Her choir members call her "Mother Berkely," and during her rehearsals she has the last word -- in fact the only word.
"Repeat after me," said Shirley Berkely, 61, as she stood between the 11 rows of sopranos and six rows of altos and prepared to offer them an incentive, "If I do well . . . I may get a break . . . again . . . If I do well . . . I may get a break."
She then reminded the choir members that they would be singing "on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday."
"You might need a break."
Then the old chapel, once the main sanctuary for Union Wesley AME Church on Michigan Avenue NE, erupted into a singing session that Berkely used her entire body to direct.
She was preparing her D.C. Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America for the organization's 23rd national convention, which begins in Washington today and continues through next Friday.
Award-winning artists such as the Rev. James Cleveland, Walter Hawkins and Milton Brunson are expected to be on hand for her 170-voice choir's concert marking the beginning of the convention.
"We are singing several anthems and I want to make sure everybody is comfortable singing in preference to just a few people holding the choir together," Berkely said during the practice this week.
In her choir, she said, "Everybody stands on their own feet."
The D.C. chapter choir was scheduled to participate last night in a pre-convention concert with the Richmond chapter at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.
The D.C. choir's performance tonight at the Washington Convention Center will open the gathering, in which thousands of people are expected to participate.
The Gospel Music Workshop of America was founded in 1968 by the Rev. James Cleveland, 58, who has spent most of his life recording gospel music with many large groups and choirs. Cleveland has received 12 gold and platinum albums and has two Grammy Awards.
Cleveland said he has made it his personal work "to perpetuate and upgrade the quality of gospel music for this generation and generations to come . . . I'm not tired of bringing that to the forefront."
The Gospel Music Workshop of America concerns itself with stage appearance, presentation, wardrobe, hygiene and musical talent of the choirs, according to Cleveland.
The national convention will feature concerts and midnight musicals each night as well as workshops on gospel music. Workshop officials expect nearly 5,000 people will participate in a mass choir, which will rehearse daily and conclude with a concert and recording session.
"Today," said Berkely, "we are teaching vocal techniques to our choirs in preference to just teaching songs." Berkely also said one of the things she is most excited about this year is the convention's attention to the scholarship of gospel music.
"This really motivates these gifted singers who've never studied and think it is enough to go with their gift from God," Berkely said.
If there were any pre-concert jitters at the D.C. choir's practice, none showed as the group sang out, "Lord, Do It Again."
All through the practice singers never stopped coming in. There are many couples in the group such as Jimmy and Anita Russell. Russell plays the drums, while his wife, an evangelist who serves on the group's governing board, keeps a watchful eye.
Between songs, "Mother Berkely" was more than plentiful with anecdotes and Bible verses for her choir members, who seemed most receptive.
"The Bible said love your neighbor as yourself . . . he then said love the Lord thy God with . . . " and members joined in, "all thy heart."
Audrey Deloach sat on the last row and spoke to all the latecomers.
The choir, she explained, "is a big family who rallies to each other in time of need."
Anita Russell has been in the D.C. chapter since it was founded 20 years ago. "It was different people of different Christian denominations coming together to unite and enjoy gospel music," she said.
Curley King and several family members have been with the group since the beginning. A large man with a deep booming voice, King narrates many of the group's songs. "There are lot of youngsters who think that real men don't have time for this," he said.
But King, who works at the Department of Commerce, said the members of this group are successful people, who send out a very positive message.