Ease open the door of a certain Monday night music class at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (Birmingham City Guide), and a gush of vibrant notes swells forth to greet you. The sounds ring joyous and resonant―and the instructor looks as captivated and entranced as his students.
This―for one credit hour and everlasting rewards―is the UAB Gospel Choir. It's a university course, yes, but more. For one thing, it attracts repeaters. "I've been in the group since day one in the fall of 1995, and I enroll again as often as I can," says Legretha Bates, a UAB graduate now studying for a master's degree in business administration. "At first you're coming to get a credit, but you leave here with this confidence that you can take on Whitney Houston or something."
Instilling confidence ranks high with Kevin Turner, the choir's founder, instructor, and director, who sings, sways, leads, and inspires while he teaches. "I didn't want just another choir," says Kevin, a self-described "pew baby" whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were pastors. "I wanted to start a gospel program that would earn respect."
Today, when the group performs at UAB or in concerts or churches around the state, students-turned-choir members fill the 140 green robes and sing from the heart. The occasional reunion concerts attract as many as 400 former members. "We've had more than 3,000 people come through this choir," says Kevin proudly.
"It was awesome from the beginning because of Kevin's spirit," reports Legretha. "I sing solos around town, but this is one of the most magical groups I sing with. We used to be on the quarter system, and every three months he had a new group―but it was still the UAB Gospel Choir. He can pull it all together."
Now Kevin teaches the class―and creates a viable choir―three times a year. The handful of repeaters adds consistency, but it's different each time. "Every semester the choir has to be as good as or better than the last," says Kevin. "We have CDs out, and we're on the radio, so there's a certain expectation."
Practice and Perform
Kevin achieves astounding results by training the group exactly two and a half hours during the weekly class meeting. "After the first month, I'm pretty comfortable taking them out to perform, but even then, the band's not quite ready," he explains. "I just play keyboard with one hand and direct with the other. After two months, we're pretty much ready to sing anywhere." The band consists of a bass, two horns, a second keyboardist, and a percussionist. The group's credits include appearances with Stevie Wonder, Lee Greenwood, and Ruben Studdard.
About 15&percen; of the singers come from inside the music department; the rest major in other subjects and sign on for a variety of reasons. "I can't get enough; it's addictive," says Diedra Robinson. "I didn't grow up with this music, but they treat me like one of their own. You get Birmingham's friendly, diverse spirit in this class."
Delivering Good News
Kevin quickly adds that the class teaches the gospel music form, not religion. "You can look up the word ‘gospel' and see that it means ‘good news.' It's inspirational music. I've had a Muslim in my choir, and she was just singing away. I think that gives credence to the welcoming environment. I'm not here to preach."
The program―the brainchild of then-department head Dr. Henry Panion III―aims to explore the gospel art form. "I found the secret to getting the choir to grow was not to push it myself, but to get the choir members excited so they'd bring their friends back," says Kevin.
If the popularity continues to swell, the supply of robes may need to expand upward from the 140. Supplemented by a gospel dance team and a mime group, the UAB Gospel Choir indeed spreads good news. And it earns the members an extra credit in the process.
"How can you sit there and not be touched?" says Legretha. "It's one class that stays with you forever."
Feel the Music
If you are anything like us, after learning about the stellar reputation of the The UAB Gospel Choir, you want to hear those powerful voices for yourself. Well, you're in luck. There are CDs and DVDs available, and the group is preparing the release of its brand new album that will celebrate, of course, the combination of college life and gospel music. The CD and DVD project will make its debut at the choir's 2008 Spring Concert on April 21. For more information or to purchase music, visit www.uabgospelchoir.com.
"Powerful Voices" is from the February 2008 edition of Alabama Living: People & Places.