played throughout the concert.

I loved receiving these behind-the-scenes memories from students. I have heard others during my time at Luther and students often have great stories to tell. Shortly after this year’s performances, I ran into a recent alumnus while Christmas shopping. We connected for about 15 minutes and talked about “Christmas at Luther,” because what else do two people with Luther connections do at this time of year? So, he shared with me how one year an ensemble director took a spill on ice while crossing from Valders Hall of Science to the Center for Faith and Life. The spill split his pants. Clearly, there was no time to repair the tear right before the performance. So, he called out to a first-year student of about the same build—I need your pants! With the benefit of a robe, the student allowed the show to go on!

Given the significant time necessary for rehearsals and the production, what lessons have you learned about managing time, other commitments, and personal health? 

I have explored the challenges of maintaining personal wellbeing while managing responsibilities of being a student in past newsletters. “Christmas at Luther” demands students spend more than 30 hours rehearsing and performing, as Meredith noted, and students can learn a lot from the prioritizing and planning needed.

For seniors Alyssa, Meredith, and Luigi, the wisdom and experience that comes with multiple years of performing provides an important context for how they approach the week. Alyssa wrote that stressing about lost sleep is not helpful. Meredith offered that students should remain realistic about their time commitments. Luigi responded simply that stress is inevitable. It will happen, and when it does, it's all about how you handle it. It's in those times that we need to pull from our inner strength to keep going. Meredith suggested being less involved with other extracurricular activities and that while carving out time to study, exercise, eat healthfully, and get proper sleep can be tricky, it is essential to personal well-being.

Alyssa shared how she has learned to find balance within the amounts of sleep she gets during “Christmas at Luther.” She begins with realistic expectations on how much she can get done after standing and singing for a four-hour rehearsal on a normal day of classes. And, she has figured out when she does need to stay up late to get work done. Most importantly, she wrote, while “Christmas at Luther” is a huge and wonderful production, the world does not stop and the musicians still have many other responsibilities. Meredith’s approach mirrors this as she suggests students invest time to mentally prepare for the week before the six-hour Sunday rehearsal begins. This time may include setting goals, making headway on homework and, of course, taking time to do what they love. 

Sanna, who experienced “Christmas at Luther” for the first time this year, suggests doing homework before “Christmas at Luther” starts! She said: Once that Sunday rehearsal hits, we don’t stop moving until the following Sunday evening—and you will not want to do any homework then! Try to sleep as much as possible, and make sure you are eating well and drinking a lot of water. Your health is more important than getting ahead on homework, so get the absolutely necessary work done ahead of time and then put yourself as the top priority during the week. Trevor, another first-year student recalled time management was not necessarily a problem because rehearsals and performances overlapped with his symphony orchestra rehearsals and work-study shift. He does wish he had done more work over Thanksgiving break.

Emma has learned that freaking out never helps and keeping everything in perspective always does. During the week, she prioritizes sleep and healthy eating at the top of her list because she knows she will get everything done eventually; she can’t afford to get sick. Emma is not surprised that so much time is required and acknowledges the commitment is totally worth it when the CFL fills with people who want to hear the music. It really does touch peoples’ hearts, she continued, so the sore feet, tired eyes, and crazy schedules are worth the effort. Luigi echoes Emma: I do this event and I want to participate in it because it brings other people joy as well as personal fulfillment. The feelings that people express to me afterward are worth the commitment and time.

Whether it is getting work done in advance, eating well, or getting enough sleep, two simple practices seem to power students through the week—breathing and drinking water. Luigi reminds any singer that in order to sing, one must be in the right body and mind. Simply, always take time to breathe. Abby’s experiences have taught her about the importance of staying hydrated. If you find her at any practice, she is cradling a water bottle and she makes sure to finish a few throughout the day as well. She wouldn't be able to make it through the week, let alone stand for all of the performances without the crazy amount of water she has to drink that week. She never thought an activity that requires so much standing still would also require so much hydration!

Perhaps Geoffrey sums up best the lessons learned from performing in “Christmas at Luther.” Take naps, drink lots of water, and get all of your homework done ahead of time. This is good advice for anytime during the school year. These are indeed important practices for life after college when job requirements, community commitments, and family demands intersect.

I hope the stories above provide you a small glimpse into the overall power of the student connection with “Christmas at Luther.” Students have amazing stories to share of their Luther experiences. The power of hope and possibility comes with the gift of this season and I sincerely wish it brings you peace, joy, and love.