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Carroll County Times
Carroll County

McDaniel College gospel choir director Shelley Ensor earns state arts grant for lifting voices in joyous song

Though only about a dozen masked students were present to raise their voices in song during a recent rehearsal for McDaniel College’s gospel choir, Shelley Ensor worked to make them sound like many more.

“You can make a small group sound big,” said Ensor, who has led choirs with up to 70 members. “They are so passionate, so amazing.”

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On Thursday evenings, Ensor, senior adjunct lecturer at McDaniel College, can be found holding court in Levine Hall, where she conducts weekly gospel choir rehearsals. Alice Dorsey, Ensor’s mother, accompanies on piano.

Ensor, 57, has been singing all her life, first performing with her siblings and then with various groups from church choirs to jazz bands. Though she has no formal musical training outside of a few clarinet lessons when she was young, Ensor’s talent has been recognized with numerous honors. She was recently named the recipient of the 2022 Maryland State Arts Council Heritage Award, which includes a $5,000 grant.

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“When we were asked to submit an artist to be considered ... there was no question that it would be Shelley,” said Walt Michael, founder of Common Ground on the Hill, Maryland Folklife Center. “She is a treasure.”

Ensor, of Owings Mills, has been part of Common Ground since 1995, as a performer, teacher and director of its gospel choir. The Mid-State Folklife Center for Carroll, Frederick and Howard counties, Common Ground is in residence at McDaniel, where Ensor has led the college’s gospel choir since 2012.

“From her appearance as a soloist at the very first Common Ground on the Hill concert in January 1995 to over 25 years as director of the Common Ground Gospel Choir, Shelley Ensor has been a pillar of our work,” Michael wrote in an email. “She is revered by her McDaniel College students, leading them in a joyous gospel choir that rings out over the campus and beyond.”

Glenn Caldwell, chair of McDaniel’s music department, said “you can’t find too many people” with Ensor’s talent for gospel and jazz.

“They don’t give these things out like pancakes,” Caldwell said of the Heritage Award. “They recognize her contributions to the state and county for many years.”

The Maryland Heritage Award program was initiated in 2007 to recognize long-term achievement in the traditional arts, Ryan Koons, folklife specialist for the Maryland Arts Council, said in an email. A panel of artists, cultural workers and/or previous grantees score the nominations on a pre-established rubric, he said, to select the winner.

“It was such a humbling experience,” Ensor said, of receiving the award. “I am so grateful and honored.”

Award recipients can use their winnings as they want.

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Ensor plans to use her grant “to continue to provide and expand the virtual concerts and workshops to those that need it during this time.”

During the pandemic, Ensor led McDaniel’s gospel choir in virtual rehearsals and then held a virtual concert. Ensor also was able to attend and participate in numerous virtual performances that she may not have been able to if they had not been virtual, she said.

“It was such a plus,” Ensor said. “If you look for it, that silver lining is always there.”

McDaniel’s gospel choir hasn’t performed a live concert since fall 2019, Ensor said, though in-person rehearsals have resumed.

“They were so happy to be in the same room singing together,” Ensor said.

Before the pandemic, “you could really feel the power” of McDaniel’s gospel choir according to Caldwell. “We are still rebuilding in a number of ways,” Caldwell said. “Shelley is always a pleasant person to be around, and the students pick up on that. She’s good with them.”

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Tracey Ackah, a senior at McDaniel who has been performing with the school’s gospel choir since her first year said Ensor is really enthusiastic and obviously loves music.

“She’s amazing and really cares about the students,” Ackah added.

Ensor is grateful for the support and love she received from her families at home, church, McDaniel and Common Ground. In March 2013, Ensor nearly lost her life when she contacted pneumococcal pneumonia that led to sepsis and the loss of both her legs, her fingers, and the tip of her nose.

Her support system kept her going, she said, from Caldwell coming to the hospital to confirm what pieces she would be performing in July to Michael promoting her for an upcoming performance.

“It was an incredible moment,” Ensor recalled. “I was in a wheelchair, two weeks after having my legs amputated, and Walt asked if I would do his Christmas concert. I thought ‘does he see me?’”

She did perform in Michael’s concert and was even able to walk out onstage to do it. She did not miss one Common Ground concert that season either.

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“We all have our journeys,” Ensor said. “I am extremely blessed.”


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