With a 40-year-long history, the Virginia State University Gospel Chorale has captivated audiences around the country and the world. After last year’s appearances on America’s Got Talent, the group toured Europe and performed at the Pope’s Vatican Christmas Concert. In today’s installment of Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp goes behind the scenes to find out what makes this Petersburg-based choir so unique.
It’s a Thursday evening, and dozens of Virginia State University students gather in the choir room at Davis Hall. This is their second, three-hour-long rehearsal of the week and it’s an important one - in the morning, they’re boarding a plane to Barbados for a concert hosted by the US Embassy.
Practicing with a full band, chorale director James Holden leads the students through the set list. Holden says part of the Chorale’s unique sound comes from using different harmonies, voicing and chords.
James Holden: In other words, if you take some of the older gospel selections, they have some of the basic, one, four, five chords, so what we try to do is kind of dress it up, adding some major sevens or minor sevens, or some 13 chords in the music.
During concerts, Holden plays saxophone with the five piece band. And in front of the choir, you’ll see Perry Evans leading the group and directing their complex and energetic choreography. Holden says it’s part of a long history they’re honoring and continuing:
Holden: It goes back to the African tradition: dancing has always been a part of Africa, singing has always been part of African tradition. Where there’s signing, there’s some form of drumming and poetry has also been a part of African tradition. Where there’s poetry, there’s music; where there’s music sometimes there’s poetry. So we try to keep that tradition alive in our concept as we play our music.
Each semester, new students audition to join the group. The directors look for singing talents, but also a good attitude and spirit. Nineteen-year-old Taylor Moyer is one of the newer members of the Gospel Chorale. A health and physical education major, she says the experience has been transformational, especially when she feels the excitement during concerts and sees how the crowds react.
Taylor Moyer: I’m amazed when we open our mouths, I get chills in my spine and all over my body when we sing and open our mouths or are doing choreography. And I get inspired when I see them getting inspired, and it makes me want to do more.
The VSU Gospel Chorale captured the national spotlight last year when they competed on the TV show America’s Got Talent. Twenty-two-year-old senior Shakyra Johnson says she thought that was the peak, until they went on a 30-day European tour, performing at the Vatican, in Switzerland, Hungary and Romania.
Shakyra Johnson: Over here it’s like, “These are college kids singing.” But over there it’s like, “Wow, these are superstars!” I never signed autographs until I went over there, I've never done anything like that, got to meet with people afterwards, and people that were crying when they came up to us after the concert. It was just amazing to see how the language wasn’t even a barrier because music just went way over that barrier.
Johnson, who’s also a songwriter and her church’s choir director, says it won’t be easy to leave the group when she graduates in December.
Johnson: We’re a family. This is more family than we’re a choir. We laugh, sing, dance, argue but at end of a day, this is our family away from home.
Johnson and Moyer say being a part of VSU’s Gospel Chorale has taught them practical things, like using your diaphragm to sing and managing a busy schedule. But it’s also been empowering, giving them the opportunity to both experience and share history, culture and music.
At rehearsal, the group works on a crowd favorite, “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” from the film, The Color Purple. Soloist Tyshia Warr’s passionate delivery draws audible support from her fellow students, but director Holden pushes her to go further. Imagine you’re on the back roads of Louisiana he says, you need to be a bit gruff and throw down.
Holden: I get goosebumps when I hear some of our soloists, when they sing, when they hit some of those notes. It can really touch my heart, I really feel warm inside, not like I’m going to scream and shout, but it just feels so warm; this person hit that note that can bring tears out of your eyes, you know? Or hit that sound that can bring tears out of your eyes. There are those moments that occur in our performance.
What’s next for VSU’s Gospel Chorale? James Holden says he’d like to see the choir reach even more milestones, becoming a major recording group that’s tapped to perform with national artists and that someday wins a Grammy. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.