The White House Experience: Belles and Voce
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As a member of one of the select choirs at Cherry Hill High School East, I am no stranger to going around the community during the holiday season to perform at various events. However, I was not expecting to be told that our next performance would be at the White House.
Specifically, I am a member of Voce, a small singing group who sings madrigal pieces. Voce always performs alongside the Belles of East, a select, all-women’s choir that sings and accompanies themselves with handbells. The Belles of East and Voce have done many performances together, side by side spreading holiday cheer, but this performance was by far the most memorable one yet.
The entire performance would not have been possible without the dedication of Elizabeth Hallinan (’17), who has performed in the Belles of East for three years. Last year, Hallinan saw that the White House accepted applications to perform during the holidays. She wrote letters, emails and phoned the White House trying to improve the chances of the Belles of East to get picked to perform.
Despite not getting a response, Hallinan persevered and kept trying to contact the office of the White House that coordinated the holiday performances. However, the persistence paid off and in the beginning of November 2016, Hallinan got the response that she had eagerly anticipated: the Belles of East had cordially been invited to perform at the White House during the upcoming holiday season.
The Belles have to change the pitch of handbells for each specific song they perform, leaving a gap in between their performances. So, because the numbers worked out perfectly, the seniors of Voce were also given the opportunity to attend in order to entertain while the Belles changed their handbells.
I still remember when I first found out that we were actually performing at the White House, an immediate rush of excitement swelled over me and I could not stop smiling. Though the Belles and Voce were overjoyed, we had to be responsible and keep the news of our once in a lifetime performance very low profile, due to security reasons.
November proved to be the longest month but finally, December 15 had arrived and it would finally be the day we would perform at the White House.
The bus ride to Washington, D.C. passed by quickly as every singer warmed their voices up and practiced the songs we would perform to perfection. Excitement radiated throughout the air: we were all just so happy to be experiencing such an event together.
It wasn’t until we all disembarked the coach bus and walked to the first security gates of the White House where it hit us that we were going to perform in such an extraordinary, historically significant building. As I walked through security and through metal detectors, I realized that every step I took was one step closer into a building I had never even dreamed about walking in.
After all 26 of us went through the security checkpoint, the intern that was assigned to our group took us to the main doors of the East Wing of the White House, and with big, shimmering eyes, we all walked in, glorified at its beauty.
Decorated in dazzling reds, greens, and blues, the interior of the East Wing epitomized ‘holiday spirit’, with every inch decorated in lights, garlands and Christmas trees. Prior to our performance, our intern walked us through the most beautiful rooms in the East Wing, including the Blue room, the Red room and the China room, each room decked out in holiday decorations.
Before long, it was time for our first performance set of the night and the intern lead us into the room where we were to sing. We were scheduled to sing 30 to 45 minute sets composed of holiday carols to entertain hundreds of guests at this particular holiday party. However, no one addressed the elephant in the room: was President Barack Obama going to be in attendance, or better yet, would we actually get to meet him?
Yet, the intern did not say anything about the president being at the holiday party, so we got into positions and picked up our music binders. As we sang for the next 45 minutes, women in long formal gowns and men in tuxedos passed by us, stopping to listen to our caroling. The holiday party was very well attended, and many people had passed by our group until our intern informed us that the set was up. As we headed back down to the dressing room to take our 15-minute break, I caught a glimpse of our vocal director, Mrs. Lausi, talking to the intern with a look of pure joy. My mind began playing scenarios in my head about what the excitement could only be about.
As soon as we all were settled in the dressing room, the intern that was guiding us revealed that she had some very important news to share with us. What was said next, I was not ready for at all. I will never forget when she announced with a big grin on our face that in 15 short minutes, our group would be meeting and taking a picture with President Obama.
First, pure shock coursed through my veins, then joy and excitement. Hearing those words, confirming that we were going to meet such an influential man was one, if not the most thrilling moments of my life. It was one thing to actually perform in the White House, but now we were granted the opportunity to meet our president too.
Not too long after the announcement was made, our group headed up a staircase, following the intern into a large, bright room. In the room, a professional photographer was set up awaiting our group, and a few official-looking men and women in uniform stood by us constantly tapping at their ear buds. The room was electric, holding 26 of the most excited women and men in the world.
Despite the fact that we were told it would only be 15 minutes until we met the President, we ended up waiting in the room for over 30 minutes, trying to contain our excitement. Finally, one of the women in full uniform gave us a 5-minute, 1 minute, and 20 second, yes 20 second, warning of when the President would enter the room.
The next moment will be something I will hold so dearly for the rest of my life. After hearing footsteps getting closer, the President walked into the room where we were all anxiously waiting. As soon as we caught glimpse of him as he stood a few feet away, our group made a collective gasp of excitement, and President Obama jokingly gasped back in excitement as to poke fun of us.
We all stood in a line as he asked us about where we were from and how old we were, each waiting our turn to shake his hand. When he came over to me, I made eye contact with him and shook his hand enthusiastically. I had to remind myself that this was actually happening. It felt so surreal.
The photographer positioned us all in a neat arrangement and President Obama inserted himself in the second row. Although the photographer instructed us to smile, there was no need for the instruction. Every single one of us could not stop smiling if we tried.
Because his time was so limited as his life is scheduled to the second, we only had enough time to converse with Obama for a minute or two. We also got to perform our 40-second version of ‘Carol the Bells’, a Christmas carol that Belles and Voce perform together. During the performance, President Obama looked at each of us, smiling and even dancing to the beat. When we finished the piece, he applauded us and thanked us for putting him in the holiday spirit.
As he turned to exit the room, we wished him happy holidays and thanked him for his service to our country. President Obama responded by wishing our families and ourselves a healthy and happy holiday season as well and left the room, onto his next appearance at the holiday party.
Although our time was limited, meeting the president was easily that most exciting moment I’ve ever had, and will truly be a memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I find myself constantly thinking about how amazing it was to have the opportunity to perform at the White House and to explore the rooms where many other presidents have roamed. To this day, I still look at the pictures Belles and Voce took within the majestic halls and I remain to be very thankful for being granted such an amazing and once in a lifetime opportunity that I will truly never forget.