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On a blustery January day, some forty Madisonians–black and white, old and young–peel off winter layers and shuffle into the church pews at Mt. Zion Baptist Church for the first rehearsal of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir

I’m intrigued, and slightly intimidated at the prospect of singing gospel. Singing was always my favorite part of church. But gospel–the original “soul” music with its roots in African American slave communities and black Christian churches–has always seemed mysteriously “other” to me. That’s probably because I grew up in New Glarus, a town of upright Protestant Swiss immigrants, not prone to clapping or shouting “Hallelujah.”

I take a few deep breaths, put my name on a sign-in list, collect sheet music and take my place in the pews with the altos. Smiling up from the piano is Madison’s gospel ambassador, Leotha Stanley, whose mission is to have everyone singing in harmony, feeling the universal spirit of gospel, as soon as possible. He’s broad-shouldered, mustachioed and good-looking; his crisp suit and tie stand out in a sea of sweatshirts and jeans.
We sing through Stanley’s arrangements. He hears everything, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly when he hears a sour note. He helps the sopranos trill through their notes, then plays through the song “You Gotta Be” for the sprawling alto section. Peering out at us, he can predict an imbalance. “We’ve got too many altos,” he says. “Who can I get to sing tenor?” Five of us women volunteer to shift over to the tenor section.
After he teaches all four parts, Leotha’s wife, Tamera Stanley, steps up to direct the singers. The two communicate easily to shape the choir’s sound. They help the basses with a bold entrance, coax out tentative middle harmonies and create dynamic swells–building the tension in the music. Then Stanley stops abruptly and looks out at us, still dutifully poring over the sheet music, trying to get it right. “Smile, people. This is gospel,” he says. “Listen to the words. You are singing about love.”
When all four parts gel, I feel goosebumps.
By the end of that rehearsal, we are clapping and swaying. Goodbye, musty hymnbook. Gospel is alive.
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