Worth the Wait
An NC State staff member recently donned a Victorian-era dress and sang holiday tunes at the White House with local a cappella group the Oakwood Waits.
In early English, the word “wait” referred to street musicians, especially singers. However, there was also a considerable amount of waiting in the modern context this fall for NC State employee Kathryn Behling and her fellow members of the Oakwood Waits as they eagerly anticipated a potential invitation to perform at the White House.
The Raleigh-based, Charles Dickens-inspired a cappella group had applied back in the summer for the opportunity to perform at the annual White House Holiday Open House for family and friends of staff. They even received a special recommendation from Kristin Cooper, the first lady of North Carolina. Finally, the group received its invitation in November — just three weeks before the event.
“We were supposed to hear if we had been invited back in mid-September. Because of the government shutdown that didn’t happen but maybe was going to happen, they kept pushing back the invitations,” Behling said. “Thankfully, we have a standard repertoire of about 90 songs, so we just pulled from that for the performance. But we did have to do a lot of very last-minute planning for how we were getting there, where we were staying, if all 16 of us — plus spouses — were staying together. There was a mad flurry of emails.”
Despite the last-minute logistical challenges, the experience proved to be worth the stress — and the wait. Behling and her companions sang traditional Christmas carols like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” in the East Room of the White House, next to the portrait of George Washington. They also performed songs from the Appalachian shape-note tradition as well as several selections in other languages.
“There were no recognizable faces — Biden wasn’t there, unless he was listening upstairs,” Behling grinned. “Still, it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.”
Road to the White House
While the White House is the highest-profile venue where she has performed, Behling is no stranger to the stage. She has enjoyed singing as long as she can remember and first started singing in a group in chorus classes during elementary school. She joined her church choir in sixth grade, where she sang alongside several members with music degrees and professional experience.
“That’s where I really started to learn how to sing and how to sing well,” she said. “They had really high standards.”
During her college search, Behling looked for institutions specifically based on their music programs. Even though she didn’t want to major in music, she wanted to continue honing her skills and singing professionally. That’s how she ended up attending Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where she was involved in the choir all four years through the Sunderman Conservatory of Music.
Behling took an extended hiatus from choral activities during graduate school and the COVID-19 pandemic, but when she moved to Cary, North Carolina, two years ago to start her job at NC State, she joined a women’s choir and a local church choir. It just so happened that two other members of the church choir were also members of the Oakwood Waits, which is how she was introduced to the group. When the Charles Dickens-inspired vocal ensemble needed another alto this summer, they encouraged her to try out. While Behling admires the 19th-century English author and his works, her love for history and the performance opportunities intrigued her most.
“I read ‘A Christmas Carol’ in high school, and it was fine,” Behling said with a laugh. “It was better than some of the other books we read, but I wouldn’t say it’s a favorite or anything. The costumes are cool, and I was a theater kid in high school, so that was more of the appeal for me than specifically the Charles Dickens connection.”
Much like the group’s invitation to the White House, Behling’s acceptance into the Oakwood Waits came at a busy time.
“I got the call in July, when I was on the bus to the airport, on my way home from my dad’s wedding in Long Island, New York,” Behling said. “So that was a super exciting weekend, but it was also right before the start of the fall semester. I had to get ready for the initial student check-in at work, on top of an audition that was fairly rigorous with a callback and a lot of stress over whether or not I would get in. But I did, and it’s been great.”
The White House concert was just Behling’s third performance with the Oakwood Waits. In addition to caroling at the White House, her stint with the group has so far included performances at the North Carolina Governor’s Mansion, Lafayette Village, Fairfax Hills Park and the Merrimon Wynne House in Raleigh. The group also hosted its annual benefit concert, which supports local charities.
A Supportive Pack
At NC State, Behling has worked for over two years as a data and compliance analyst for the Office of International Services. She manages the software that helps NC State’s international student population in the initial check-in process and in connecting with their advisors. Prior to joining the Wolfpack, she worked at an ESL school in admissions and advising roles while working toward her master’s degree at Boston University. When the pandemic hit, she was laid off and forced to look for other opportunities.
“I decided to throw a very wide net in my job search, and NC State is who wanted me,” she said. “It was a really good fit, and I’ve been really happy down here.”
Behling is especially happy to be part of the Office of International Services — and to have a supervisor who allowed her to take time off to perform at the White House. December is a particularly busy time in her department, since it’s responsible for helping students with visa constraints due to academic issues and for helping new graduates obtain work authorization in the United States. Fortunately, Behling had given her supervisor, Mike Shurer, a heads up in September that an invitation could be forthcoming.
“I’m going to sound like a suck-up, but my boss is my favorite thing about working here,” Behling said. “I came into my original position here with absolutely zero coding skills, and he taught me so much. He’s been an amazing mentor, helped me explore the area and got me into a Java intro class online. He’s just amazing, and the rest of my team is great, too. I would follow them anywhere.”