THE GOSPEL TRUTH by Katie Watts
reprinted from The Petaluma Argus-Courier by permission.
Wednesday, October 27,1999
"A new community gospel choir, Wings of Glory, praises the Lord with joyful song"
During the day, Patty Graham works as a medical technologist at Petaluma Valley Hospital. If she hums while she's working, though, it's because her avocation is music.
A singer and oboe player...Graham is the organizer of the new choir on the block, Wings of Glory Community Gospel Choir. "I did it for selfish reasons, " she says. "I wanted a place to sing gospel."
Gospel, she says, is not easy to define because it comes in so many different forms. "Some think of country music or contemporary Christian. We're singing black gospel, from the blues, from jazz, what has evolved over time from the Negro spiritual to become the worship music of the black community."
By definition, Graham continues, "Gospel is religious music. One of the themes you hear all the time in gospel is us telling God he is worthy of our praise."
She became involved in gospel five years ago, when she was invited to a workshop by the Lighthouse Singers, a noted Marin County gospel group. "I knew what gospel was: you see it on TV; I'd seen 'Sister Act', so I was interested and when I went to the workshop, I was hooked.
"It's such a joyful, inclusive kind of music."
She's sung gospel and attended workshops in Marin and Sonoma Counties, where "most of the people in the groups are white, but they have black leadership."
Wings of Glory is, Graham says, "not just my idea, but God's idea." When Graham spoke of her desire for a gospel choir in Petaluma, Lighthouse Singers director Deborah Thompson offered her help "in any way." This evolved into her running an entire Saturday workshop.
"That's where it really started, the workshop and a questionnaire that indicated there was a ground swell of participants who really wanted to do this on a regular basis".
A big problem, Graham says, has been in finding someone who plays the piano the way they do in gospel, first listening to a tape and then improvising. She's been lucky enough to find Tule Zamiat. "She amazes me, how well she plays this [style of] piano, she plays it the way gospel needs to be played."
Graham says Wings of Glory has a core group now of about 30 members. They rehearse at Elim from 7 to 9 p.m. [on Mondays.]
What does it take to be a member of a gospel choir? "A love of music," answers Graham. "That's just about it. Unless you are tone deaf you can sing gospel. If nothing else, you can sing the tune with the sopranos.
"This group sings in four-part harmony. There are people who don't read music, who don't sing in another choir, and don't have any musical training, but because we learn by rote it's easy to catch on.
"A small problem exists in that a lot of us are trained musicians, and we're used to having the music with the notes and rhythm. It took me almost a year not to be a [classical] music snob."
The reason almost all of the music is learned by rote (one person singing the line to the others) is also rooted in the black tradition. Gospel began during a time when few could read, either words or music, and there was no money for music books, so the words and the music were passed from person to person in a hands-on learning method.
The attitude Graham projects at rehearsals - positive, loving and accepting - is reflected back at her by the singers. Although the group is only a few months old, it's clear the singers are there because they love what they're singing and are doing their best to master the very different style gospel requires.
Marleen Smith, who has sung gospel before, sings barefoot, explaining it takes her more deeply into the feeling of the music. "I never wear shoes when I sing.
"When you sing gospel," she demonstrates, swaying, "you never move your feet, it has to be the whole body feeling."
Later in the rehearsal, Graham comments, "You sound great- but you sound like a sweet church choir. You need to sing it in short clips, Like this." And she sings: "God. He keeps. Makin' a way for me. And yes. He keeps. Openin' doors for me!"
She goes on to explain that contrary to classical music, you're encouraged to use "S's". Also, "In gospel you are allowed to clap, you are allowed to hoot and holler and I want to hear it!"
Later, Graham comments about a particular line, "Let's sing it about four times. Sometimes, though, you keep going because it sounds so good you don't want to quit. This is not about technical perfection," she encourages. "It's about joy; about joy and praising God."