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Youth Gospel Choir Members Learn Faith, Self-Respect : Music: Award-winning group was formed by Cal Poly Pomona to raise minority students' aspirations.

February 20, 1991|JOHN SULLAWAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of the tunes have the contemporary rhythms of pop. But with titles such as "Praise His Holy Name" and "Tell God," the repertoire of the Cal Poly Pomona Youth Gospel Choir will never be mistaken for top-40 material.

That doesn't matter much to the choir's youthful participants, whose soulful harmonies have landed them more than once in the finals of state competitions.

On a recent Monday, director Dansby Sturdivant, 31, put his crew through the paces of "He Is Worthy to Be Praised." One-quarter of the 50-some choristers were absent, and some of those who showed up had colds.

Afterward, the singers acknowledged that they had had an off night, but said they were confident that they would reach their award-winning potential for their next performance.

Those who join the Cal Poly Pomona Youth Gospel Choir quickly learn that faith and self-assurance are taught along with lessons in vocals and harmony.

"During performances, we stick together," said alto Jasmine Arguelles, a 16-year-old sophomore at Bonita High School in La Verne. "We are one big family."

Established by Cal Poly Pomona's department of student outreach and recruitment in 1984, the choir encourages minority high school students to pursue a college education. The members, who attend high schools and colleges in surrounding cities, are required to attend study sessions in addition to rehearsals and performances.

Soprano Rameika Phillips, a junior from Walnut High School, said joining the choir has given her faith in her own future. "I wouldn't be thinking about attending college," said Phillips, 16. "My goals wouldn't be what they are now."

Students do not have to pass an audition to join, nor do they need to have experience in music. A high school grade-point average of 2.0 or higher is all that is required. Any choir member who moves on to college receives a scholarship of about $250--a share of the money the choir collects from performance fees and donations. And students who enter college are welcome to continue singing with the choir. Ages of the singers range from 13 to 22.

"Whosoever will, let him come and join," Sturdivant said.

Amazingly, the open membership policy hasn't prevented the choir from besting more seasoned gospel groups in state competitions. Last fall, the group reached the semifinals of the McDonald's Gospel Fest in Los Angeles. In 1987, it placed second in the Urban League Gospel Competition at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

The choir has also become a recognized name in churches and schools throughout the San Gabriel Valley. It recently performed at a benefit for the Pomona Valley Council of Churches' Homeless Shelter and Hunger Program. During the Martin Luther King Day weekend, it performed at celebrations held by the city of San Dimas and St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Pasadena.

The choir also performs frequently at high schools to recruit new members.

Much of the credit for the choir's success goes to Sturdivant, who joined the group when he was a student at Cal Poly. After receiving a BA degree in music from the school in 1990, he became director and has concentrated on writing much of the group's material.

But the choir wouldn't have hit a note if it hadn't been for founder Will Wright, director of Cal Poly Pomona's office of recruitment and student outreach. Frustrated by the decline in minority enrollment in colleges during the 1980s, Wright turned to one of the most dominant institutions in African American culture: the church.

"Years ago, the black church used to be that from which everything emanated," Wright said. "There has never been a successful black movement in this country that did not have its roots in the church."

In addition to exposing the students to a vital aspect of African American culture, the rehearsals and study sessions on campus help acclimate teen-agers to a "college atmosphere," said Alice Blue Lee, graduate outreach coordinator at Cal Poly Pomona.

Since the choir's beginnings, this approach has proven to be effective. All of the choir members who have gone through the program have graduated from high school. More than 85% have gone to colleges, including Cal Poly Pomona, said Robin Gorski, public affairs coordinator for the college's outreach office.

Participation in the choir has also helped keep the young people away from some of the problems that have plagued their communities.

Randall Dillon, a freshman at Mt. San Antonio College, says the choir helped him avoid some of the pitfalls of teen-age life.

"I just happened to see my student friends (from high school)," said the 21-year-old Pomona High School graduate. "All of them have children. All of them do drugs. I look back and think, 'I could have been one of them.' "

For Arguelles, a sophomore at Bonita High School in La Verne, the choir is an antidote to boredom.

"You don't have time to be bad," said the 16-year-old. "You have choir Monday and Tuesday in addition to the performances. That keeps you pretty busy.

"If it wasn't for the choir, I'd be getting low grades and hanging out with my friends," she said.

Although the choir primarily appeals to African American students, Arguelles, who is Latino, said she has never felt out of place.

"I think the music can appeal to anybody," she said. "It doesn't matter who you are or what you are."

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