The Sandtown Children of Praise Lift Every Voice
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If the cacophony in the halls and main room of the New Song Community Center is any indication, the Sandtown Children of Praise know how to make a joyful noise. Their good-natured screams and laughter are not what choir director Shelly Harris wants, though. She stands at the front of the chair-filled room, snaps her fingers, then slices her hand across her throat to signal for silence.
The reaction isn't immediate. These are kids, after allelementary and middle school kids who have already served a full day in the classroom and can now look forward to a strenuous, 90-to -120-minute rehearsal. Kids like Wardell Young, whose school day runs to 5 P.M., leaving him just enough time to eat dinner before he's due at the community center. Kids like Angelique Jones, who runs home to throw in a load of laundry before making her way to practice.
It takes some time, but Harris eventually gets her charges in line, each of them standing up straight, eyes on the director, voice at the ready. When they lift their voices in unison, it's more than worth the wait.
The 44 members of the Sandtown Children of Praise have come a long way in the seven years since Harris began a "kiddie choir" to perform songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad." The West Baltimore-based community choir, made up of students from third through eighth grade, has performed up and down the East Coast, including a June 1999 gig at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The group has recorded two CDs, Chatter With the Angels and I Can Talk to God, both released on the choir's own New Songs Arts & Media label. On Dec. 3, 4, and 5, the choir performs with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The group has also enjoyed its share of attention. It is a three-time winner in the National Quaker Oats Youth Gospel Choir Competition, and in late 1998 Harris was awarded a grant from the Open Society Institute, which allowed her to leave her full-time teaching job and devote her entire attention to the choir.
For Harris, being a full-time choir director means more than showing up for rehearsals and working out vocal and dance arrangements. The kids audition to earn their spots on the choir, so the talent is already there. Harris puts much of her energy into teaching the discipline and commitment that will carry over from the choir into these kids' everyday lives. She works with the kids, not just their voices. She visits the neighborhood schools and meets with the teachers. She talks with the choir parents and visits the kids in their homes, many built through the neighborhood's Habitat for Humanity program. She brings a crowd back to her own house after practice for a dessert-and-talk session. She holds her kids to high standards in every area of their lives, and they strive to meet them.
Harris' extracurricular efforts pay off during rehearsals. When the sopranos have trouble with "Soulful Hallelujah," Harris doesn't worry about hurt feelings among the kids; she knows they trust her. She listens closely to each singer until she identifies a first-year choir member who's off-key. The little one isn't embarrassed by Harris singling him out, and he listens closely to her instruction. Harris then admonishes the entire soprano section, "It's not that you're badyou just have to work harder because you have the hardest part."
These kids do work hard. Soloists, such as alto Wardell Young, practice their parts at home five times a day. In anticipation of high-profile performances like the upcoming BSO gig, Harris adds a third rehearsal to their twice-a-week schedule. And there's more to performing than hitting the notes; these kids do so many dance moves that their concerts qualify as aerobic activity. Harris choreographs all of their moves, right down to the swaying. She even tests for movement in auditions. "I make them clap and rock, something most adults have trouble doing," she says.
All of this hard work pays off in performance too. For a community choir, the Sandtown Children of Praise are amazingly polished and professional. Their voices are unspeakably beautiful and they sing their praise with utter conviction. The choir's executive producer, Steve Smallwood, creates contemporary arrangements of traditional hymns and songs, sometimes reworking the music, sometimes adding new lyrics. No one will ever mistake the group's "Away in a Manger" for the Christmas standard warbled by so many wandering carolers.
Since this is a children's choir, members graduate from the ensemble when they finish eighth grade. Michael Parker, a former member, attends the Baltimore School for the Arts, and Harris hopes to see more of her singers get professional training. (Earlier this year, Wardell Young won a Rosa Pryor Scholarship to pay for singing lessons.) Arny Arnold, program director for New Song Arts and Media, is looking into creating a high school choir, so the older kids can use their changing voices and the lessons they've learned to tackle more complicated arrangements.
Harris cites the many roles of the choirkeeping the kids out of trouble, making the community proud, praising God through music and dancebut her eye is always on an ultimate prize.
"My focus is really to make sure the kids I come in contact with know they can become whatever it is they want to become," Harris says. "If we can build a society where kids have something to be proud of, we'll have a society with good kids."
The Sandtown Children of Praise perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Dec. 3-4 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 5 at 3 p.m. For more information call the BSO box office at (410) 783-8000.