The Sandtown Children of Praise Choir's members live in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, on the west side of town. It's a careworn community where it looks, at least on the surface, like there wouldn't be much cause for joyful singing.
Yet singing with joy, skill and energy is what these 45 children do, as they will tonight at the Meyerhoff in a tribute for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They have already won three national awards competing against other youth gospel choirs. They have one CD out called "Voices of Hope: Chatter With the Angels," and recently finished a second CD called "Cover Me," to be released in February.
Last Friday, when most people in the Baltimore area were trying to avoid the wintry, icy weather, the Sandtown Children of Praise Choir held its late-afternoon rehearsal as usual.
And there was a bit of griping. "Sometimes I'm mad because of all the practicing," said 12-year-old Dyneesha Stewart as she waited for rehearsal to begin.
But the children are excited about tonight's performance, their first time appearing at the Meyerhoff. The idea made Dyneesha reconsider. "Most of the time I am happy," she said.
The choir began in 1993. It grew out of the music program at the New Song Community Church, at Gilmore and Presstman streets. The children are ages 8 to 14 and all live in the west side community of Sandtown-Winchester.
In the beginning, no auditions were held. Children who had a love and commitment for singing were invited to join. Now, due to the choir's immense popularity in the neighborhood, there are auditions.
"We have had up to 50 people, but that gets a little hard to manage," said Shelly Harris, the choir director.
The choir plans a national tour this spring to promote the new CD. It has already performed at the 1996 mayor's inaugural concert and at other events. The choir is on the verge of big things, Harris said. "I can feel it."
Its members have already surpassed everyone's earlier expectations, including their own. "We may have had our dreams," Harris said. "But not in my wildest dreams did I think we would go this far. I feel as if we are right now on the edge. Performing at the BSO it's amazing."
Steve Smallman, a New Song Community Church pastor and the choir's keyboardist, said there was one wish when the choir began. "Our only hope was to give the kids a musical experience," he says. "But now, for the kids who have talent, we want to see them go as far as they can."
Smallman and Harris have found that, along the way, the choir has been beneficial in other ways.
"It teaches discipline, learning how to be part of a community, to depend on other people. If one person fails or succeeds, it affects all. They also have the joy of seeing how other people like it. And not just their grandmothers," Smallman says. "It is also an outlet for releasing energy. It is something they are proud of."
Terrell Johnson is proud. The 12-year-old has been in the choir for about five years. He has noticed growth.
"When I first got in, I was kind of confused," Terrell said. "I didn't know the songs. I couldn't rock to the beat. I had no rhythm. Today, I can rock to the beat. I can hit the notes. I think more about what I'm doing. I take pride in what I do."
The sleet is falling outside, but no one mentions it. Harris lines the kids up in the church sanctuary while Smallman takes his place at the keyboard. Harris raises her hands; all eyes are focused on her. Smallman strikes a chord, and the singing begins.
Who: Dr. Henry Panion III, conductor; Thomas Young, tenor; George Arnold, narrator; One Voice Ecumenical Choir and Sandtown Children of Praise Choir
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: Tonight at 7: 30
Cost: $5; free for children 6-12; children under 6 not admitted
Pub Date: 1/12/99