Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church Mass Choir sings a hymn in rehearsal as director Garland Waller watches on.

Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church Mass Choir sings a hymn in rehearsal as director Garland Waller watches on.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

How Philly’s black choirs prepare for Easter Sunday, their shining hour

Old-fashioned work like long rehearsals combine with intricate amplification and even an app to coordinate lighting in these houses of worship.

 In “Praise is What I Do,” there is a note that Vincent Diggs can’t always hit. “I got a lot of congestion going on right now,” Diggs explained during the Men’s Chorus rehearsal at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church. “Do I have this C?” he wonders aloud. “That’s what I have to work on.”

The chorus will perform the song on Easter Sunday, so expectations are high. Eastertide is one of the busiest times for church music departments. The Christmas holiday, followed so closely by New Year’s, makes for rehearsal crunches too. And then there’s a milestone anniversary for a church, when it comes around.

Eastertide though, depending on the church’s schedule, could have choirs slated to sing on Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church followed its Good Friday services with an all-night, 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. prayer service where a song was scheduled for every hour.

Behind the scenes, some of the staffers at the churches I visited this Holy Week appeared to be burning the candle at both ends to make each service run smoothly. Choir members oblige with supplementary, often extended rehearsals.

Over at Enon, the morning praise and worship team sounded great, but the soundman thought something was off.

Listen,” he told the singers waiting. “This is an opportunity to get this sound right, so I don’t want to rush.”

The team needed a nice run-through for Easter Sunday. But so did everybody. The Tabs, Enon’s children’s choir, had to rehearse. The drummers and steppers had to rehearse. The praise team was up, but after them, the evening praise team had to go. And the mass choir was still waiting, assembled in the choir loft, to close the sound check. Garland “Miche” (pronounced MEE-chee) Waller, Enon’s director of music and arts, was running a tight ship, trying to keep things moving right along with a lineup that deep. He still had another praise and worship team to rehearse after dismissal.

It’s not just that choirs are expected to bring it in a black church. Megachurches like Enon — its sanctuary holds 5,000+ people; three services mean an audience of 16,000 — are often known for the lighting being on point, for the sound being professional.

Soundman Howard Kennedy has a system. Half of the praise team’s microphones have numbers. The other half, colors. Red, orange, purple, blue, green and brown. “Give the blue to an alto,” he said aiming to sort out the problem. He proceeded to ask each member to sing individually. The choir was understanding, but as the sorting progressed, the mood in the sanctuary grew a little restless. The results? Totally worth it.

“That’s what normally happens. It’s kind of rocky two days before. And everybody gets upset about this, and upset about that,” said Waller. “And then when the performance happens, everything’s fine.”

The Men’s Chorus at Tindley is keeping to one rehearsal per week. Musical director Theodore Thomas is splitting duties with another minister of music this Sunday, so his schedule is more manageable in comparison. The only question seems to be: What is Diggs going to do about that C?

“Once I clear this out, I’ll know,” he tells his peers. “Trust me, I’ll make it work.”

Diggs, of Tindley’s Men’s Chorus, shared the problem was really more than congestion after rehearsal ended. He has sarcoidosis, a lung disease. Robert Sataloff, chair of Drexel University College of Medicine’s Otolaryngology (ENT) Department, textbook author, editor of the Journal of Voice and a professional operatic baritone, shed light on how sarcoidosis would affect a singer like Diggs. The disease’s growths, while not infectious, can be compared to tuberculosis, as their potential damage is similar. There’s no real cure. If sarcoidosis progresses through the lungs, lumps can put pressure on nerves that “move the vocal folds,” leading to “vocal cord paralysis so the voice can be soft and breathy.” Diggs has been singing with sarcoidosis for 21 years. “Praise Is What I Do” will one of the two songs that they sing this Easter.

Meanwhile, Triumph Baptist Church’s Mass Choir has seven songs to sing. Minister of Music Sam Samuel wouldn’t allow a recording during rehearsal last week. They were still getting it together. They’ve been building towards their Easter repertoire all month. Earlier in March they had a revival; by now they’ve lost two rehearsals simply through the church being plenty booked. When a church does “The Seven Last Words,” as Triumph did Friday, there’s often a song between each sermon.

“There’s a lot of music that happens here and a lot of it you don’t get to prepare for. You just have to pray that they gonna sing. Sing the song, Anna Mae, sing the song,” Samuel joked. “They’re nervous. I’m nervous. But they’re going to do fine. I fully believe in them.”

Samuel keeps things in it together with a pretty digital choir loft. “I’m a nerd in my former life. And in my current life,” said Samuel. He leads rehearsal with his computer and the keys. Lyrics display on screens behind the pulpit away from the congregation’s view. Samuel relies on Planning Center, an app that allows him to take attendance (they pass around an iPad) and upload all the songs and updates for members to study at home. It’s tricky still, because most members are above the age 60, and might not be the most adept to the technology he sets them up with. “We pray for them,” said Samuel.

In the event that I need past two hours, I need past two hours,” he told the choir. A woman replied, “Praise the lord.”

Later in the week, Diggs felt okay. He said there’s still no telling how things would be Sunday morning, however. Didn’t seem to make a difference.  “At one time I didn’t think I was going to be able to sing because of it,” Diggs told me. “It’s a mind thing.”

“I’m not a fantastic singer,” he continued. “I just know what to sing and what not to sing… You can ad lib any way you want. You can ad lib it to fit your voice. And it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as what [the original singer] does. So the beauty of it is, do it in your own key and in your own, but keep the character.”

He’s going to leave the C alone, he said. He’ll take the song another way, but he couldn’t say how yet. His heart will decide the moment of, he explained, when he sings it.

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