Memorial Day weekend rouses recollections for every generation of the legacies of service members. For Elizabethton High School Advanced Ensemble students, the weekend was an opportunity not only to honor veterans and sacrifices made throughout American history, but a chance to make new memories in honor of all who have served.
Thirty-five members of the group, directed by Debbie Gouge, performed as part of the National Memorial Day Concert Series in Washington D. C. Performance venues included 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 public high school choir in the US invited to perform in this series.
“It was such an honor and an unforgettable experience,” 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.”
When the students arrived in the district on Friday, they had a photo op and sang the National Anthem in front of the White House. Following an impromptu performance in the Grand Hall at Union Station on Saturday, the choir sang along the banks of the WWII Memorial’s reflecting pool. The entire group of more than 200 voices, 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.
Following the singing, students participated in a wreath laying, in which they presented and placed an Elizabethton High School wreath at the marker for the state of Tennessee. Gouge was honored to conduct the full ensemble in the National Anthem, and then the EHS group as they sang Mansions of the Lord while their 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 WWII 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.”
On Sunday, students performed with the United States Air Force Symphony Orchestra at the JFK Center for an audience of 5,000. Conductors included Dr. Craig Jessop and Col. Larry H. Lang, as well as guest conductor Col. Arnald D. Gabriel. Gabriel, age 92, stormed the beaches of Normandy at age 18, and then spent his life teaching and performing music with the USAF.
The 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,” said Gouge. “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 Dr. Corey Gardenhour.
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 thwart in Paris and a group of soldiers honoring the Tuskegee Airmen. Prior to the parade, the students incidentally met Gary Sinise in the backstage area (Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan.)
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.”