Monday, March 05, 2012

Dr. Feranda Williamson Educates TBGB on the Chicago Mass Choir

By Bob Marovich for The Black Gospel Blog.

Dr. Feranda Williamson is Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Capella University.

But she has an even higher calling. She is also President and CEO of the award-winning Chicago Mass Choir.

Dr. Williamson (photo, right) spent time with TBGB recently to discuss the choir’s near quarter-century of service to gospel music.

The late James C. Chambers organized the Chicago Mass Choir in 1988. Williamson, a charter member of the choir, grew up with Chambers. She said the genesis of the Chicago Mass Choir was when in 1971 Chambers organized the Ecclesiastes Community Choir (ECC), the “parent” of Chicago Mass, while a student at Chicago Vocational High School.

In 1988, “James [who passed away in the early 1990s] had a vision to bring together groups, choirs, singers, songwriters, directors, and musicians throughout the Chicagoland area in a format similar to the Gospel Music Workshop of America. We came together as one entity once a year, in July, for the ECC Music Workshop at Kennedy-King College.

"It was a focal point: everybody was always looking forward to that time. We would offer classes in choral directing, choir decorum, vocal training. We had classes for musicians, on how to publish your songs, songwriting skills, and would always climax the activities with a musical. The second year we had a musical, a record company executive said we needed to record it. From there evolved the Chicago Mass Choir.”

In more than two decades of existence, the Chicago Mass Choir has been nominated for more than ten Stellar Awards and two Grammy Awards. “In January 2012, we received the Best Traditional Choir Award from the Chicago Music Awards at their 30th annual presentation. We’ve received numerous accolades throughout the years, but we’re just honored to do what we do.”

Eighty-five persons, ranging in age from 22 to 60-plus, are part of the Chicago Mass Choir. Members represent a broad spectrum of musical talent, from church choir directors and music ministers to choir members at their home churches. One thing is constant: that Chicago Mass sound -- you know it when you hear it. Williamson describes "that sound" as having a “traditional base that is always uplifting. It’s music that can be taught and played for the Sunday morning service.”

She added, “The Chicago Mass Choir gives new artists and musicians a chance to have their music and ministry exposed throughout the world.” Citing Evangelist Lemmie Battles as an example, Williamson said, “Lemmie started with the Chicago Mass Choir and now she’s working independently. Other lead singers are also doing solo engagements on their own. Several of our musicians have gone on to play in the gospel and secular industries.”

The choir’s fifteenth project and latest release, Chicago Mass XV Live, garnered two Stellar Award nominations. It was just nominated for the 2012 Dove Awards as Best Traditional Gospel Album of the Year.  Williamson said it was the first project to debut via a worldwide television special on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.  “We had an opportunity to record the album at the TBN Studio outside of Nashville in Hendersonville, Tennessee," she said. "It really brought in the audience.”

The group is planning a March program in Dayton, Ohio and a Good Friday trip to Round Rock, Texas. In December, they return to Spain, their second visit to the country and ninth trip overseas.  They have appeared before appreciative audiences in countries such as Italy, Greece, and Switzerland. “You really feel value for what you do when you minister abroad," Williamson said.

Additionally, the Chicago Mass Choir will hold its 13th annual spring concert Saturday, May 5 at Sweet Holy Spirit Church, 8621 S. South Chicago Avenue. It’s more than a concert, Williamson said. It’s also an opportunity to give back to the community.

“Each year," she said, "we donate a portion of the proceeds [of the concert] to a nonprofit organization. This year we’re going to make a donation for breast cancer awareness. The last couple of years we contributed to the Haiti Relief Fund. When that tragic event occurred, everyone was reaching out, and now you don’t hear much about it but guess what? Our brothers and sisters are still suffering. They’re still trying to rebuild. There are still health issues that they are having to contend with.”

For the Chicago Mass Choir, community service doesn't begin and end with the spring musical. It's a year-round responsibility. Each month, the choir focuses on a specific issue. Sometimes it’s singing and fellowship at a nursing home, other times it’s adopting a school and providing young students with school supplies.

The choir also encourages members to perform individual acts of kindness. “We encourage group members to assist local health care providers, help the elderly with their shopping. One of the things I really like is when members volunteer for their church in an area they currently don’t serve. For example, cleaning the church and preparing for Sunday service one weekend.”

Since membership in the Chicago Mass Choir is a significant commitment of time and talent, the audition process is multi-layered. “It’s not just that you audition and you join,” Williamson explained. “We ask that you sit in on our rehearsals to get a feel for our organization to determine if there is a mutual fit. We ask that you review our history. We even have you complete a quiz on the choir!”

I asked Dr. Feranda Williamson if there was one thing the Chicago Mass Choir hasn’t done that she would love for it to do.

She didn’t miss a beat. “I would love for us to participate in a Broadway musical! That would give us an opportunity to showcase our ministry.  It would be another venue for spreading the gospel.”

For more information, visit the Chicago Mass Choir at:


abercrombie said...

Hi dear. This is a happy thing.

Kathryn Kemp said...

Excellent interview. I learned much more about Chicago Mass. I was unaware of their public service commitment.

RoStewart said...

I'm Blessed I love choirs especially this one!!!!!

Bob Marovich said...

@Kathryn - thank you for your kind words!