Student-led gospel choir builds community through song

The creation and performance of music is a shared experience that has brought people together across centuries, cultures and geographic borders. Gospel music in particular is a deeply communal experience, with roots in the black oral tradition and African-American religious practices, tracing back to the early 17th century. The music typically incorporates repetition and call-and-response, a practice which originated from the desire to allow those who could not read the opportunity to participate in worship and strengthen communal bonds.

This rich history of community engagement through gospel music lives today at NC State in the Uninhibited Praise Gospel Choir, a student-led organization affiliated with the music department that aims to minister through song, encourage vocal growth and create a positive social environment for members and audiences alike. Uninhibited Praise typically performs several times each year, primarily in formal concert settings or gospel festivals. 

This past fall the student leadership decided to try something new in order to embrace the communal mission of both the choir and gospel music in general, and share the experience with more people. They held their first community choir class, open to anyone at NC State. The event gave participants an opportunity to experience a choir rehearsal without having to go through the formal audition process first. 

People who don’t have musical experience can be intimidated by the musical world,” said music director Gabriel Montague, a junior majoring in statistics. “So we started by teaching them some terms and breathing techniques. We wanted to break it down and take it step by step in a no judgment atmosphere.”

Members of the choir and class participants came together to learn and rehearse the song “Total Praise” by Richard Smallwood. The workshop gave the choir an opportunity to connect both with potential new members and the broader NC State community in a new way. 

“People see us in a formal setting at the concerts and see us performing but don’t necessarily get to see what goes into it, and we don’t get to interact with the community as much,” said Montague. “Being able to interact with people will make those performances more meaningful.”

Montague enjoyed the chance to work with community members and connect people through music. There can be challenges in working with a large group of singers with varying levels of experience, but he enjoys taking on new challenges as music director. His other big challenge came during Red and White Week when the choir performed for the Chancellor’s Celebration of Philanthropy in Stewart Theatre.

When the group was approached to perform, they were given a specific song request — “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman — to fit with the theme of the event. The song was a departure from their traditional spirituals and gospel music. Montague tackled the challenge head on, arranging the song to fit their style and voices.

“It was cool to make it our own and give it a choir feel. It was a great opportunity for our creativity,” he said. “We were doing a song that’s not our usual repertoire, but still giving it our own sound, putting our stamp on it. Getting able to enter the stage with a little bit of choreography and be a little more theatrical was also a great opportunity.”

In addition to preparing a piece outside of their usual genre, Montague faced a communication challenge during the performance. Given the space constraints on the night, the choir’s band was placed up in the catwalk, far above Montague’s head and out of his sight line. “None of us knew they’d be up there until the night of. When we practiced, they were on stage with us,” said Montague. “So I made sure to be very visual in my direction. It required a lot of trust. The choir had to rely on me and I was relying on them as well. You just go up there and do what you know and everything will fall into place.”

Now the choir is the largest it’s been since Montague joined, and they’re looking forward to engaging with even more members of the campus community this semester in their next community choir class and upcoming concerts. Students interested in joining Uninhibited Praise should email uninhibitedpraise.ncsu@gmail.com. Their spring concert will take place on Sunday, March 29 at 1:00 p.m. in the Talley Ballroom. Follow them on Instagram @upgcncstate for updates.