EHS Choir performs at National Memorial Day events

John Thompson • Updated May 30, 2018 at 7:00 PM

ELIZABETHTON — While most high school students were already finished with their academic year, the students of Elizabethton High School’s Advanced Ensemble were making school history and reaching a national high point that very few school groups ever achieve. At the same time, those students were honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Even though their academic year was officially over, 35 students of the EHS Advanced Ensemble traveled to Washington over the weekend to take part in the Memorial Day Concert Series. Their performances took place at the World War II Memorial, the stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and the National Memorial Day Parade.They were the only high school choir in the nation invited to perform in the series.

“It was such an honor and an unforgettable experience,” ensemble Director Debbie Gouge said. “We are still not sure how we got the invitation to do this. The sponsors had heard about us, and we sent a recording of the students on their request. The coordinators were so complimentary of us and they could not have been nicer. We’re not going to get over this for years.”

It was just a weekend trip, but it was filled with incredible sights and sounds that will always rank as some of Elizabethton High School’s most honorable moments. Those sights and sounds began from the time the students first arrived in the city on Friday.

One of the first things they did was to go to the White House, where they formed up and sang the national anthem in front of the president’s home.

But that was just the beginning of the incredible weekend. On Saturday morning, the students had an impromptu performance in the Grand Hall at Union Station. The choir then proceeded to the World War II Memorial, where the members gathered along the banks of the reflecting pool to sing

The combined choirs, consisting of 200 members, representing professional and community choirs from as far away as California, sang the national anthem and “God Bless America” as part of a wreath-laying ceremony.

The students from Elizabethton then participated in another wreath-laying ceremony. A wreath containing large red and white blossoms with tiny blue flowers, adorned by a big red, white and blue bow was placed at the marker for the state of Tennessee. The wreath displayed a white ribbon with gold letters proclaiming it was from the Elizabethon choir. Gouge was honored to conduct the full ensemble in the national anthem, and the EHS group as they sang “Mansions of the Lord” while the wreath was set.

Gouge said the process of learning the concert music, including a world premiere piece written to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day, gave students great awareness about the nation’s history. All that history came to life with the ceremony at the World War II Memorial with the veterans in attendance. “It was just solemn,” Gouge said. “Nobody made a sound except for the choir. It was very respectful and wonderful.”

Sunday was yet another spectacular and emotional day, with the Elizabethton students performing with the United States Air Force Symphony Orchestra at the JFK Center for an audience of 5,000. Conductors included Craig Jessop and Col. Larry H. Lang, as well as guest conductor Col. Arnald D. Gabriel. Gabriel, age 92, stormed the beaches of Normandy when he was 18, and then spent his life teaching and performing music with the Air Force.

To prepare for the big performance, the combined choirs spent a total of 12 hours in rehearsal during the weekend. The literature selected was challenging, and the students’ preparation for this was evident.

“The band was awesome. The choir was amazing. I just can’t tell you how special everything was,” Gouge said. “The students came off the stage, many of them weeping, and one of them said it was the coolest thing he had ever done in his life.”

Many parents and friends of the Elizabethton students attended the concert, including Director of Schools Corey Gardenhour.

If the students thought Sunday was the high point of the weekend, there were still some very memorable moments on Monday. They opened the National Memorial Day Parade by singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Many high-profile performers and leaders participated in the parade, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trace Adkins, Joe Montegna, Gary Sinise, Robert Irvine and Miss America. Grand Marshals were the heroes of the 15:17 terrorist attack on a train in France and a group of soldiers honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.

Gouge said the choir is especially grateful to the Elizabethton Board of Education, Elizabethton City Council, and numerous businesses and independent supporters for sponsoring the trip. “Through the generosity of our community and the hard work of our students and their families, we were able to pay for the entire trip. No one had to worry about anything,” she said. “Every little detail of the trip has been more than amazing.”

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