High energy, an upbeat and contemporary arrangement of an old favorite and a director who couldn’t stand still brought a crowd to its feet and a regional win to a Missouri Baptist choir.
Faith Celebration Choir from Faith Baptist Church, Festus, won the St. Louis regional round in Verizon’s “How Sweet the Sound” competition to name this year’s “Best Choir in America.”
The audience and judges alike didn’t expect the choir’s energy, Faith’s music minister Michael Nickelson said. The choir, dressed in black formal attire — men in tuxedoes and women in floor-length gowns — took the stage and began the song slowly.
“As we stepped out in our formal wear, people were expecting to hear an anthem or a traditional hymn,” Nickelson said. “The audience and the judges thought we would be traditional…but from the moment we started, they knew we were different.”
The choir offered Nickelson’s arrangement of “Soon and Very Soon,” and was the last group to perform in the competition.
Gospel singer and songwriter Lisa Kimmey-Winans, who performed at the event at the Scottrade Center on Sept. 21, agreed, calling Faith’s choir “the surprise of the night.”
“They came out in super-elegant black attire and began to sing a very austere version of the song [“Soon and Very Soon”], which was lovely,” Kimmey-Winans wrote in her blog posted on the contest site (www.howsweetthesound.com).
“However, they started to move and then the band broke out in a Proud Mary-like feel and whoa! The whole audience was on their feet and they sang that song for all it was worth!”
Early in the performance, Nickelson whipped off his tuxedo jacket. He moved back and forth across the stage, pulling every energy-laden chord from choir members and encouraging them to move with the music.
Faith Celebration won in its category and was named best overall, beating seven other choirs to take the top spot. The choir’s performance also garnered the People’s Choice Award by audience vote. The choir took home $15,000, and each member received a new cell phone and gift card.
Eight choirs competed in the St. Louis region — four each in the large church and small/medium church categories. In the large church category, the Faith Baptist choir faced Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis Choir, Metropolitan Inspirational Mass Choir from Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings and the New Sunny Mountain Missionary Baptist Church Chancel Choir in St. Louis.
Small/medium churches included three St. Louis choirs — Higher Heights Christian Church Music Ministry, Liberty Community Worship Center Choir and Tabernacle of Praise Seventh Day Adventist Church Choir. The fourth entry, Rezonate from Church of the Resurrection, is based in Leawood, Kan.
Enthused by the diversity the Verizon event attracts, Nickelson was impressed that the audience responded to Faith’s all-white choir. “There was no racial barrier. When a reporter asked the judges why, they responded, ‘because music breaks all barriers,’” Faith’s minister of worship said.
Kimmey-Winans expressed similar feeling on her blog. “It has been incredible to see choirs consisting of different ethnicities, age demographics and styles all coming together and sharing in this event. It really speaks to the unifying power of gospel music,” she wrote.
When asked why the Faith Baptist choir chose to enter the contest, Nickelson said, “I saw the promotion and thought it would be a good competition. I thought it would be a good opportunity for our choir.”
The performance, which can be viewed on the event, the church and Word&Way Web sites, has attracted attention and garnered the choir several requests to perform.
Nickelson hesitates to accept too many. “We want to keep our focus on worship, not to become a performance choir,” he said.
Verizon plans to continue offering the competition in the years ahead. What began as an individual’s idea has blossomed into an event that reaches into 11 major cities.
Company spokesperson Erica Sevilla explained that the competition started with one of the firm’s marketing consultants in the South who wanted to create an event that would foster community participation.
“He realized that gospel music is something people are very passionate about and began looking for a way to connect with people. In all religious backgrounds, there are people who enjoy gospel music,” Sevilla said.
The event began with a pilot in Memphis on Oct. 6, 2007.
To compete in this year’s event, choirs submitted a video performance for the first round. Judges chose top choirs in each region to compete in live performances in the 11 selected cities.
The overall winner in each regional city — Houston, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, Los Angeles and Oakland — receive an all-expense-paid trip to Detroit where they will compete for the national title on Nov. 7.
Verizon’s charity, Hopeline, benefits from the event as well. The firm encouraged each participating church to collect and donate no-longer-used cell phones. The phones are sold to a recycling company, and money earned is used for new wireless phones and airtime for victims of domestic abuse. Verizon also donates funds to shelters and domestic abuse programs.
Choirs in the St. Louis regional contest collected 1,409 phones for the project.