Florida high school students deal with luck of the Irish and COVID-19 on international trip

Providence chorale; Jacksonville, Florida credit Jennifer Hudson

How many times have I heard my family use the timeworn phrase, “Luck of the Irish” when something goes wrong? About as many times as I’ve heard it when something goes right. In early March, Florida students from The Providence School in Jacksonville, Florida confronted that kind of luck.

Music director Jennifer Hudson suddenly had a major problem, and she and her students were thousands of miles from home in Dublin, Ireland just as the world began to confront a pandemic.

Celtic Cross in IrelandThe high school students, members of the Providence Chorale, had worked hard ahead of the Fingal International Festival of Voices to be held in Dublin, Ireland in early March. Ready to compete, they headed to the Emerald Isle. First the students visited Galway and Limerick. They traveled to Dublin where they would perform in the Fingal International Festival of Voices scheduled for March 12-15. That’s where the downside of that Irish luck kicked in.

As they arrived, Dublin was shutting down. The festival was canceled. Restaurants, retail, and entertainment venues closed. In the United States president Donald Trump announced travel restrictions that would affect the Chorale’s travel plans. Someone had to decide whether to return home to the US or to stay for the duration of the trip. Fortunately, there were healthcare professionals helping to chaperone the trip, and a decision based on their expertise was made. The group would finish the trip.

Irish coastThe organization Providence School had worked with to set up the educational trip, WorldStrides, would be part of the lucky charm overturning some of that bad Irish luck.

The chorale, said Hudson, had already “flash-mobbed all kinds of places, with many impromptu performances.” They even managed to do a master class before the competition at Fingal would take place. “But the virus was starting to spread.” They managed to perform two pieces for the head of the festival’s voice competition, Michael Dawson. Dawson critiqued the performance, giving them “glowing” reviews. They did so well, they earned first place. Yet the tour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and everything else was canceled.

WorldStrides pesevered despite the shutdowns. The tour director was able to set up a private tour of Windmill Lane Recording Studio. The Dublin studio is famous around the world for the exceptional recordings produced there by icons in the music world. The students got in that door just in the nick of time; the studio shut down shortly thereafter because of the pandemic. The studio has recorded and produced for musical stars like The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, Ed Sheeran, and many others.

The students didn’t just get a tour of Windmill Lane Studio, though. An employee was there and he showed the group around. Last thing on the agenda was the recording studio. Hudson saw a chance to give the students something to remember. Little did she know that a simple question would result in a lifetime memory for every person in that group.

The employee showing the group around happened to be a producer. Hudson asked him if the group could sing briefly in the recording room, just to get the experience  of doing that in a room where so many famous voices had been recorded. The producer agreed. The chorale started to sing, and according to an account at World Strides, when the group stopped, he said, “Wait! Keep going—I want to record this one.” He liked what he heard so much, he recorded four songs.

Songs included the Irish ballad “Carrickfergus”, American Christian folk song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”,“Dance for Love”, and “Salmo 150”.

Going even one better, the producer urged the students to sign their names on the studio wall, alongside the names of performers like David Bowie, U2, and others. He promised to mix the songs and send the recordings to Hudson. A virus might have been rampant, and things might have looked dark, but every vocalist was thrilled with the experience in the studio and with what came after.

Still, the downside of luck persisted. Customs delays caused them to miss a connection, and they ended up having to stay overnight in New York City. WorldStrides covered the expense no one on the tour had expected to incur. The next day, they boarded their plane, and another surprise was in order. A passenger not affiliated with the Providence group went into a seizure. The doctors and nurses helping to chaperone the chorale ended up helping the young man who had the seizure.

Once they were home, those who’d been on the trip had to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Meanwhile, Hudson who is accustomed to music in her life on a constant basis saw another way to give. Why not take music to the masses? She came up with her own Facebook show, “Panjenic.” Hudson is not only a popular teacher, she’s an accomplished vocalist and pianist.

Students at Providence School, like students across the nation, have been shortchanged by the COVID-19 pandemic. They won’t walk in a graduation ceremony. They won’t dance at a prom. There won’t be an end of year music or theater program.

Those students at Providence School, and their teacher Jennifer Hudson, however, will have a treasured memory that few can match when it comes to how their year panned out as a virus swept the world. Irish luck is a quirky thing—it can go good or bad. In this case, there was a mixture of both, but what will etch its way into the memory of each person who traveled to Ireland in 2020 are memories of the kindness of the Irish people and the amazing ambience in a recording studio whose products are etched into musical history. Sometimes the things that go wrong instead of right are the things that we cherish the most.

Credits: Photographs used with permission, courtesy of Jennifer Hudson.

Kay B. Day/May 8, 2020

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