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Lessons in the key of life


For the moment, this room in the Murphy Fine Arts Center is filled with all the chatter and noise and energy you would expect from close to 100 college students crammed inside on a rainy afternoon. Then Nathan Carter bangs out a few notes on the piano and barks out a few instructions, and out of the chaos a wondrous harmony emerges as the voices join into the Morgan State University Choir.

It is a scene repeated almost every afternoon during the school year on the Northeast Baltimore campus. Hour after hour, under Carter's direction, students sing - together and solo, basses and sopranos, altos and tenors, performing songs and practicing scales and drills as they internalize pieces of music.

Many of them are majoring in business, engineering or other subjects, yet they devote themselves to this art with the same intensity that others in college approach football or basketball.

"I came to Morgan because of the choir," says Cortez Mitchell, a sophomore from Detroit who is a mathematics major and second tenor.

"I love to sing," he says, something repeated by most choir members who are asked to explain why they devote so much time to this pursuit.

Though the minimum expected of the 150 choristers is three hours of rehearsal a week, most devote much more than that, probably six hours of afternoon rehearsals, sessions in the evening and performances most weekends.

"I would say we put in about 20 hours a week," says Mitchell. "It is hard, but I did manage to maintain a 4.0" grade point average.

Even more work is involved during a week like this. Today, about half of the choir will board a plane for Prague in the Czech Republic, where members will perform in concerts culminating in a performance of "All Rise," a symphonic work by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. They will be gone for 10 days. This week, rehearsals were held almost every night for the singers making the trip.

"If you know how to manage your time well, you can do both," says Kimani Feaster, a computer science major from Ellicott City, one of the few freshmen going to Prague. It will be the first time he has been out of the country.

"The choir is without a doubt some of our greatest ambassadors," says Morgan State President Earl S. Richardson. "They carry the Morgan message all across the United States and abroad.

"Imagine, some of these young people who had never been out of the state where they were born," Richardson says. "And now they are singing in Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Center, the White House, and traveling to Europe, Africa. I've met the president of the United States many times, but most of them have met him more often."

The choir sang in the premiere of the Marsalis work in December at Lincoln Center in New York with the New York Philharmonic. Carter said that when the Czech orchestra decided to perform it, the choir was invited to repeat its role.

He has drilled members again and again in the quick changes that sometimes seem as sharp and sudden as the ones Marsalis can make with his trumpet.

"We preach not only music, but learning good work habits, discipline, responsibility," says Carter. "We expect them to be punctual and to look sharp."

Carter says that figuring out how to take care of studies while singing and traveling is almost as important for the choir members as learning how to hit the high notes. "All these things work hand in hand," he says.

Carter says students are given notes to take to their teachers explaining their prolonged absence. "It is their responsibility to keep up with their studies while they are gone," he says.

Kirk Carrington, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, says professors give choir members appropriate readings and allow them to take tests in advance or take makeup exams.

"But some, like my world history teacher, didn't give me any work," Carrington says. "He said he would rather we be out absorbing the culture than inside studying."

Carrington says the choir has taken him places he thought he would never go.

"You get to meet a whole lot of people - dignitaries, people from foreign countries, the type of people you would watch on TV," he says. "You are introduced to a sophisticated world, and you learn how to handle yourself. When I'm an engineer, I'm going to have to make presentations on my proposals. From the choir, I will know how to stand up in front of people and perform."

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