Baltimore Police Youth Choir answers singer's request for backup Shania Twain invites group to sing at Arena

December 21, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Police Youth Choir has entertained at weddings, performed at ethnic festivals and sung the national anthem at Camden Yards. But last night the group got its chance at the big time.

Nine members of the choir sang backup for country music star Shania Twain at a sold-out concert at the Baltimore Arena.

Six hours before they were to go on stage, the seven girls and two boys took their first crack at the song, following along with a cassette tape in the waiting room of the Police Athletic League offices at city police headquarters.

The singers, ages 11 to 17, had learned of their big break only Wednesday, when the choir director, Officer Roderick O. Dotson, called to say they had been invited to perform with Twain.

"I couldn't believe it," said Ashley Taylor, 11, a pupil at Francis Scott Key Elementary-Middle School.

Yesterday at rehearsal, wearing black overalls, yellow tie-dyed T-shirts and black turtlenecks, the singers giggled and tugged at their clothing as Dotson called them to order.

La'Tonya Russell, 16, bounded into the room as the rehearsal started. "I was fixing my hair," she said.

While all of the choir members had heard of Twain -- one of the biggest stars in country music -- La'Tonya is a true fan.

"I love her to death," said the Walbrook High School student. "I like her work, she speaks the truth."

The song they helped sing, "God Bless the Child," speaks of homeless children consumed by violence, prostitution and drug abuse.

The Police Youth Choir's task was lending its voices, singing a series of alleluias and ooo-ahhs, punctuated with the words "faith, hope and understand."

At the rehearsal, Dotson stood before them, his finger pointed, as the cassette began to play. He called on the sopranos, then the altos. "Sing bigger," he urged.

Over and over, they practiced the alleluias, concentrating on timing and their notes.

"We're getting there," Dotson said. "Remember those ooos."

As they sang, Dotson scrutinized not only their voices, but their appearance, adjusting the straps on one singer's coveralls and ordering them to take their hands out of their pockets.

"This is big for us," said Dotson. "As a team effort, this is a blessing."

About 50 students from schools throughout the city belong to the Police Youth Choir. Their musical talent, while considerable, is secondary to their commitment to stay in school, make good grades and stay out of trouble.

"I try to teach them to feel what's going on, to hear the message," said Dotson, who has directed the choir since it started in 1994.

When Twain's representatives asked him to furnish a choir of nine children, he selected some of the most dedicated members of the group, along with four drummers from the Robert C. Marshall PAL Center marching band who would perform with the star on the final song of the concert.

Ashley said she joined the choir about a year ago because she has enjoyed singing "since I was really, really little."

She confessed to being nervous about appearing before the expected crowd of 13,000 people and performing with a big star, noting, "I don't want to make a fool of myself."

La'Tonya said she was looking forward to meeting Twain and getting her autograph: "She can write it right on my forehead."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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