A popular Washington area gospel group opened one of its practice sessions recently with body bends and stretches, followed by dance movements, vocal exercises, drills in music theory, then scripture reading -- before it got to the songs.
This was no ordinary choir practice, for Wesley Boyd's Workshop Choir is a gospel ensemble unlike any other.
As it demonstrated in a performance in the National Theatre's intimate Helen Hayes Gallery a couple of weeks ago, the group's striking appearance, classical technique and contemporary sound put Boyd's choir in a class by itself.
Elegantly attired in formal dress, the singers successfully wedded the restraint of classical training to the raw emotion of gospel song from a jubilant rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," to the rousing encore, "God Will Take Care of You," that brought the audience of about 50 persons to its feet.
"My approach is European," said director Boyd, who formed the Workshop Choir six years ago, "but I don't sacrifice the spiritual part. I let them choir members express that in themselves.
"You allow for the spirit, but the spirit is intelligent because God is. I teach my choir intelligent, emotional catharsis -- what we do for God should be intelligent."
Boyd, a charismatic figure, who at the age of 39 is considered a pioneer in gospel music, is known for his teaching of "diaphragmatic singing," a technique of singing from the diaphragm used by many professional singers.
"Many would think that's marring the tradition," said choir member Wanda Lumpkins, 30, alluding to gospel as a trademark black American style created out of the blues and slave spirituals. "But gospel music just isn't for black people because we do it. It's 'the truth' and it's for all people."
By overlaying the diaphragmatic singing technique onto the characteristic emotionalism of black gospel music, Boyd said, he is keeping the music alive and taking it places it seldom goes.
"It is sort of universal that gospel music is to be screamed -- that you have to foam at the mouth and fall out on the floor," Boyd said. "But the reason we're accepted at the Kennedy Center, the Arena Stage and the National Theatre is because of the professionalism we bring to gospel music."
Last year at Arena Stage the choir got rave reviews for its part in "Gospel at Colonus," an experimental play that fused classical Greek tragedy with American gospel music.
"A lot of people don't think you can sing gospel and sing it correctly," said Jerome Bell, 25, a gospel announcer on WDCU-FM radio and choir director at New Macedonia Baptist Church in Southeast. "Wesley proves that you can sing gospel and still sing with the proper style."
Soprano Deborah Broadnax, 33, a service representative with Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., said she had reservations about the diaphragmatic technique before joining The Workshop Choir six years ago. "People would say, 'You need to take voice lessons,' " recalled Broadnax, "but I would say, 'I want to use the voice God gave me as it is.' "
Boyd said he is determined to gain for gospel music the recognition he thinks it deserves. "It hasn't been accepted until recently, but just like classical, jazz and country and western it's an art form . . . and I want to preserve it before the white man comes along and makes a fortune off it . . . .
"Blacks don't have that much -- music is the one thing we do have -- gospel and jazz and blues. It gets me that our own people won't grab hold and preserve it and elevate it."
The Workshop Choir got its name from a gospel music workshop that Boyd held in the fall of 1979 at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Northeast Washington. Three hundred people each paid $5 for a week of instruction in several music-related courses including voice, piano, the history of black gospel music and the business of music.
Since that first workshop, choir members have come and gone, Boyd said, but now he has a core group of about 25 vocalists and four musicians. The workshops have evolved into three-hour rehearsals on Wednesday evenings.
"I believe in preparing an individual," Boyd said.
At a recent workshop in the basement of the John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria, Gary Vincent, a 19-year-old music student at the University of the District of Columbia, who is also a dancer and actor, opened the session with 30 minutes of bends, stretches and kicks. An hour of breathing and vocal exercises followed the dance movements. Then Boyd, seated at a piano, randomly drilled choir members in music theory.
Tenor and bass singer the Rev. Eric Cooper, 27, assistant pastor of Petworth United Methodist Church, read from the scriptures and gave a sermonette on the meaning of success. The choir spent the final hour of the workshop perfecting songs, then ended with a prayer.
The group's hard work has paid off, it seems. The choir was among 10 finalists for the Mayor's Arts Awards, in the category of "excellence in an artistic discipline."
Boyd, a native of Reidsville, N.C., emerged from what is known in gospel music circles as "the Howard experience," a reference to musicians and vocalists who, like him, were educated at Howard University in the 1960s, have the contemporary gospel sound and noticeably combine talent, technique and credentials.
"If I was to be classified," Boyd said, "I would say I'm contemporary with traditional flavoring -- I can't forget that."
Other members of this new movement include Henry Davis, Leon Roberts and Richard Smallwood, director of the renowned gospel group the Richard Smallwood Singers, of which Boyd is a member and business manager. Smallwood produced the Workshop Choir's only album, which was released last fall.
Ernest White, 37, a journalist and gospel broadcaster at WDCU-FM, said he first met Boyd and Smallwood when he was a Howard student and they were putting together the Howard University Gospel Choir.
White said Boyd's approach to gospel music "combines all of the great things that have been a part of traditional gospel music, but incorporates new sounds and styles."
Boyd often scouts the Washington area for talent. One of his discoveries is pianist and songwriter William Hubbard, 26, who is the music director for the Workshop Choir and a full-time student at the University of the District of Columbia. Hubbard wrote four of the 10 songs the choir sang at the National.
Boyd is invited all over the country to conduct workshops and has been sought out by nationally known gospel artists for his counsel. The Rev. Donald Vails, 36, who has released 14 albums, said he "used to sing with too much chest tone" until "Wesley gave me some very good suggestions on how to improve and get a good head tone and how to make the sound more forward."
The contemporary gospel sound that Boyd and others have developed is not without its critics. Many older churchgoers and fundamentalists object to the changes. Theodore King, 53, the minister of music at Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ in Riverdale, praised Boyd's sound highly, but he had a warning about contemporary gospel music in general.
"One has to be very careful with gospel music," King said. "I feel that gospel music is a tool of the sacred worship . . . it can become very entertaining, but it's not entertainment."
"I'm afraid that some of the youngsters are using it as entertainment rather than for its original design."
If anyone can successfully blend the traditional and contemporary sounds in gospel music, his admirers say, it is Boyd. "Wesley can do all of it," Bell said, "classical rendition, traditional rendition and then go into contemporary."
"That's one reason why he can perform for various audiences. If the audience is mixed, Wesley can pull out something for everybody and everybody's happy."