By Rita O’ Sullivan
In the beginning they could do 2 of 3 things. They could clap and sing. They could rock and sing. Or they could clap and rock. What started as 13 students with little experience of gospel singing beyond a great love of the music has become the rocking, rousing NVCC Gospel Choir, now celebrating its 10th year bringing this joyful music to the college community and beyond.
The 10th anniversary year will culminate with the annual spring concert at the college in May. Previous concert venues have included the Mattatuck Museum Arts and History Center, Westover School, B'Nai Israel Synagogue, the Meriden Mall at Christmas-time, and many area churches.
"My most moving experience as a participant in the Gospel Choir has been singing at the Meriden Mall," said Marie Catuccio of Watertown, a member since the choir's first year. "I was so elated to take the gospel message out of the school halls and into the market place. I felt that was where we should be." Many shoppers stopped to enjoy the Christmas spirit.
The choir has participated in memorable Martin Luther King/Black History Month events at B'Nai Israel Synagogue in Southbury, and has also provided choral accompaniment for several plays written and produced by a NVCC professor, one of which was performed at the Mattatuck Museum.
The Gospel Choir was formed in 2000 through the efforts of Mr. Stuart Gillespie, former head of the music department at NVCC. He was seeking ways to involve more students in the music program and felt that a gospel choir would attract a diverse group of singers and would be a good addition to the existing musical offerings in the department.
Mr. Gillespie approached James Hurdle, a choir director at Zion Baptist Church in Waterbury, to help in establishing a gospel choir at NVCC. Mr. Hurdle, who is also a teacher at Waterbury's North End Middle School, was initially reluctant to accept the offer, thinking it beyond his abilities. However, he now admits that this decade as a gospel instructor has been a special experience. "Gospel singing," according to Mr. Hurdle, "is truly a ministry in itself."
Mr. Hurdle likes to quote Mahalia Jackson, the queen of gospel music: "When you sing gospel, you have the feeling there is a cure for what's wrong."
The Gospel Choir is composed of students and community members, several of whom have been with the group since the first season. This core group, affectionately called "the founding sisters" by Mr. Hurdle, forms a framework of an established gospel choir that new students can fit themselves into each semester without the need for starting a whole new choir each academic year. Blending the energy of new students with the experience of Gospel Choir veterans gets the choir performance-ready in short order.
The group sings modern and classic gospel songs, based on old Negro spirituals, incorporating jazz and rhythm and blues. Improvisation by soloists is welcome. "We are not bound by the notes," said Mr. Hurdle.