How is it possible that Hollywood still hasn’t made a movie about what the Eastern High School choir did in 1988? It would be “Rocky” meets “Pitch Perfect,” with a bit of “Stand By Me” thrown in. Just reading the newspaper clippings from 30 years ago made me want to stand up and cheer.
“I never have known how we got invited,” said Joyce Garrett, who directed the choir at Eastern from 1972 to 1999. In 1987, after the singers had performed well at a gospel music competition in New York City, she received an invitation in the mail to something called the International Youth and Music Festival, to be held the following summer in Vienna.
Garrett remembers wondering whether she could even consider the trip, given that her singers came from a poor Southeast Washington neighborhood at a time when the city was in the throes of a murderous crack epidemic. Most of the students qualified for free lunch. Some lived in group homes.
But if Garrett had doubts, she didn’t show them. The Eastern choir was invited. The Eastern choir would go.
The city rallied around the kids. The choir held bake sales and other fundraisers. After stories in The Washington Post, readers donated to the cause.
As the money trickled in, Garrett worked her singers relentlessly, with three-hour practices every day after school. Only two of the 54 choir members could read music, so she would demonstrate their parts, then have them sing back to her.
Students learned to sing one of the competition’s mandatory numbers — the Polovtsian Dances from the Alexander Borodin opera “Prince Igor” — in German. Garrett brought in a German teacher to go over the words phonetically.
“The music that they really, really loved and knew how to sing was gospel,” Garrett said. “That was the music of their world.”
Garrett was going to show them another world.
“I wanted them to sing it in the style that it should be sung in,” she said. “I didn’t want them to sing classical music in gospel style. I wanted it to be appropriate. I wanted it to be authentic. And they did it. They really did it. But it took a lot of hard work.”
The work wasn’t all musical. Garrett took choir members to German restaurants in Washington to expose them to the cuisine they could expect overseas.
Garrett went with them to the passport office. She assured skeptical parents that this could actually happen, that kids who had barely been out of their neighborhood really could go across the sea and be the first all-African-American choir to compete at the prestigious event.
“It was a battle all year long,” she said. “But we raised $160,000 to take those students to Europe.”
Each student brought two performance outfits: a formal one and an informal one. For the casual costume, Garrett decided against the light blue of Eastern. She picked red, white and blue. After all, the singers were representing not just their school but also their country.
The competition itself was an odd thing. When each of the eight schools sang, only the judges and the other competitors were in the audience. Eastern wouldn’t be feeding off the energy of the crowd, as the students had so often done before.
When the scores were tallied, Eastern placed second, behind London’s Latymer School, founded in 1624. The Eastern kids felt like champions. (No third place was awarded. The judges said there was too great a gap between the top two finishers and the rest of the entrants.)
For the rest of the 10-day trip, the Eastern choir did a mini-tour, performing across Austria and Germany. The students returned to Washington as heroes.
“The very first day back, I got a call from the White House,” Garrett said. “Ronald Reagan wanted us to come and do a mini concert in the East Room.”
Then NBC’s “Today” called, along with “CBS Sunday Morning” and others.
“Music gives you a way to express what’s inside you, but I used it as a vehicle to teach other things,” Garrett said. “I decided when they came back I was going to use that classroom like an incubator for positive thoughts and action.”
AyeSha Brock was an Eastern junior in 1988 and an alto in the choir. She lives in Fort Myers, Fla., where she works with homeless people and the chronically ill to reduce their dependence on the emergency room.
“We got to see something that we wouldn’t have ever seen otherwise,” Brock said of the trip to Europe. “When you go and see how other people live, when you see other environments, then you’re stretched on the inside. You can never be the same. You’re always going to be wanting more or reaching for more or pulling other people up. We learned that from Ms. Garrett. . . . She stretched our souls.”
Members of the Eastern High School Choir are reuniting Saturday, July 7 at 5 p.m. for a public concert at the National Church of God at 6700 Bock Rd. in Fort Washington, Md. There will be five different collections of singers, representing the school’s choirs from the 1970s, the ’80s, the ’90s, the 2000s and that celebrated 1988 choir. Tickets are $20. For information, visit EasternChoir.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.