Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

People in need raise voices in 'a Baltimore choir of hope'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Late on Tuesday mornings, shortly after the dining room at the outreach center Paul’s Place in Pigtown starts its daily task of serving a few hundred hot lunches to people in need, about a dozen people gather in an upstairs room to sing together.

The sound might not always be polished, but there’s no mistaking the expressiveness when this community choir called Voices Rise sings the 1972 Bill Withers hit “Lean On Me” — “Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow … We all need someone to lean on.”

The choir was launched earlier this year at Paul’s Place by two brothers with a $14,500 Dean’s Incentive Grant from their alma mater, the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.

“The cliche about being a positive force in music, of giving people artistic empowerment, is something we really believe in,” said Benjamin Buchanan, 28, who provides the keyboard accompaniment for the choir, directed by his 33-year-old sibling Douglas Buchanan. “It’s what we are both trying to cultivate.”

The chorus adds another activity for visitors and volunteers at Paul’s Place, an outreach center marking its 35th year of providing support and services for the disadvantaged in Southwest Baltimore.

Wanda Lewis first came to the center three years ago.

“I had divorced my husband, and my children had moved out,” Lewis, 67, said. “I was having trouble with my gas and electric [bills] and Paul’s Place helped me. I took some educational classes here. They reviewed my resume and helped me get a temporary job.”

Now Lewis spends part of her Tuesdays adding her warm soprano tones to Voices Rise.

“I enjoy singing,” Lewis said, “so when I heard they had started a choir, I went ‘Yes.’ Music is a sedative. It soothes you. When you’re singing, you don’t have to think about all the stuff around you.”

Despite signs of gentrification, the Pigtown area continues to have challenges.

“People in this neighborhood are doing the best they can,” said Jayna Powell, volunteer coordinator at Paul’s Place. “But there’s a lot of drug activity and addiction. What we believe from surveys is that 40 percent of our guests [the center’s term for those served there] are homeless. One of our volunteers lived in the cab of a semi truck [in an auto yard] for years.”

That volunteer, Sir Floyd, now better accommodated, is an “ambassador” at Paul’s Place — volunteers who fulfill a set number of hours and goals earn that title. Once a week, he steps away from his ambassadorial duties to practice with Voices Rise.

“I’ve been at Paul’s Place since 2014,” said Floyd, 46. “They helped me get a birth certificate and a Social Security number. They let me wash clothes here. They helped with housing. Now I help others. And I like to be a part of the choir. I have fun with the music.”

That kind of sentiment strikes a chord with Powell.

“What I know the choir does is provide one more stress-reliever for people whose lives are consumed with stress,” she said.

Paul’s Place had a short-lived chorus on the premises five years ago; it lacked the leadership to keep it going, Powell said.

Douglas Buchanan devised a model based on the successful 3-year-old Dallas Street Choir, which recently performed at Carnegie Hall and Washington’s National Cathedral.

That group has its roots in the Stewpot, a center for the homeless and hungry established in 1975 by the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. The executive director of the Stewpot and pastor of community ministries for 30 years at First Presbyterian is the Rev. Bruce Buchanan, father of Douglas and Benjamin Buchanan.

“Ben and I sort of grew up with the Stewpot,” Douglas Buchanan said. “It was kind of a second home for us. Our dad started a talent show there that had poetry, singing and art. Feeding all parts of the person was very much a part of the culture. That’s the example we got from him.”

In 2016, the brothers started discussing ways to put that example to use in Baltimore, where they both decided to stay after finishing their graduate studies at Peabody.

Douglas, who has a doctorate in composition from Peabody and now teaches musicology there, is artistic director of the Prince George’s County-based Maryland Choral Society and director of music ministries at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roland Park.

Benjamin earned a pair of master’s degrees (composition and music theory pedagogy) at Peabody and teaches at the Peabody Preparatory. He’s also director of music ministries at St. John’s Western Run Parish in Glyndon, the church that helped to found Paul’s Place in 1982.

“Ben and I both felt there was something that we were missing in our lives,” Douglas Buchanan said.

That something turned out to be a choir in a disadvantaged part of town, a choir where all are welcome, regardless of personal circumstances. No need to read music (only lyric sheets are used).

“This is about breaking down barriers,” Douglas Buchanan said.

Last fall, he applied for funding through the Dean’s Incentive Grants, started in 2016 by Peabody Institute dean Fred Bronstein to generate new ideas and initiatives from faculty and students.

With the awarding of that grant (“Ben and I don’t take a penny; we made that a stipulation,” Douglas Buchanan said), the brothers purchased such things as music folders, an electronic keyboard, a sound system, T-shirts for the choir members, and something for the singers to earn.

At the end of each 50-minute rehearsal, each singer receives a $5 gift card to use at a 7-Eleven store. The idea was borrowed from the Dallas Street Choir, which found such incentives effective for maintaining attendance. That group attracts around 100 people to rehearsals. Voices Rise has a way to go.

A handful turned out for the first rehearsal in February; the count inched into the teens a few times, but has tended to hover between 10 and 12 lately.

“What I would love to see is a consistent number,” Douglas Buchanan said. “A core of 20 seems achievable this year. It’s good for morale to have lots of people singing.”

To recruit new members, the Buchanan brothers purchased 10,000 business cards. On one side, an invitation to sing with Voices Rise: A Baltimore Choir of Hope; on the other, a reminder of free lunch at Paul’s Place. They plan to attach the cards to granola bars and pass them out in the area.

When the Peabody grant money runs out, the brothers will seek funding online (they launched a website, voicesrisechoir.org, last week), as well as under the auspices of outreach programs at St. David’s, where Voices Rise sang in May.

Among those who attended that St. David’s performance was Rev. Buchanan.

“It was thrilling to see,” he said. “There’s a spirit, a certain magic that happens with things like this. Singing in a community can help make the journey from a bad place in your life to a better place. I’ve seen it with the Dallas Street Choir, how people are moved by it — those who are singing and those who are listening.”

Voices Rise will perform during a worship service on Sunday at St. John’s, a parish still strongly involved in supporting Paul’s Place.

The brothers envision the choir making more appearances in the Baltimore area, perhaps at city festivals. Douglas Buchanan estimates a “bare-bones annual budget,” including transportation to concerts, would be around $6,000.

The group’s song list includes the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” the 1970s O’Jays’ song “Love Train” and the Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World.”

“The repertoire has to be uplifting. The message has to be positive,” Douglas Buchanan said.

Each rehearsal opens with warm-up exercises — shoulder rolls, vocalizing and humming routines. The group then works through the music singing in unison; harmony may be added in the future as skills develop.

Lisa McKenzie, 37, a Paul’s Place volunteer who takes two buses from Brooklyn to get to rehearsal, has enjoyed singing since school days and is in her church choir. She summed up the Buchanans’ appeal: “They’re down to earth.”

Added Christopher Jones: “When you think you can’t do it, they let you know you can.” As a Paul’s Place ambassador, he “does a little bit of everything here. I help put a smile on people’s faces,” said Jones, 38.

Those smiles can be seen spreading quickly in rehearsals. The upbeat moods should keep Voices Rise rising.

“I used to sing,” said Deborah Dupree, 56, who attends the same church as McKenzie. “So I decided to try the choir.”

Asked what keeps her committed to the group, Dupree said: “It’s the love and unity.”

She was soon back at her seat, joining the others in a number from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” that sounded more poignant than usual:

“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and open air ... Time to learn, time to care … Hold my hand and we're halfway there.”

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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