They were songs born out of slavery, yet they describe salvation with music as soulful as when first sung by servants in bondage.
Students from the Jones High School Concert Choir performed choral arrangements of Negro Spirituals in Orlando's stately Peabody Hotel at a reception for a consortium of arts and cultural organizations. Their voices drifted across the room, wafting like melodic breezes onto a patio in the open air, where members of the press and dignitaries savored fine food and the company of artists.
When Choir Director Darlean Coleman raised her two fingers, the students hushed, and then, precisely on cue, launched into the first song. The entire room and adjoining patio fell silent. It was as if a band of angels had finally come to life from statues in green satin dresses and black tuxedos. Relaxed facial expressions tensed, the choir's focus riveted on the director's eyes that commanded every face until Darlean's elastic wrists signaled the student pianist to begin.
The audience was captivated. It was the wonder of good voices and the open fascination adults maintain for young people in whose talent, hopes, and aspirations the future lies.
"Critical to their success is their focus and concentration,” said Rudolph Cleare, the spirit behind an organization he founded in 1997 called the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation. “These are ninth to twelfth graders,” Cleare said. “They have a sense of how important and how historic this music is. As a result their sound is more rich in tone and certainly more finished, more polished, than you would ordinarily expect.”
Rudy Cleare is a tall, articulate man who cannot help but sing, even when he stands in the background during a choir performance. Born in Nassau in the Bahamas, he graduated from St. Augustine's High School there, earned a degree in biology at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida, and ultimately completed graduate degrees in theology and education from St. Meinrad College in Indiana.
"[The Scholarship Foundation] was established to create a legacy for now-deceased Bishop Thomas Grady of the local Catholic diocese. It also honors the career of Curtis Rayam, a graduate of Jones High School who now has a career as an operatic tenor," Cleare explained.
He said they are trying to preserve and reintroduce the practice of singing choral arrangements of Negro Spirituals. They connected with Jones High School because it has one of the best choral programs in the United States, according to Cleare.
Jones High School is Orlando's only fully urban, predominantly black high school. "It has a forty-year tradition of teaching strong vocal skills, basic music technique, and polished vocal performance. Ms. Darlean Coleman gets all the credit for their vocal education and development," Cleare said.
Metropolitan Opera standards
The creation of the non-profit Foundation not only insures preservation of Negro spirituals as part of the literature of American classical music, it opens horizons for performance by providing scholarship assistance for talented young people.
In January and February the Scholarship Foundation holds auditions around Florida. "It is a Met-audition vocal program, the only one of its kind for high school students that we know of," Cleare said. "The Metropolitan Opera in New York has a standard of vocal competition for singers to enter their Met Opera cadre of vocalists. We use these standards for our vocal competition," Cleare said.
Winners of the competition gain tuition-assistance scholarships toward college. The scholars can go to any accredited four-year college they wish and study any major they wish. "We encourage them to audition at schools that have a strong music program," said Cleare, who serves as the Scholarship Foundation's Executive Vice President.
"They like to sing this love song because it gives them a chance to dance and get close. They think I don't know, but I know," Ms. Coleman smiled. Her students in the choir laughed as they performed a medley of popular songs, diverting for a moment from traditional spirituals.
It was great fun to watch and clearly fun for the students to act out the simple story of a love song. When it was over a subtle signal from Ms. Coleman brought the choir together, and right on cue, they again launched into a song of faith.
Nothing is easy in the work of the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation. Rudy Cleare and Darlean Coleman work together to cope with issues that students have outside school. "Many of these students come from seriously disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Jones High School is a school that has to make sure the students have eaten before they get to school," Cleare said.
Linked to other cultural organizations around Florida, the Foundation uses student performances to demonstrate the "vibrancy of young people," according to Mr. Cleare.
When asked about his own role in creating the Scholarship Foundation that has provided young people with the potential of a college education that otherwise might not be possible, Rudy answered modestly, "I'm just a guy who likes music. These kids are still teenagers with teen insecurity.
“When I ride home with them on the bus after a performance, they are astonished that people really liked to hear them sing. They get what the best high school athletes get. It makes them realize that their hard work is worthwhile. Their performance is another layer of education for them. They come in contact with a new world."
In a modern world beset by woe and warfare, it is right that a tradition of song, born of people in bondage, lifts the spirit through hope and the promise of better times