Waiting in the balcony, the semifinalists in freshly pressed choir robes leaned over to listen to the singers on stage ahead of them. When a voice was particularly sweet or a song unusually touching, they put down cardboard fans, clapped their hands, patted their feet and shouted, "Amen! Go head! Sing that song now!"

It was the first audition of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Gospel Music Competition last Wednesday in the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, 4606 16th St. NW. Fifteen entrants vied to become finalists and to win prize money for their sponsoring churches.

The second of three auditions in Washington will be tonight at Isle of Patmos Baptist Church, 12th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE.

"It's like Sunday on Wednesday," said Michael Smith of the New Bethel Baptist Church Gospel Choir. "I can't even think of it as a competition."

The New Bethel choir was one of 80 semifinalists chosen from 200 entrants in the contest, which is being held in the Washington-Baltimore area.

From the church auditions, the field of entrants will be narrowed to two finalists in each of four categories: best gospel choir, best ensemble, best male soloist and best female soloist. Finalists will compete at the Kennedy Center July 10, where winners and runners-up will be announced.

"I thought this would be good exposure for the choir and for myself," said Clarence Bowie, New Bethel's choir director, surrounded by his 38 singers in two-tone blue robes.

"I thought we needed to get out and see what other people are doing," explained Bowie, who said he held no extra rehearsals to prepare his singers, but "prayed about it and used a song we've been doing a long time.

"I told the choir, the money would be fine, but I didn't want them to come just for the finances. If they sing and give glory to God, we have already won."

Annie M. Kearney, a New Bethel choir member since 1952, agreed, saying: "Even if we don't win, I'm glad to know our singing will make someone else feel good."

No song went unappreciated. When The King's Men stepped on stage and announced they would sing "Go Tell It on the Mountain," skeptics raised eyebrows at the five men in white dinner jackets and black bow ties and slacks.

But when the bass guitarist and the lead guitarist plucked a few strings and the men started harmonizing, people lowered their eyebrows and settled back in their seats. The men offered a contemporary treatment of the old standard that made some in the audience stand up to sway and clap.

The reputation of the Flood Gospel Singers preceded them. At the mention of their name the audience erupted in hearty applause and shouts. Halfway through their selection, "Be Ready," a rousing up-tempo tune, the four judges were patting their feet, and one tapped his pencil on the table. "Those girls are good!" Kearney shouted.

First place winners in the four categories of the competition will receive a $1,500 contribution to their sponsoring church. Runners-up will receive $750 for their churches.

Four judges, will decide the finalists. Contestants will be graded on musical selection, diction, intonation and stage presence. A final audition will be held at New Bethel Church of God In Christ, 6440 Piney Branch Rd. NW.

Admission to the preliminaries is free, but tickets must be picked up in advance at Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets or at the National Coalition of Black Church Musicians, 1118 Ninth St. NW. Tickets for the Kennedy Center sing-off are $10. CAPTION: Picture, The gospel chorus of Shiloh Baptist Church competing in a sing-off that offers $1,500 to the final winners. By JOHN DWYER for The Washington Post