In a rehearsal room at Morgan State University, Nathan Carter slaps at wobbly pitches as if he were swatting mosquitos.
"C'mon ladies!" he says. "One, two, sing! Sopranos and altos, sing!"
Carter is transforming students slouched in Boss and Hilfiger chic into the precise and powerful instrument he needs to conquer Carnegie Hall. As the singers enter the brilliance of the spiritual "Great Day," the notes fall in line, clean and bright as the righteous marching to heaven.
The Morgan State University choir is a week from a concert in New York that will mark another achievement in its distinguished history under Nathan Carter.
Over the past 26 years, the choir has brought Brahms to inner city churches and spirituals to symphony halls. Its members have sung for the pope and the president, performed the music of Beethoven in Bonn and of Cab Calloway in Baltimore. They've championed the work of African-American composers and earned a place in music scholar Eileen Southern's definitive history, "The Music of Black Americans."
When people describe the choir -- its energy, its power, its mastery of music -- they are also describing its director.
Forceful, trim, impeccably dressed, Nathan Carter groans, grunts and throws his whole being into shaping the voices gathered before him. Distracted or lazy singing can make him smack the piano, stick out his tongue, loose a flood of angry words. Moments later, when the sound arcs the way he wants it, Carter's eyes shut as if he has just sipped perfection.
His students rarely look away.
Part of Carter's genius, colleagues agree, is that he produces consistently great sound and expression from an instrument that changes every semester -- and often from one concert to the next. Though the total choir numbers 125, some students sing only at its Christmas and spring performances. About 40 to 50 singers make up the traveling choir; while 80 to 120 voices are needed for orchestra engagements.
Carter makes a point of knowing each individual voice in this dynamic mosaic. And he knows when it isn't doing what it should.
"You must work harder when it gets soft!" he commands in his deep, gruff voice. "Carry it, carry it, carry it!" he says, reaching out as if to take hold of the musical line himself.
Some of his singers are already able to explain the intricacies of music theory. Others join the choir unable to read a note or tell the difference between Bach and Beethoven.
Carter reaches them all with a form of performance art that can substitute for years of cultural exposure. Immersed in each piece, he raises a sagging pitch with his arms, his eyebrows, the curl of his mouth. His body coils and tenses as he builds a crescendo into a wind of voices that sweeps right through you.
It's as if Carter becomes the sound he wants. Many of his singers understand his shorthand of blurted notes, gestures and tones of voice long before they comprehend the notes printed on the page.
"I have learned to teach things fast to nonmusicians," he says. "If I can get them to rehearsal, I find a way to teach the music to them."
Now the choir is preparing for its first performance with Robert Shaw, the most famous choral conductor in the world. Shaw will conduct a Carnegie Hall tribute to legendary singer Marian Anderson, featuring some of the best known black artists in classical music. The Morgan choir will perform spirituals and accompany soprano Jessye Norman in Brahms' Alto Rhapsody.
It will be a historic evening, but so far the students are approaching it as they would any other concert. In the past month, they've already sung with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and will soon perform different programs with the National Symphony and Peabody Symphony Orchestra. They are also preparing for concerts in Cleveland, San Diego and Las Vegas.
For a university choir -- any choir -- such a performance schedule is astounding.
The choir's success springs from its daily workouts in the Murphy Arts Building, from what Morgan President Earl Richardson calls "Dr. Carter's 'Practice Makes Perfect' philosophy."
For Nathan Carter, every rehearsal is a performance. It always counts. And it's never enough.
"We cannot be casual today," he tells his singers as they shift from the blaze of "Great Day" to the poignancy of "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands." "Don't move. Stand firm. Look deep."
When he's finally content with the sound, he reviews the schedule for the week ahead: a musical tribute to neurosurgeon Ben Carson in Baltimore; a concert commemorating the late Ron Brown in Washington; an evening rehearsal with Robert Shaw at Morgan; a weekend concert tour of black churches in Ohio; and two days of rehearsals in Manhattan leading up to the Carnegie Hall concert.