|She's Got the Beat: Make a Joyful Noise|
I joined the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir several years ago and was immediately impressed by the diversity of its singers. Ages range from seven to 70, and singers come from as far away as Barton, Morrisville, Corinth, Waitsfield, St. Johnsbury, and points in between. It’s a non-auditioned choir and, as such, includes singers of all skill levels.
You don’t have to read music to join; in fact, John Harrison, the choir’s director, hands out song sheets with only the words, no musical notation; he teaches each section of the choir its part by playing the song and then singing together.
The only requirement is a love of singing, and that is evident every Monday evening at rehearsals. One choir member put it this way: “I look around at the people in the choir and know we would never all be in the same place if it weren’t for this.”
It may sound crazy, but two white Jewish guys started this gospel choir in Montpelier 20 years ago, and it’s still growing stronger. The Montpelier Community Gospel Choir has been exciting audiences around Vermont since 1994. And its story is remarkable enough to warrant a diversion from my usual focus on Vermont women musicians.
Andy Shapiro (no relation) wanted to bring more people into the church, and thought starting a community choir would be the way to do that. Bev Keck was the choir director at the time and has been with the MCGC since the start. She describes the two Shapiro founders as “messianic Jews” whose goal was to carry the message of the gospel through music.
Shapiro was a well-known pianist, composer and music professor at Johnson State College, and Fred Shapiro had been a professional blues singer in Boston before becoming a minister.
Meanwhile over in Plainfield, Scottie Harrison and her husband John were getting together with their neighbors over potluck dinners to sing old spirituals and, as John Harrison recalls it, “make up harmonies.” Andy Shapiro heard about this and came to ask if they wanted to come sing with the nascent Baptist group.
The group started out with about 15 people, with Andy Shapiro conducting from the piano. When he became ill a couple of years later (sadly, he died in 1998), John Harrison stepped up to help out, though he had no formal background in directing.
“Believing I could do it was the hardest part,” he says now about it. During this time Harrison was enrolled at Johnson State and received a BS in Jazz Performance, graduating summa cum laude.
When I asked the Harrisons if, back at the beginning, they could have imagined the choir would be celebrating a 20-year run, both said, “Not in a million years.” Dartmouth College and Plattsburgh State each host student gospel choirs, and Burlington’s New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church puts on an annual gospel fest. But there has been no other ongoing gospel choir singing and performing consistently for such a span. So what accounts for this success?
Veteran choir members (nine have been with the choir for the entire time) attribute the longevity to a sense of shared community, friendship and support, the simple joy of singing and Harrison’s talents, personality, and passion for the music.
Choir members testify to the genuinely welcoming and supportive community the choir provides. Add the diverse collection of people who pitch in to make sure the behind the scenes work goes smoothly, and everyone ends up with a winning ticket. Harrison credits the collaborative community effort: “ So many people participate in making it all happen. It’s a co-creation.”
Months of practice come together into a professional sound just in time for the concerts that now draw hundreds of gospel fans. For the last few rehearsals, a five-piece band joins the choir. It features some of central Vermont’s finest musicians, who plug in to add a rousing, soul-shaking sound. Max Bronstein is on piano, Keith Gibson on drums, John Ryan on bass, Ira Friedman on organ, and Andy Pitt on guitar. In recent years, ace audio engineer, Rich Davidian, has upgraded the live sound for concert-goers by working his mixing magic.
Behind the scenes a strong board and many choir members volunteer additional work to keep the organization functioning smoothly. Their support ranges from fund-raising, to bringing baked goods for post-concert receptions, from transporting and setting up the risers for the concerts, to producing the shows. MCGC Board Chair Emily Seiffert has a background in marketing, and says she is working to “modernize our systems a bit.”
Since those early days, the choir outgrew its space at the Baptist Church as more and more people joined. The group size increased to a consistent current membership of between 70 and 80 regular singers.
In addition to annual concerts and performances put on by the full group, there is a “small” choir, whose reduced size allows them to travel more easily to venues beyond the Montpelier area. Traveling light without a back-up band, they sing a cappella. Even this smaller group has doubled in size over time and may soon be dubbed the “medium-size” choir.
Before joining, I wondered about the religious expectations of being in the choir. Would it feel uncomfortable to people like me, who want to sing but have no allegiance to an established religion? I was surprised to discover that members run the spiritual gamut, from the deeply religious to non-believers. All are welcomed.
Most people come simply from a desire to experience the sense of joy and energetic connection with others that comes from singing this kind of ebullient music together. But veteran member Bev Keck believes strongly in the power of prayer and speaks of the importance of joining at the start of each rehearsal. She says, “The gathering circle is an important part of coming together, uniting our hearts to think as one. It gets us ready to focus on what we’re there for.”
Emily Seiffert adds, “The choir is a place you can experience spirituality together in a neutral territory.” Another member remarks, “I think we all expand and become better people, in the presence of so much shared community joy and suffering.” The group, like any long-lived community, has experienced deaths and illnesses along the way. Spirituals sing of tribulation.
But joy seems the group’s calling. Many members have joined up after attending a concert, heeding Harrison’s call to come and be part of the fun. As director, Harrison is clear about the choir’s ecumenical intent. In his typical irreverent style, he has been heard to quip, “If you don’t want to say Jesus, just say Cheez-its!”
Harrison is not only a gifted director and talented musician; he leads with a humor that at times approaches hilarity. He possesses a rare spontaneous wit, often accompanied by comedic facial expressions that can bring 75 people to tears of laughter in seconds. A mixture of wise guy and prankster, he is one of those playful souls, who uses humor as a great equalizer.
Harrison’s musical background is eclectic but is rooted primarily in African American music: from Al Green and Earth Wind and Fire to rockabilly to the great fifties singer/songwriter, Louis Jordan. (Forgot who he is? Think “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”)
Harrison spends untold hours listening to gospel music and selecting songs for the choir. He does all the vocal arrangements, writes the charts for the band and composes many of the songs that are now part of the choir’s repertoire. It is difficult to imagine the choir without him. At the very least it would take on a different flavor and energy.
Harrison believes that “People are hooked on their sorrows, and getting in touch with the joys is what we need. Gospel music lets us do that.” He wants concert audiences to hear a blend of “great timeless gospel and contemporary gospel.”
Old standards like the Winan’s “I Feel Like Going On,” or the Mississippi Mass Choir’s rendition of “I’m Not Tired Yet” are still moving when sung by choir soloists Rosemary Wereley and Denise Bailey. But Harrison’s compositions like, “Gospel Train,” “Grateful,” and “Many Waters” are quickly becoming new favorites, well known in their own right.
Harrison stresses the importance of rhythm. He works with the choir to physically feel the groove of gospel music. If you walked into a Monday night rehearsal, you might see and hear 70 people tapping their open palms on their chests to physically capture the rhythmic beat of a song Harrison is teaching.
One longtime choir member attests that Harrison “works really hard with us to get the best sound we can, but when we get to concert time he says, ‘you’ve all worked hard, now don’t worry. Go out and have a great time and enjoy yourselves.’”
And we clearly do. The jubilation experienced by choir and by audience is visible and palpable. As Keck says, “The joy the singers give is reflected back from the audience.”
Harrison talks about the actual chemistry change in one’s energy this music produces. “You are uplifted and brought together and reminded of your connection to each other and to the divine. Ultimately it’s a gain for all, and gives you what you need.”
Many choir members expressed a common experience of coming to the weekly rehearsal feeling tired after a long day, and always feeling energized and rejuvenated by the time they leave; one said: “Sometimes I have to drag myself in there, but I never drag out!”
Come and get energized with the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir on Saturday, December 7, at 7 pm at the First Universalist Church in Barre, and on Sunday, December 8 at 4 pm at the Bethany Church in Montpelier. And check us out on Facebook and on the choir’s web at www.vtgospel.com.
As Jill Purce wrote in Being in Tune: “The heart and the voice are one. If we open the voice, we open the heart.”