Merlene Davis: A Festival of Choirs works to build community

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 6, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    What: A Festival of Choirs, featuring The Lexington Singers, The Voices of Bethsaida, Jimtown Baptist Church Choir, and First African Baptist Church Choir.

    When: 4 p.m. Sat., March 9. Free.

    Where: Shiloh Baptist Church, 237 E. 5th St.

    Information: Call (859) 338-9888.

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Once a year since 2001, The Lexington Singers have joined forces with choirs from predominantly black churches in the area not only to share a love of music, but also to entice a few of those choir members to join their 64-year-old community chorus.

"I think it has worked," said Ron Walton, the former Fayette County Public Schools superintendent who came up with the idea for the annual "A Festival of Choirs."

"We have more African-American singers today than in 2001 when we started it," he said. "We have been very pleased generally with the outcome of the festival."

Still the numbers are only inching upward despite the outreach.

There are 180 vocalists in the community chorus and about a dozen are black, said Jefferson Johnson, Singers music director and director of choral activities at the University of Kentucky.

"It's not great, less than 10 percent," he said. "But it is better than we used to be."

But he sees the festival as an opportunity to do more than just grow the numbers.

"As a music director, I look at this as an opportunity to build community," Johnson said. "Music is the perfect vehicle for that. I've seen it happen over and over and over again. The unity of community happens with music. When people sing together, they bond."

The festival features three choirs — The Voices of Bethsaida (Bethsaida Baptist Church); Jimtown Baptist Church; and First African Baptist Church — along with the Singers.

Each group is allowed 12 to 15 minutes to perform on the program which also includes brief talks and the passing of the collection plate. The finale will feature the choirs and the Singers performing together.

Walton, who was president of the Singers when the festival started, said he sought the help of retired public school music teacher Charles F. Little Jr. to recruit area choirs. "That's the only thing I do, really," Little said.

Walton joined the Singers because, he said, before serving as schools superintendent in Lexington and in Indiana for 30 years, he was trained as a music teacher.

"Music is in my blood," he said. "I taught music for five or six years and I played violin."

Walton's not sure why more blacks haven't joined the Singers. Maybe it is the stress of auditioning, which is required.

"I imagine some people — not just African-Americans, but some white folks, too — don't want to go through an audition process," he said.

Could be.

Little said one reason also might be that the Singers usually read music and many gifted musicians in black churches don't do that.

"High schools have singers who read," he said. "I don't know what happens to them when they leave high school. I would love to see more African-Americans in the group, and I would love for (the Singers) to go and sing in places where African-Americans are."

Despite the lackluster numbers, Walton is not discouraged.

"We just want to continue having a good relationship with the minority community," Walton said, "and this is one way to do it. Even though we may not have gained as many African-American members as we would have liked, we have made inroads."

So even though the prediction of warm weather may entice us outside to do needed yard work, Little and Walton agreed we should carve out time Saturday afternoon to have our spirits lifted.

"People need to come out to support a good musical program that is done well," Little said.


IF YOU GO

What: A Festival of Choirs, featuring The Lexington Singers, The Voices of Bethsaida, Jimtown Baptist Church Choir, and First African Baptist Church Choir.

When: 4 p.m. Sat., March 9. Free.

Where: Shiloh Baptist Church, 237 E. 5th St.

Information: Call (859) 338-9888.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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