Eastern High School stands near the end of East Capitol Street, almost in the shadow of RFK Stadium. Two-thirds of its students qualify for the federal free lunch program. The building across the street boasts plywood windows. Imperialistic parking lots are swallowing up the neighborhood. It is not the most hospitable setting in which to make a joyful noise.

Which makes the achievement of the Eastern High School Choir all the more remarkable. If all goes well, its 65 members will fly to Vienna in July to represent the United States in the International Youth & Music Festival.

"All you see around here are negative things," says Ayesha Brock, a senior who wears a fashionably tilted white hat. "Everybody expects you to be like what they see out there, poor black kids who won't amount to anything. But then something like this comes along. We're enjoying our success."

The kids in the choir do not come from homes awash in disposable income, so they have turned to the community to help defray the costs of their $140,000 trip. They've baked cakes and washed cars, but mostly they've raised their voices.

Tonight and Friday at 8 they are presenting a pops concert, "Jam Tonight," in the school auditorium. "The show is dynamite," says Miss Eastern, Kimberly Grayton, a senior. "There's nice slow melodies and upbeat songs and a whole lot of fantastic dancing. Because everybody in here can sing. Or hold a note."

Admission is $5 and all proceeds go toward the trip.

"No one would believe that a group from 17th and East Capitol would be able to represent North America," says Joyce Garrett, the choir's director and its surrogate mother. "This is exceptional because of where we are. This is not a bunch of affluent students taking private lessons. These are students that have raw talent. Now you refine it and it becomes pure gold."

Each day after school the kids file into the auditorium to fill it with song. Their rehearsals are frenetic and rigorous. Sometimes they last five hours or more.

"There is always a lot of pressure from Mrs. Garrett because we might feel that we gave a good performance, but she might hear that something is missing," says Fredericka Gordon, a senior who is president of the choir.

Nobody seems to mind.

On stage, Thaddeus Ellis, a junior bass, pops the microphone from its stand. With the male members of the choir arranged behind him he begins to sing Larry Graham's pop hit, "One in a Million."

"Don't look to the side," Garrett barks from her position at the keyboard. "Don't put your head down."

Thaddeus' voice booms in the empty auditorium. "Love can be a game to lead us on . . ."

Suddenly the keyboard cuts out and Garrett hurries across the stage. "You're supposed to be in a line," she says to the boys. "Look at this for a line."

The line is so loosely construed that everyone laughs at the mistake. Suddenly Garrett has another idea. She calls the girls onto the stage. "Everybody get a partner." As each girl finds her favorite guy Garrett begins to arrange them on the stage.

"You sit like this," she says to Kimberly Grayton. "And you like this." She sits Aaron Blyther, a junior, down on the same chair. Aaron throws his head back in the throes of feigned infatuation.

"When Thaddeus is singing, look in the person's eyes," Garrett says. "We want this to be a nice romantic scene."

"This is kind of fun," a girl in striped shorts and a headband says.

Joyce Garrett has been refining gold at Eastern for 15 years. "Definitely the longer you teach the more difficult it becomes," she says. "But when these students turn on they really turn on.

"We've had a tradition each year that we've worked hard to have the top-notch choir, but this is definitely the height of it."

The excellence of the choir has been one of the school's strongest selling points. Ask three of this year's leading performers:

Gregory Crawley, a junior who is fond of Adidas shirts, liked to sing to himself. "One day I was listening to myself in the shower," he says. "And I said, 'Hey, I sound good.' I decided to keep on singing because I can sing. That's why I came here."

Derrick Faisson, who solos in the opening number, started singing when he was 4 years old. "My family was in the church choir and I wanted to sing with my family group," he says. "As I got older I wanted to get better. I came here to play in the band, but after I heard the choir sing I dropped the band and got into the choir."

Meshelle McNair, who has a solo in "Fame," sang in her junior high school choir. "I really came to Eastern because of the choir," she says. "I heard them sing and I thought they were sooo wonderful."

Each generation at Eastern passes the burdens and advantages of success to the next.

"I remember my first year," Fredericka Gordon says. "It was real hard. The people who were already in the choir knew how to be perfect and they knew who it was if you hit a wrong note. You always had to be above standards."

"There is pressure because we know about the great shows that have been done in the years before, and we have to keep it going," says Lawanda Cook, a junior who plays a flirtatious dancer in the show's opening.

"We're getting to be known," says Thaddeus Ellis. "So each show we do, we have to be better than what people expect."

The choir confers a certain status and arouses a certain envy. "Some people say the choir walk down the hall with their head in the air," Labresha Butler, a junior, says. "But it's not like that."

Because status confers a certain responsibility. "If you do something wrong it isn't, 'Oh, that's Fredericka Gordon,' " Gordon says. "It's 'Oh, that's that girl in the choir.' "

And that attention is not confined to the halls of the school. "When I see people from another school they mention one of two things about Eastern; they mention the choir or the band," Derrick Faisson says. "It's known all over D.C."

Practice is already three hours along when the kids slouch into the front seats of the auditorium. There are problems with the staging of the whirlwind opening number.

"Your energy is dropping," choreographer Willie Washington shouts. "You've got to bring the energy back up."

"If people don't have it right by now, it's time to start cutting them," Garrett says. She is a gentle woman who manages to be commanding without being threatening.

"We feel blessed to have a teacher like Mrs. Garrett," says Lisa Franklin, a senior.

As the band begins to play the students leap to their feet, pivot and begin to dance. In the next five minutes, they will bound up the stairs, leap from the stage, storm up the aisles and storm back down. Then they will do it again. The dance steps were not quite right.

"How hard is it to count to eight?" Washington wants to know.

The kids call it therapy. "Some people in the class have problems, but here is something they enjoy and you leave all the problems behind," says Leslie Minor, a senior. "If you took the problem out into the street, maybe you would be doing something bad. Why not come in here and do something good?"

It is that spirit, not to mention that logic, which has won the choir its expanding following.

"My first thought when we were invited {to Vienna} was, 'This is wonderful, but how in the world are we going to afford it?' " Garrett says. "When I went to my church that night I mentioned it to my friend Tom Howell and he started telling people. They were all coming over and hugging me and hugging each other and saying, 'You've got to go. You're going.' That's the meeting when the fund-raising committee was born. Tom is the vice chairman."

The price of the trip is about $2,000 per person. Each student is personally responsible for one quarter of that amount. The rest is being raised by Friends of the Eastern High School Choir. Garrett's church, Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, has already come up with $8,000.

The kids are at work on a variety of concerts, but after the holidays they'll begin to prepare for the competition in Vienna. None of the kids has been to Europe, but they've heard of "the city of music."

"A lot of great composers lived there," Thaddeus Ellis says. "Mozart and Beethoven."

The program they will sing there is largely classical and includes a mass, compositions by Mozart and Borodin and one selection by an American composer. "I'm thinking it will be a gospel song," Garrett says.

Gospel music is the group's strong suit. Many of the kids learned to sing in church choirs; it was where Kimberly Grayton got her start at age 2. It was a gospel program, performed at the Music Educators National Conference in Baltimore, that won the group its invitation to Vienna. "A lot of them feed into the gospel world of D.C.," Garrett says.

But tonight's show is strictly pops. "Fame," Michael Jackson, go-go. And everybody has a detail to sweat out.

"I'm used to singing in a group," Gregory Crawley says, "but now I have my own act. I'm thinking, 'What if I miss a word and people start laughing at me?' "

And Thaddeus Ellis has one of his own compositions, "That Special Day," on the program. "It's a love song about a relationship that is breaking up and the man is saying to her, remember the good times, that special day," he says.

Meanwhile, the group plans for its special day, the July 12 departure for Austria.

"When a black school from an area like this is going to represent our country," Ayesha Brock says, "that's so, it's just, it's so . . . It's great."

Donations can be made to Maudine Cooper, chairman, Friends of the Eastern High School Choir, Eastern High School. 17th and East Capitol streets, Washington, D.C. 20003.