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Calvin Gospel Choir Releases New CD
September 25, 2007

Gospel Choir CDThe Gospel Choir at Calvin College is releasing Then Sings My Soul!, a CD celebrating 10 years of live performances. The collection, funded by the Calvin music department, will be available through the Calvin Campus Store.

Then Sings My Soul!, is a compilation of 23 songs from concerts the choir has performed in a decade of tours to everywhere from Oshkosh to Philadelphia and California to Ghana.

“Usually a choir goes on tour and then records the tour. I didn’t want to do that,” said Calvin music professor Charsie Randolph Sawyer, the director of the Gospel Choir. “I wanted to make it a celebration of 10 years of various participants through the years."

Sawyer also recently has released an instructional DVD for keeping gospel choirs in spanking vocal health. The DVD, which retails for $39.99, is available through the Calvin campus store.

Instructional DVD for Gospel Choirs was created to train choir directors and singers in proper technical skills, posture, breathing and breath support, tone quality, vowel and style uniformity and resonance.

Charsie Sawyer“There are a lot of DVDs for choral singers -- classically trained singers who sing in the European style,” said Sawyer, herself a classically trained opera singer. “Singing gospel requires that you maintain proper breath control and proper breath support and technique.”

The 150-minute DVD contains a total-body warm up, unique vocal warm-ups or “vocalizes,” a review and checklist for singers, reflection questions and voice basics for excellence in singing. It’s not necessary to take all of that training in one gulp, Sawyer said. “You can take a 15-minute section at a time. You may say, ‘Today, I just want to work on posture, for instance.’”

Maintaining vocal health is crucial for singers of every music genre, Sawyer said.

“Vocal cords are very delicate, and you have to treat them like an athlete treats their body. If you don’t warm up your body before you start, you can tear them.”

The DVD will help speakers as well as singers, she said.

“Any choral person will benefit from this. Even preachers will benefit from this because it talks about how to maintain a healthy voice.”

Sawyer has used the techniques she teaches in the DVD to rehearse the Calvin Gospel Choir, and several of its members are featured in the DVD. She kept her teaching style down-to-earth and even amusing.

“I didn’t get into any huge pedagogical terms,” she said, “because I wanted it to be accessible to any person.”

Sawyer loved bringing the two different sides of her musical personality together for the project. “I’m so blessed to be able to walk in both worlds,” she said. “I’m trained in classical music and reared in gospel. I love versatility in singing. I love singers who can sing an aria and then get down to grassroots.”

The music on the CD is as wide-ranging as the choir is, combining spirituals, African music and anthems with both contemporary and traditional gospel songs. The collection even includes a rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, accompanied by the Calvin orchestra.

“I like the choir to be versatile,” said Sawyer.

At 120 voices, the Gospel Choir is the largest student choral ensemble at Calvin. The choir is also inclusive, welcoming the handful of faculty and staff members who want to join.

“It’s a come-as-you-are choir,” said Sawyer. “You don’t have to audition.”

The Gospel Choir had its origins in the 1980s as a student organization. Sawyer became its conductor in 1996, when she came to Calvin from teaching in Omaha, Nebraska. However, though she holds the baton, the choir is still partially administered by a steering committee.

“I love for them to have ownership because it’s still their choir,” she said, “and if I have a student who I feel is an absolutely wonderful conductor, I let them conduct.”

Most remarkable about the Gospel Choir, she insisted, is the sense of community that is created as the group rehearses and performs together.

“What makes a choir a unit is they get to sing as one,” Sawyer said. “And at the end of every rehearsal, we gather in a circle, and they give praise reports and pray for concerns. It’s a church service. That’s what I think is so amazing.”

Travel strengthens the bonds within the choir, she said. The group has sung in places as different as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California and the churches in Ghana.

“We will never forget the slave castles of Ghana,” Sawyer said of that tour.

While on tour, the choir often meets up with alumni who want to reconnect with the group.

“In California on tour last spring break, we saw students who were in the Gospel Choir 10 years ago who were still talking about how much it meant to them,” Sawyer said.

She also received e-mails from alumni expressing their gratitude for their time with their choir experience. The history of the choir has featured another kind of love connection as well.

“We’ve had a lot of matches made in heaven through the choir,” said Sawyer!

Pictures of various tour locations and of many of the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses who sang in the Gospel Choir since 1996 decorate the booklet accompanying Then Sings My Soul.

“You see not only the choir singing, but also having fun,” Sawyer said.

Listed inside the booklet are all 800 names of the choir members from those years -- an editorial decision on which Sawyer insisted.

“They are just a wonderful group of students who love to sing and worship,” she said. “I am so grateful that I’m the director of the gospel choir.”

~both stories written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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