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48 Hours of ‘Christmas at Belmont’

A glimpse behind the curtains of a nationally broadcast concert.

Christmas at Belmont Rehearsal -182-X2Last spring, we sent a writer and photographer with the men’s basketball team to the NCAA tournament, chronicling time spent at the Big Dance. We thought it might be fun to try a similar approach with our own hometown version of a mammoth-event: coordinating more than 700 students, faculty and staff through a major concert performance for a national TV broadcast. Here’s 48 hours behind-the-scenes at the recent “Christmas at Belmont” taping:

Sunday, November 22:
10 a.m.
Staff members load the supplies no one thinks of but that everyone needs—first aid kits, jewelry, painter’s tape, sewing kit, safety pins, easels and foam core signage—into cars to take to Nashville’s stunning, 1,844-seat Laura Turner Concert Hall, the main venue of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, for tomorrow night’s taping.

Loading buses for Christmas at Belmont rehearsal10:45 a.m. Buses begin arriving on campus, and nearly 200 students from musical theatre, the orchestra and jazz band load up for the short 10-minute drive to Schermerhorn, prepped for a long, long day of rehearsals… and waiting for rehearsals.

College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) Dean Dr. Cynthia Curtis notes that the two days of rehearsal and the taped performance are the culmination of more than a year of planning and practice. Contracts with Nashville Public Television (NPT) and the Schermerhorn are secured about a year in advance, and that’s generally when conversations begin with potential hosts. Ensemble directors spend the winter and early spring reviewing new material, and in May, they submit performance ideas to the “Christmas at Belmont” planning committee.

Despite the immense amount of time and energy that must go into a show for national broadcast, Dean Curtis finds much to love with the process. “This is such a huge bonding experience for our School of Music students. They have to spend so many hours working on this, all at the end of the semester, but they are doing it together and that develops a strong bond. Plus, ‘Christmas at Belmont’ has become a symbol, an emblem, for Belmont University, and we love playing that role. It’s an honor for us.”

12:45 p.m. The Bluegrass ensemble, Chamber Singers, Chorale, Company, Jazzmin, Percussion, Phoenix, Session, Southbound, University Singers, Women’s Choir and 24—a total of 429 students—join their peers at the Schermerhorn, arriving in comfy clothes and carrying an array of activities—from homework to Playstations—to occupy their free time between practice sessions.

There’s already a tremendous energy throughout the buildiChristmas at Belmont Rehearsal -164-X2ng with students warming up their instruments at every corner while dancers are stretching out their limbs and trying on costumes. Individual ensembles are rehearsing on stage while NPT adjusts sound and lighting.

Sarah Davis, director of public relations and advancement for the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA), quickly walks us through the maze backstage to see where the different ensembles are housed and to glimpse the technology at work to capture the best possible audio and visuals for the national PBS airing.

2:30 p.m. Poinsettias to help decorate the stage are delivered to the loading dock, but students are Dr. Jeffery Amesalready decking the halls with hairband antlers, Christmas-themed sweaters and even a couple of light-up Rudolph noses.

3 p.m. Running a few minutes behind schedule, the mass choirs and orchestra join host Kathy Mattea for a rehearsal of “Unto Us a Child Is Born” and “Celtic Joy,” led by Superman… also known as Director of Choral Activities and Associate Professor of Music Dr. Jeffery Ames.

3:20 p.m. Mattea rehearses “Mary Did You Know” with the orchestra, and the strings, harp and percussion beautifully fill the room in perfect accompaniment.

3:30 p.m. As rehearsals of individual ensemble pieces continue, students who aren’t needed on stage settle into their assigned rooms and nearby hallways. While the orchestra is on stage most of the day, other ensembles only appear to rehearse their specific songs and the mass choir performances. The rest of their time is filled hanging out in designated areas backstage, where they practice, play cards and video games, study and socialize… or better yet, catch a well-deserved nap!

4 p.m. Rehearsals continue all afternoon as each ensemble runs through its planned performance. Dr. Curtis listens to every note with long-time Christmas at Belmont Rehearsal -210-X2CVPA Administrative Coordinator Joan Eakin by her side. Together they have reviewed every detail of the 14-page logistical plan behind Belmont’s 48-hour takeover of the Schermerhorn. “This is our fifth year here,” Eakin notes. “There are so many moving parts and so much happening behind-the-scenes… you have to delegate and be really organized to pull it off.”

4:30 p.m. Campus dining provider Sodexo arrives at the Schermerhorn to set-up for box dinners for the 700+ people on site.

7 p.m. Final performance run-throughs include songs from the Nashville Children’s Choir, the Percussion Ensemble, 24 and Company. Meanwhile, in the lobby, an NPT camera crew films promotional spots with Kathy Mattea to help market the upcoming broadcast and inform the national viewing audience about all of the benefits of a Belmont education.

9:15 p.m. Lights fall as the entire cast starts the day’s final rehearsal, a run-through of the entire show from the top with lights and audio in place.

11:55 p.m. After a long day of rehearsals, cast and crew board buses to head back to campus, ready to tackle a full two-show day in a few mere hours.

Monday, November 23: Show Day!
Christmas_At_Belmont_Sunday_Practice_Behind_The_Scenes-151-S6:30 a.m.
Despite limited sleep, School of Music crew members arrive on campus to carpool to the Schermerhorn.

10 a.m. Six buses of students and staff depart campus so that several ensembles can pre-tape their performances. Another six will follow at 1 p.m. Everyone is dressed for the concert, though more than one student can be seen moving through the hall in stocking feet, saving the high heels for show time.

2 p.m. Final touches are completed as the mass choir practices the opening number and the finale.

Christmast at Belmont-263-X22:30 p.m. Ushers begin seating the audience for the full dress rehearsal, which is attended by hundreds of friends and family members of the participants. Senior music performance major Olivia Taylor finds a perfect quiet nook to fit her and two fellow clarinet players while they catch a few minutes of calm before the dress rehearsal. As members of the orchestra, they’ve all spent the majority of the past two days on stage rehearsing, “The best part of this for me is the music and the people. It’s fun to hang out with my friends, and especially with my section.”

Christsmas_At_Belmont_Sunday_Performance_2015-131-X22:58 p.m. The cast is called to top of show places for the opening number, “Carol of the Bells.”

3 p.m. Once the orchestra is tuned and quiet, a pre-recorded announcement signals the beginning of the show as the mass choirs enter down the aisles to pre-assigned places. And we’re off…

Or almost… a woman rushes through the side door near the School of Music staff seating, clearly concerned and urgently whispering: “The conductor has lost his score, and the show cannot begin until we find it.” The conductor apparently left it by accident in the audience seats during afternoon rehearsals, and ushers are now frantically looking for the large portfolio. Thankfully, it’s quickly discovered, and despite a few panicked moments, no one is Christmast at Belmont-425-X2the wiser.

After a kind introduction by host Kathy Mattea, the show kicks off with an outstanding rendition of “Carol of the Bells” followed by Southbound’s “Little Drummer Boy” and the Nashville Children’ Choir’s performance with the Belmont Orchestra of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”

3:28 p.m. Mattea and accompanist Bill Cooley return to the stage to perform “Mary Did You Know” with the Belmont Orchestra, an experience she calls “one of the thrills of her life.” Throughout the afternoon, the orchestra defies the “student musician” moniker, providing a beautiful and thoroughly professional backdrop to countless performances.

Christmast at Belmont-354-X23:45 p.m. Belmont Strings take the stage, bringing contagious joy to an arrangement of Vivaldi’s “Winter” with their energetic and precise performance.

4:18 p.m. The orchestra has dazzled, and the choirs have impressed… Now, it’s Company’s time to shine with Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me.”

Christmast at Belmont-377-X24:30 p.m. Following a brief intermission, the Jazz Band welcomes the audience back with a rousing rendition of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.”

4:45 p.m. Phoenix delights the crowd with “Where Are You Christmas?”

4:56 p.m. Thanks to a lovely medley from musical theatre, it’s likely that all three of their upcoming shows of “White Christmas” will be sold out.

Christmast at Belmont-516-X25:21 p.m. “He rules the world with truth and grace…” Beautiful vocal tones overtake the hall as the mass choirs join Mattea and the orchestra for the stirring and powerful finale, “Celtic Joy.”

5:25 p.m. It’s a wrap!… But only on the dress rehearsal. There’s still the main show yet to go, but confidence is high after such a smooth and complete performance. Ensembles return to their holding rooms to eat dinner, while their directors meet with Mattea and School of Music staffers to dissect the show and make any needed last-minute adjustments.

6:15 p.m. Ensembles freshen up and prepare for the 7:30 p.m. concert, as doors open and ushers begin seating for the taping.

7:05 p.m. Belmont President Dr. Bob Fisher welcomes the audience to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

7:15 p.m. The cast is called to top of show places as seat fillers are placed in any seats that have yet to be occupied.

7:20 p.m. Backstage between performances, Mattea is surprised by a dozen-plus members of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia – an American collegiate social fraternity for men with a special interest in music. The guys charm the host by serenading her with one of their fraternity’s songs, appropriately titled “A Serenade to a Girl,” in gratitude for all of Mattea’s contributions to the weekend.

Christmast at Belmont-253-X27:25 p.m. Stand-by to begin — From the truck, NPT cues the stage manager to send out the concert master to tune the orchestra for the start of the show, and the show begins a few moments later, with another excellent performance from all involved.

10 p.m. After two lengthy days, the load-out of Belmont equipment and decorations begin as students and faculty gather their belongings to board buses back to campus.

Christmas_At_Belmont_Selection_Meeting-103-X2Tuesday, November 24:
9 a.m.
 And still, we’re not quite finished… Key personnel from School of Music and consultants from across campus gather with NPT representatives to review a raw DVD of last night’s performance to make final decisions on what makes it on air for the national PBS broadcast. Running on little sleep, this committee faces a full day trying to choose the best combination of songs from another spectacular “Christmas at Belmont” concert.

“Christmas at Belmont” is scheduled to air nationally on PBS Dec. 21 and 24. Check local listings for air times in your area.