One night 10 years ago, after finding out that the audition for the Men and Women of the Gospel Mass Choir sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society would be "colorblind," I found the courage to try out. I was surprised to make the cut. Since that day, I've been taught by many gifted choral teachers.

Recently, on my 61st birthday, I resolved to offer the opening prayer at rehearsal. I wanted to name and honor all our leaders, particularly Arphelius Paul Gatling, for giving so much of themselves for our development.

Because I am the only white in this group, and a Jew at that, I had never dared speak up before in prayer circle. Sadly, I missed my chance that day. Another person already had been assigned to make the prayer.

Then, on a Saturday morning last month, as I drove to rehearsal through a swirl of falling leaves, I thought, "Maybe I'll pray today."

When I arrived, though, I learned the sad news that Paul Gatling had died of a massive heart attack the night before. Our rehearsal was canceled. I wept and prayed. We all did.

Memories of Paul's first rehearsal flooded back. Paul was a large man nearing retirement when he took over the choir. He was different from the other vocal coaches before him. We tried mightily to please him, but we had little success. Our best did not appear to be good enough.

Indeed, Paul's teaching technique that first night discouraged some of us. At the end of the night, I and other faithful choir friends considered dropping out. Most, including me, managed to hang in there that first season. The result in performance was magnificent, but the rehearsals remained a challenge.

But as several years passed, this brooding man of mighty musical talent made a gradual "turn of soul." Members of the choir learned to trust him and began to relax and enjoy his funny, colorful and increasingly kind images of inspiration. We responded on stage to his masterful baton, opening our hearts and voices, reaching new performance heights in genres from classical to what we called collard green.

Paul's initial belligerence, which had held us at such a distance, melted away.

Last spring, between rehearsal seasons, Paul called in all the members of the 125-plus-voice choir for one-on-one vocal evaluations. Each of us sang privately for him, and he showed a keen interest in the musical paths we had taken.

At the end of our first rehearsal this fall, Paul quietly mentioned that he'd written up our vocal reports, and that, if we wanted them, we should see him after rehearsal. I wondered why he hadn't delegated the tedious task of handing out these written evaluations. It seemed beyond the call of duty, and I was grateful to him.

Arphelius Paul Gatling became our vocal father, gently guiding us, continually raising the musical bar while conveying confidence in our ability to deliver for him, for the audience and for the Divine. We watched in awe as he made a stunning journey of grace from a forbidding, smoldering leader to an accessible, strong and beloved patriarch. I told him that we'd noticed his remarkable transformation, and we knew how difficult it had been. We admired him enormously.

The story has it that an 18th-century English slave ship captain, John Newton, had a religious experience that turned his soul around and caused him to abandon his role in the slave trade. He later penned these lyrics to "Amazing Grace," which he set to a stirring traditional Celtic folk melody:

"I once was lost, but now I'm found,

Was blind but now I see."

I'm sure I'm not alone in having faith that somehow our group will find a leader and a way to prepare for our Jan. 29 concert.

Paul is finally free. Happy sailing, good captain.

-- Nancy Helman Shneiderman

The author with the late Arphelius Paul Gatling, who was the director of the Men and Women of Gospel Mass Choir.