Harmony with the Lord

Naval Academy Gospel Choir gets in spirit under new director, rehearsing for CD-release concert

September 20, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

Standing before a new director, the midshipmen in the Naval Academy Gospel Choir seemed a little nervous. The music was lethargic, as though everyone was holding back. The harmonies didn't quite gel, didn't quite come together to reach that glorious depth of sound that can shake the ground and make the skin tingle.

At one point, Karla Scott, who recently replaced 17-year director Joyce Garrett, stopped and ask the Mids to raise their hands if they "don't like change." Many complied.

Still, she introduced a new song, "Amen, Siakudimisa," a popular spiritual sung in Xhosa - the language of one of the largest ethnic groups in South Africa. Translated, it means: "Amen, We Praise Your Name, O God."

Scott stomped and tapped her leg to the rhythm and paused only to teach the choir members a way of swaying and clapping with the beat.

"Tenors have the bangingest harmony in this whole song," she said, getting a laugh. "It is vicious."

The volume quickly went up, and the midshipmen - most dressed in khakis and blue shirts marked with the Naval Academy insignia - began to move freely, many singing with broad smiles. After a few measures, the various harmonies were indistinguishable, and the music became almost thunderous.

So much for not being adaptable. Sept. 11 was Scott's third practice and she plans to have the choir ready for its October concert, where they will unveil In His Presence, a new CD recorded this spring. The choir records an album once every four years.

"This is one of my favorite things," Scott said after the rehearsal. "I love ministering and teaching young people who need to be motivated and encouraged."

A classically trained vocalist who is just beginning her career as a choir director, Scott has performed all over the world, singing at the Washington funeral for Rosa Parks and for Nelson Mandela. She holds musical degrees from East Carolina University and the University of Maryland, College Park in vocal performance, and is pursuing a doctorate in vocal pedagogy.

Taking over the choir has been an honor, Scott said, adding that Garrett is a national icon in the realm of gospel music.

The Bowie resident recently gave up a job in the security industry to teach seventh- and eighth-grade English at a Christian private school in Upper Marlboro, and she sees her job at the academy as a way to link longtime passions of music and spirituality.

The midshipmen "hunger for more of the Lord," Scott said. "This is a setting where they can do that in a less formal way. It's not a church, but we can impact the truth."

In addition to producing the CD, the choir will also go to Georgia in January for the seventh year in a row, singing at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his father and his grandfather were pastors. The students also perform at high schools and churches and answer questions about the Naval Academy for prospective applicants.

In March, they will travel to Central Florida for a diversity outreach tour. Last year, they went to New York City. Admissions officers also travel with them, one reason why the choir plays a key role in recruiting minority students. About half the Mids in the 70-student choir are African-American.

Brian Williams, 19, said he was inspired to come to the Naval Academy after the choir performed at his Los Angeles high school. He had often thought of being a naval aviator, and the choir's performance sealed the deal.

"I grew up in a Baptist church," he said, adding that the concert assured him that he could continue with his religious devotion at the academy. "When you're on the Yard, you're always bogged down with being in shape and studying. You have to remember that the first part of the mission of the Naval Academy is to grow morally. That often involves religion. I see it as a chance to praise the Lord and everything he's done in my life."

A prayer in the name of Jesus Christ opens and closes each Monday practice session, and students openly discuss how their music can bring the Gospel to others.

"A lot of us focus on God and the things he's done," said Matt Minor, a senior from Kinnelon, N.J. "It's an escape from everything. Once we learn a song, and we know it, you get to let yourself go in it. When you know it well, it's just like worshiping God. It's very peaceful."

Erica Reid-Dixon, a 20-year-old junior from Dover, Del., said that while she appreciated the religious connection the choir has with a lot of her peers, she is in it for the music and the friendships.

"It's a totally different style of music than what you get from some of the other groups here," she said, noting that the choir doesn't use sheet music and learns mostly by listening. "I do feel like I'm giving worship to a higher being, but it's not on my mind when I come to practice. It just makes me feel at peace."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

The Gospel Choir's CD release concert will be held at 5 p.m. Oct. 21 at First Christian Community Church in Annapolis. The concert is free. Information: www.usna.edu/gospelchoir.

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