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Hanging on Every Note
Gilman students sing their way through Portugal

Fifty singing students and eight chaperones from the faculty choir traveled to Portugal over spring break in March. Upper School ensembles — the Traveling Men and the Glee Club — as well as the Middle School Chorus performed in three concerts during the nine-day trip. Typically, ensemble members in grades 6-12 have the opportunity to attend this trip every other year; because of the pandemic, this was Gilman’s first international excursion since 2019, alongside a group of eighth graders who toured Italy over spring break.

Middle School music teacher Liz Sesler-Beckman noted the meaningful way the students across all grades interacted as they lived and sang together. “The older boys do a fantastic job of taking care of and guiding the younger guys,” she said. “In future years, those boys will be the leaders.” 

James Stephenson ’23 is one of those boys. He has participated as a sixth grader, an eighth grader, and this year, as a senior. “I remember singing in incredible churches, hanging on every note of the Upper Schoolers … seeing these role models definitely improved not only my singing but who I am as a whole,” he said. “Having been a younger student on the trip, this year felt like it was my turn to step up to the plate. He went on to say, “Being able to share my experience with the next generation of Gilman singers was a special honor.”

In addition to the mentorship that organically formed between the older and younger students over the course of the trip, a few boys already shared strong bonds. Three sets of brothers traveled together.

“I remember going on the choral trip as a middle schooler myself and the bonds I made with peers and upperclassmen alike,” said Anay Agarwal ’23, whose brother, Siddh, attended the trip as well. “It was beyond special to see my younger brother have that same experience, and I am forever grateful that I was able to share it with him.”

Director of Upper School vocal groups Robby Ford said the highlight of the trip was, of course, the concerts. On Saturday, March 11, the Gilman ensembles sang with Coro Medico de Lisboa, a medical student choir. The two groups shared a meal together and participated in a master class. On Monday, March 13, the Gilman students performed at the Historic Centre of Évora, and on Wednesday, March 15, at the Monastery of Batalha. Both sites are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

In between their vocal adventures, the group noticed that boys kept blending into their surroundings. They had fun taking photos of the camouflage phenomenon, which could easily be put together to make an interesting coffee table book.

Sesler-Beckman said the overseas experience is “the epitome of so many things that we do at Gilman,” encompassing growth and development of mind, body, and spirit.

The Semmes G. (Buck) Walsh Fund at Gilman helped subsidize the cost of the trip. Buck Walsh, past parent and former Traveling Men director, created the fund to support male a cappella singing through a bequest.

Boys were encouraged to keep a journal during their travels. Below are a few excerpts.

Friday, March 10 | Jameson Maumenee ’24
Arriving in Portugal was amazing. We had a quick trip to a park where we observed a wonderful beach and looked over the Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. At this park I went with several friends to a small café where I had one of the best breakfasts I have had in a long time. I had a wonderful coffee and a pastes de Nata, a custard dessert. After this expenditure, we journeyed into downtown Lisbon. Our group toured the Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines and frequented a lovely bakery, where I got yet another pastes de Nata. It was certainly a full day and it serves as a wonderful start to our tour of Portugal.

Saturday, March 11 | Anay Agarwal ’23
We started our day according to “Portugal Time” — leisurely at 10 a.m., which for us students, was a gift. Our tour was conducted by a Lisbon native, Paula, who gave us context and history about Portugal as we revisited the places we went yesterday. The first half of the day zoomed by quite quickly and we arrived for our masterclass with Alberto (pronounced Alber-too) at the church. After warming up and learning some Portuguese songs, we had a lovely pizza dinner with the Portuguese choir we coordinated with. Those medical students sure know how to sing! The concert was a success with special appearances by Mr. Chris Downs and a couple of parents.

Sunday, March 12 | Sanjay Geevarghese ’23
Today, we traveled to the towns of Sintra and Cascais. In Sintra, we visited a few museums, viewing historic Portuguese art and architecture, including pieces from the 13th century. After enjoying a quick lunch and gelato, we left for Cascais, a town to the southwest. We took in the beautiful beaches along the coast and one of the most famous gelato shops in Portugal, Santini’s. Truly, it has been a magical experience!

Monday, March 13 | Jaeman Shin ’25
The various experiences today have been incredible, ranging from touring around Evora to the Cathedral of Evora. However, the highlight of today truly was the concert in the Cathedral. The whole entire area was so expansive, which allowed for some incredible acoustics. When we were singing some of our slower songs, such as “Even When He is Silent” or “Sing Me to Heaven,” Mr. Ford paused much more frequently to allow our voices to ring in the air, leaving an incredible echo within the hall.

Tuesday, March 14 | James Stephenson ’23
Today was massive. On the road with the pals, city to city, Lisboa, Obidos, and Nazare. Saw the beach up close and sang at the surfboard museum. This museum sat perched at the edge of this verdant cliff, which overlooked massive waves that crashed like giants upon the golden sands, which crunched under our feet.

Wednesday, March 15 | Curtis Lawson, Jr. ’23
We spent the morning in Coimbra, which is a medieval college town built on a one giant hill. We split into groups and had two different tour guides who took us up the hills and told us all about the university and its history. At the end of the tour, we got to see the University of Coimbra itself, and it was an incredible sight. The buildings were brilliantly white and immaculate with some students dressed in traditional black robes, looking like characters from a Harry Potter book. I’m very excited for the concert later this evening at the Monastery of Bathala. 

Thursday, March 16 | Idoko Obeya ’25
Today, we explored the historical town of Fatima. We learned about the third secret of Fatima. Then we learned of the town’s rich history. We followed with a surprise visit of the local caves and learned of the stalagmites. It was a very fun final day, and I will miss exploring the amazing history of this beautiful country, but will cherish the memories made in its various landmarks.


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