“Electric” Energy: A Spotlight on Dartmouth Gospel Choir

The preeminent gospel group on campus blends backgrounds and beliefs in their vibrant, upbeat performances.

by Aditi Gupta | 11/8/23 2:25am

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by Abigail Salzhauer / The Dartmouth

Every Thursday, a combination of around fifty Dartmouth students and Upper Valley community members assemble in Sudikoff Hall to celebrate the joy of gospel music. They are members of the Dartmouth Gospel Choir, a Hopkins Center ensemble which performs gospel — a genre of music grounded in the Christian faith that combines hymn-like melodies with spiritual expression. The group is open to both Dartmouth students and the greater Upper Valley community. 

Grace Farr ’24, who’s been a member since the spring of her junior year, described how her love for gospel music started in early childhood. 

“I grew up Christian, so I always grew up with gospel music, and it’s always been a part of who I am,” Farr said. “The words are really encouraging and uplifting. That’s always what I’ve liked, but it’s just also been a part of my life for so long.”

For Amara Jones-Myers ’25, who joined her freshman spring, the Gospel Choir helped her learn and grow familiar with gospel music. 

“I actually didn’t really have a strong background in gospel music,” Jones-Myers said. “I’m from Minnesota, from a small town, so there wasn’t a lot of access [to gospel music]. But … I think it’s just really positive. It’s nice to have something that says, ‘The world’s okay’ and ‘We’re going to make it through.’”

Karen Harris, a second-year member of the Dartmouth Gospel Choir and longtime resident of Norwich, emphasized this “energizing” quality of the music.

“Gospel music is joyous,” Harris said, “It’s just this big, loud, happy kind of a thing in spite of all the unhappiness that we know we have in the world. It’s a very affirming experience to sing it.”

Harris also elaborated on the role of Dartmouth Gospel Choir guest director Knoelle Higginson, emphasizing how she fosters the “inclusive” and “supportive” environment of the choir. Higginson came to the choir in the fall of 2022 with years of experience as co-founder and artistic director of The Mama Foundation for The Arts in Harlem, New York City. Farr mentioned that she makes the five-hour drive to Hanover for Gospel Choir rehearsal at 7 p.m.  every Thursday. 

“Knoelle … comes to the rehearsals with so much enthusiasm,” Farr said. “She really engages with students and community members, and she’s really passionate about music and singing. And I feel like that really translates into the choir, because when your director is super passionate, it makes you want to be passionate.”

The Dartmouth Gospel Choir offers members the opportunity to form “unique” relationships, stemming from the fact that the choir is a combination of both students and community members, according to Farr.

“I feel like when I first joined and saw all the community members, I was so taken aback because I think everything we do at Dartmouth is in this Dartmouth bubble,” Farr said. “Most performance groups on campus are just … students. [The Gospel Choir] … adds a unique …  flair to Dartmouth’s performing arts because it encompasses so many different people.”

According to Harris, part of the brilliance of the choir stems from the fact that it’s “intergenerational.” 

“I think one of the beauties of this choir is that it is one of the ways where the community and the students can come together and be part of the same community in the same place,” she said. “The choir has … made a lot of us feel more connected to Dartmouth.” 

The Gospel Choir community is diverse not only in age and place of residence. Though gospel music is a style of Christian music, there’s a space in the Gospel Choir for everyone, regardless of religious background, as Harris emphasized. 

“I’ve spoken with my other gospel choir director about what it means for people who aren’t Christian to sing this music because I’m not Christian, I’m Jewish, and I sing liturgical Jewish music [outside gospel choir],” Harris said. “But I find [gospel] music really spiritual. As long as the choir directors feel okay about me being there singing it, I feel like it’s an extension of my spirituality.”

Farr also spoke to the fact that, though gospel music as a genre is rooted in the Christian faith, there is a great deal of religious diversity in the choir.

“All of our songs for the most part are gospel and so, inherently, you talk about God and Jesus and those are large parts of the songs,” Farr said. “But I think that it can be as religious or nonreligious as you want. There’s a ton of people [in Gospel Choir] … who aren’t religious and just go because it’s fun.”

According to Jones-Myers, this idea of freedom in faith is shared among all members of the choir, including Higginson.

“Anyone can come,” Jones-Myers said. “It’s really just about the community and you can think about [religion] in any fashion. Our director doesn’t force her beliefs on us. It’s just about sharing the music with people. ”

Jones-Myers also noted the specific manner in which they learn songs, which occurs after a warm-up meant to get “the mind focused into the experience.”

“We don’t use sheet music, like ever,” Jones-Myers said. “We all go by oral practice.”

“There’s a lot of laughing and just trying things and making mistakes,” Harris added.

The playful atmosphere of rehearsals translates into concerts, which Farr described as “joyful.” 

“The concert is not just sitting and being passive,” Farr said. “Sometimes [Knoelle] makes the audience sing, like she’ll … section the audience off and make them sing soprano, alto and tenor. It’s very engaging.”

Concerts are an opportunity for the choir to welcome even more new faces; Higginson brings members of Sing Harlem, the Harlem-based choir she directs, to perform alongside Dartmouth students and community members. For Farr, having a mix of Dartmouth students, community members and Sing Harlem members makes the concert experience “awesome.” Harris even described the concert energy as “electric.” 

“Even people who are normally a little hesitant about clapping or singing … just jump in,” Harris said. “I think that’s one of the best parts of the magic of gospel. It encourages the performers to really give it their all. 

For members like Harris, the Dartmouth Gospel Choir is a unique space of celebration, friendship and spirituality. To her, it serves as a pillar of the community, bringing vastly different individuals together into an environment that fosters personal growth. 

“There’s something about this group,” Harris said. “That makes all of us really push ourselves to do as much as we can.”