By George P. Matysek Jr.
Moments into the start of an African-American spiritual called “Freedom’s Gonna Come,” the challenging song began slipping away from the A Cappella Choir at The Seton Keough High School in Baltimore.
Voices seemed tentative during the Sept. 25 rehearsal, and Sarah Larson, the instructor, had to clap her hands rhythmically at one point to help a drummer – the only accompanist – regain the beat.
“Our pitch is dropping, girls,” Larson said, waving her hands to cut off the singing. “Let’s try it again.”
The teacher sounded a note on the piano, which the students used to slide up the scale and recover. They repeated the spiritual, this time with a confidence that grew as they progressed.
For members of the elite singing group, the practice represented the key to their success: investing a lot of time and energy into being their best.
Made up of approximately 15 members, the A Cappella Choir is open to students in all grade levels who must complete an audition. An honors class for which they receive academic credit, the choir meets every other day during the school week and occasionally after school.
The choir has won first-place rankings at recent competitions along the East Coast and has been featured at events for Archbishop William E. Lori – most recently appearing as part of a larger choir at the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Gala for Education Sept. 27.
“It’s a pleasure to work with the girls,” Larson said. “I expect a lot from them, and they never complain.”
When Larson announced in April that the choir would be singing at the September gala, she also broke the news that the event was the same day as Seton Keough’s homecoming dance. That didn’t deter the students, she said. They simply changed into dresses and headed to the dance after their performance.
“They are very committed to the success of this group,” Larson said.
Jessica Miles, a 16-year-old junior, likened being in the choir to being part of a family. During bus rides to competitions or special events, the students tend to break out into spontaneous songs such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
“We all get really close and we have fun together,” Miles said.
Because the group usually sings without accompaniment and almost always in parts, a big challenge is being patient as one section learns its part.
“It can be difficult and tiresome when (Larson) has to work with different sections and you don’t understand a section,” said Melody Connell, a 16-year-old senior, “but the best part is when everything comes together. It sounds amazing.”
Last year, the A Cappella Choir sang at the historic chapel on the grounds of the St. Mary’s Spiritual Center and Historic Site in Baltimore, recording a special Christmas CD that is available for sale at the school.
The group’s repertoire includes classics such as “Ave Maria,” along with arrangements from “West Side Story,” contemporary spiritual music and many selections in Latin.
“We sing all different kinds of songs,” Miles said. “It’s fun being able to sing without having music because it’s kind of more spontaneous.”