Mara Partridge '05 hadn't had much exposure to gospel music growing up, but when she started her freshman year at Georgetown University, she joined a sixty-person gospel choir, and pretty soon she was hooked.
"I liked it because it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I grew up in an Episcopal church, and we'd sing old hymns from the 19th century, but I didn't come alive every time I sang, and in this group [at Georgetown], there were all races and ethnicities, and there was just so much energy," she said.
Partridge participated in other activities, but her love of gospel couldn't be quelled, so last semester, she and Jenna O'Brien '06, another gospel enthusiast, decided to seek out students with a similar interest and start singing. The group of 15 now gathers every Wednesday night in Gibson Hall to rehearse its repertoire, which includes a mix of genres, from traditional spirituals to hip-hop. At the Asian Students Association Multicultural Talent Show last night, the choir performed an a capella "Amazing Grace," the spiritual "Wade in the Water," and "Time to Come Home," a song from the movie The Fighting Temptations.
Bowdoin's gospel choir is just one of many musical groups on campus, but, according to Partridge and other members, it's unique because it allows students to express themselves spiritually.
"I would describe Bowdoin as not quite atheist, but pushing on the limits of that kind of school, which is fine, but there are people who have been coming from all different spiritual backgrounds, where it's been the foundation of their lives in many cases, and there's really not much of a place for that here. So in the spiritual sense, [the gospel choir is] just one more way for people to express what they have inside of them, if they desire," Partridge said.
Though many of the songs are about God or have religious themes, the choir is inclusive of all faiths and performs at both sacred and secular venues. The most important aspect of the group, she says, is to create a space where students can express themselves informally, without having to pay attention to sheet music.
"The most we do is audition for solos. But the point is that it doesn't matter how good you are. Some people are going to be amazing and some people will benefit from the group but everyone has something to contribute, so in that sense, it's a really different way of doing music at Bowdoin," Partridge said.
Though the group may be something entirely new for Bowdoin, it's also new for many of the members.
"I found the whole thing very weird because I had never sung so informally before. I had sung in choirs my entire life but I had never done anything like this that was fun," said Caitlin Rosa '08, who joined the group this semester.
Gabriel Kornbluh '08 didn't have much singing experience at all before he joined the group. "I had never sung before really, in any formal sense, and I thought [joining the group] would be a great opportunity for me to get the jitters out," he said.
Partridge hopes that the choir, which consists of mostly first-years and sophomores, will continue to sing together long after she's graduated. The group aims to perform once a month starting next fall, including a multicultural performance that features songs from different faiths. For now, Partridge is focused on getting more students excited about gospel.
"We're just trying to keep building and building and building. And the more people we have, the fuller and more amazing sound we have," she said.