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February 14, 2005

Singers Find A Home In
Voices Of Freedom Gospel Choir

The Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir.

The Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir performs at von der Mehden Recital Hall. The choir, with some 80 members, blends music, spirituality, and camaraderie.

Photo by Lanny Nagler

The rehearsal hall resonates with a soulful sound, but the director wants just a little more passion.

“Let’s hear it,” says Lisa Clayton, beckoning to the alto section. She moves closer to the singers: “One, two, ready … we praise you … That’s right. Now, I hear it.”

It’s Wednesday evening and Clayton, director of the Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir, is putting some 80 singers through a rehearsal.

The choir is open to all students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as members of the community. There are no auditions. “Just bring your heart and enthusiasm,” Clayton says.

The group, which performs in schools, churches and colleges, as well as at on-campus events, meets every Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Music Building. Participants may enroll in the choir for course credit (one credit), or just participate for fun. It’s also a registered student club.

These days, rehearsals are a bit longer than usual: The choir is in the process of recording a CD that’s due out in March. Several songs have been written by students.

Clayton, who has directed the Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir for nine years, says an array of people have been in the choir, “from professors to people from the town, Hartford, and New London.” One choir member, a UConn graduate, comes to rehearsals from New Jersey. The people in the choir “really feel an attachment,” she says.

“The first day I set foot on campus, I was asked to lead the choir,” says Clayton, who earned a master’s degree in vocal performance from UConn in 2000.

Clayton’s life has been devoted to music. “I grew up in a wonderful small town and was in the children’s choir in church,” she says. “It was a great atmosphere, with a lot of camaraderie.”

When Clayton auditioned for the choir at Paine College in Augusta, Ga., the director told her she was a soprano, not an alto. “I was very surprised, because I had been singing alto all my life,” she says. “I had only sung the high notes in the shower.”

Clayton graduated from Paine College in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in music education.

Phyllis Anderson, the choir director at Paine College, was one of her mentors. “I use a lot of her techniques – what she did to bring camaraderie to the group and what she did to have us come together, almost as a family,” Clayton says.

One of the traditions she picked up is Rookie Night, held during the last class of the semester.

“Those people who have been in the choir for one semester share some kind of gift or talent with us,” Clayton says. “Some sing, some dance, some play instruments – all kinds of wonderful things. It gives me a chance to see what other talents they have, because often new people will sit back and let the old ones sing all the solos.”

Charmaine Smith, who is majoring in sociology and women’s studies and will graduate in May, has been in the choir since she was a freshman. “It gives me a little piece of mind,” says Smith, who has been vice president of the choir. “I work so much, I can’t experience church as much as I’d like. The choir is a getaway from the outside world. It keeps our faith grounded.”

James McMahon, a sophomore majoring in history, joined the choir “because of my love of Gospel music,” he says. “It’s been a real blessing for me to get to know all these people.”

Tiffany Walker says participating in the choir has been a “stress reliever and a lot of fun.” Walker, a nursing major, transferred to Storrs from the Hartford campus. “I was lonely at first,” she says. “When I joined the choir, I met a lot more people. Everybody is really friendly.”

Daniel Hutcherson, a communications major who comes from Georgia, says “It’s the closest thing to a type of church setting down south.”

James Davenport, whose grandfather is a bishop, says the choir is “my version of church. I can’t always get to South Norwalk,” he says. Davenport, a senior majoring in psychology, sociology, and women’s studies, is the choir’s treasurer. “The choir has enabled me to meet people from different walks of life. It has been one of my most wonderful experiences at UConn.”

Choir members say Clayton is inspirational.

“When you have a teacher who is so excited to teach, you want to do well,” says Alfred Guante, a Spanish major, who is the choir’s president.

Clayton, an ordained minister, is on the ministerial staff of the Phillips Metropolitan Church in Hartford. She is a lecturer in music at UConn and a music theory teacher in the Hartford school system.

She says the choir members are like family. “They’re my babies,” she says. “I love to watch them grow and mature.”

The choir is going on a concert tour March 4 through 7 and is currently raising funds to offset expenses. Donations are welcome. Checks may be made out to Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir and mailed to James Davenport at the African American Cultural Center, 2110 Hillside Road, U-3180, Storrs 06269.