In a city inundated with many stellar gospel choirs, one group stands out as one of the country's best.
The New St. Matthews Church Chorale was awarded 2nd place in the annual 2015 Ford Neighborhood Awards, which is sponsored by the Steve Harvey Show and State Farm Insurance.
The four-part choir competition is one aspect of the annual awards show, also called the "Hoodie Awards." In addition to hosting a choir competition, the show also honors local businesses, community leaders, high schools and churches across the nation.
New St. Matthews entered the competition in April 2015, when some congregants suggested that Daniel Smith, the church's pastor and choir director, consider submitting a performance video to the competition committee for consideration.
"I'm not an inherently competitive person, but they made some strong points about how the experience could be a unifying factor for the choir, so I decided to submit it," said Smith, who sent the video to judges in May.
After two months without word, he began to doubt whether they were invited to participate. But in late July, Smith finally received news that St. Matthews was formally invited to the next three parts of the competition, which would take place in Atlanta, Ga.
"It was a great accomplishment for the choir and a testament to the amount of work it had put into perfecting its performance," said Rev. Smith. "I knew we were gifted and had a solid chance to excel in the competition and I am glad that the judges agreed."
The New St. Matthews Church, located at 5530 W. Harrison, has a choir which consists of approximately 25 singers. On the Friday prior to the event, the ensemble rode to Atlanta via bus a mere week-and-a-half after receiving the news that their video had given them a first-round victory. The group needed to choose four songs to perform in the competition and have their act ready by the August 9 show. The troupe stayed in a nearby hotel for the weekend and left Atlanta the day after the event.
The choir sing-off consistent of St. Matthews and seven other choirs competing in a second-round performance where audience applause would dictate which choir would advance to the next round. The format was one minor quibble that St. Matthews singers Jeria Winston and Kenneth Caldwell expressed about the event.
Unlike the standard format of three to six judges offering performance scores, verbal feedback and collective insight on the teams that have performed for them, the audience applause scores prevented the choir from tailoring their performances to the judges and receiving the critical evaluation that would help them improve their performance in the future, Winston said.
"I thought that we had a solid chance in the competition, but I must admit, I was worried when I saw how the teams were going to be judged," he said. "It's always difficult to tell how much crowd support a team may have in the audience by both home field advantage and busing in members of their congregation and I worried that this might have a greater impact on the results than the quality of the performances."
"It would have been great to have a rubric or actual judge to offer commentary both on their expectations and places we can improve," said Caldwell. "But given that we were performing for a crowd that largely didn't know us, we felt incredibly blessed to have made it as far as we did."
After advancing past round two and becoming one of the last four choir's standing, St. Matthews was dealt its first minor stumble, when Pastor Smith decided to switch the song the choir had planned to perform in the last round to the third instead.
"I felt that this song we had prepared for the last round would have given us our best chance to advance to the final round," said Rev. Smith. "It was a song that we had practiced tirelessly, but when it comes to performing in front of a crowd, it is highly important to be as prepared as possible for every stage to limit mistakes and create fluidity in the act. However, once there is a sudden shift, it can negatively impact a singer's momentum."
Caldwell, a two-year member of St. Matthews Choir, vividly recalled the moment Rev. Smith chose to shift the track listing.
"We were in a great flow at the time and we were ready to sing the song we had prepared for round three," said Caldwell. "When it was shifted, there was some immediate worries, but by show time we were ready to go. It eventually turned out well."
Caldwell said that the choir was able to perform so well despite the pressure and the occasional butterflies, in part, because of the amount of time and work Smith places on preparing the choir for every performance.
The choir members playfully call him "Pastor Ike," because his obsessive attention to details and hard-driving pursuit of perfection reminds them of Ike Turner.
"He doesn't rest until we have all of our parts down," said Caldwell. "He can be a bit hard at times, but he wants to assure that we are performing to the best of our abilities and we strive for the same level of effort from ourselves."
Although the team would wind up losing to the eventual champion — the University of Virginia — in the final round, it still won second place and a $5,000 prize for the team. Quite an impressive ride for a choir that began as one of hundreds of competition entrants.
"It was an amazing experience," said Winston, a five-year member of the adult New Matthew Inspirational Chorale and a resident of suburban Maywood. "Going through the travel, and practice and highs and lows with the other vocalists brought us closer together as a unit."
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