For gospel’s version of ‘American Idol,’ a lot of practice and a lot of faith

Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - From left, Elijah Gelser, Anna Brown, Etienne Lashley and Brittany Ray of the Gentle Giant Music Ministries Choir rehearse.

It’s like “American Idol” without the idol, a contest that’s a celebration. It’s the fifth annual “How Sweet the Sound” gospel competition, and it’s coming to stadiums and arenas around the country.

Six gospel choirs will perform Wednesday in the Washington regional competition, disciplined in the music, holding on to their faith. Their voices will be sharpened to precision, their praise dances choreographed for attention.

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The winning group will go on to the national event Nov. 4 in New York, where seven choirs will vie for a chance to win as much as $50,000 in cash and prizes and the crown of “best gospel choir in America.”

On a recent Thursday night, Germantown-based Gentle Giant Music Ministries is practicing in a Northeast Washington church for the Washington competition.

There is little time for play in the Lord’s house. Time is of the essence. “We only have two weeks,” choir director Nathanael Brown says.

“Let’s do it one more time and get out of here,” says Reginald Bowens, the arranger, who has flown in from Cleveland with music he wrote for this contest. He wipes his brow. Teaching a choir a new, complicated arrangement for an old gospel song takes perseverance.

“Again, again, again,” Bowens says. “One more time, altos. One more time, add sopranos. One more time, second altos. Add first altos. Add tenors to that. Awesome.

“One more time, and hold that chord. . . . ‘Looooord.’ ”

Acquiring that crown of glory will require faith, good voices, a good arrangement.

“It is a demanding competition,” Brown says. “These are first-class choirs in this competition. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve never seen a competition of this magnitude.”

High-powered judges

The judges and hosts for the Washington regional match include some of the biggest stars in gospel. Yolanda Adams and Donald Lawrence are planned as hosts. The judges are Bishop Hezekiah Walker, Fred Hammond, CeCe Winans and Erica Campbell, who performs with her sister, Tina, in the Grammy-winning duo Mary Mary.

Erica Campbell said she will be looking for “the precision, the voices, the song, the togetherness, the choreography, that ‘it’ factor that makes one choir a step above the rest.”

“How Sweet the Sound” began as a pilot program in Memphis in 2007 as part of a community relations effort sponsored by Verizon’s multicultural marketing department. The turnout was tremendous, the music was amazing, the choirs sang their hearts out, and organizers realized they were on to something, said Linda Stewart, a spokeswoman for the national and regional tours. Since then, the competition has expanded to seven regions: metropolitan Detroit, Dallas, Atlanta, Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington.

The competition has grown in concert with the popularity of gospel, which has claimed the title of fastest-growing genre in the recorded-music industry.

Why gospel? “I think there is something that just connects with everybody who wants to feel better, do better and feel like they are not in the world alone,” Campbell said. “That is a chord that is struck in all of humanity, whether you are a young kid or a mother trying to manage children and a career or a man who is trying to strive for something greater, there is always a song that tells you you can make it in life.”

‘Believe what you sing’

Mary Mary has been credited with helping to bring more fans to gospel. The duo’s first single, “Shackles,” became a crossover hit with R&B, hip-hop and pop listeners. It was quickly followed by a string of hits, including “God in Me” and “Go Get Your Blessing.”

“We write songs that tell you you can win,” Campbell said. “We don’t make music that is about being superhuman, that makes you feel like you have to be perfect.”

Campbell, whose parents were choir directors, said she enjoys hearing traditional and contemporary gospel music during the competition.

“I love that ‘How Sweet the Sound’ gives a platform to choirs,” she said.

The six finalists for the Washington regional competition are 4 the Caz of Christ, from Pittsburgh; the Harvest Life Changers Church Choir of Woodbridge; the Virginia State University Gospel Chorale, from Petersburg, Va.; the 100 Men in Black Male Chorus, from Durham, N.C.; Elder Patrick Riddick and D’vyne Worship, from Norfolk; and Gentle Giant Ministries.

This is the fourth year that Gentle Giant has competed in the contest. In 2010, it won the regionals in the small-choir category. This year, it’s going for the top prize, best choir overall.

Director Brown chose “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” for its theme of deliverance. “Everybody in a lifetime has been through something where they need some kind of help,” he said. “In this song, it speaks of a man named Daniel going through tough times, and God was the only thing that allowed him to overcome the circumstances. People need to know there is hope.”

The secret to a good performance, Brown says, is understanding the song’s message. “You have to believe what you sing.”

Brown faces his choir. They have been practicing two, almost three hours. The night is growing late. The sanctuary is dark. The church lights flicker. “Let’s do it one more time,” he says. “From the top.”

browndl@washpost.com

How Sweet the Sound

starts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Verizon Center, 601 F St. NW. 202-628-3200. 202-397-7328. www.verizoncenter.com.

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