Bringing the Soul Back to YSU Through Harmony

By Frances Clause

Hand clapping and foot stomping isn’t standard in most choirs, but with the revival of Youngstown State University’s gospel choir course, these actions are the rhythmic accompaniment the group needs for success.

Jaron LeGrair, a new addition to the Dana School of Music’s faculty, said he was excited to begin his first year at YSU with the opportunity to teach this course as well as musical theatre voice courses.

“I think gospel choir, as opposed to other choirs, [has] a lot more raw emotion,” he said. “It’s very organic, very on-the-spot, very improvisational.”

LeGrair said people have a different type of experience in gospel.

“I think that’s why people are so drawn to it,” he said.LeGrair, owner and founder of Jaron M. LeGrair Studio, sang as a soprano in his church’s children’s choir and continued to sing gospel music as he grew older. Although he branched off into other genres, gospel always had a place in his heart.

Jaron LeGrair, instructor of Youngstown State University’s new Gospel Choir, conducts a soulful gospel warmup. Photo by Frances Clause/The Jambar

“Before I was doing classical [music], musical theater, anything, I was 3 years old singing leads in church,” he said. “My main thing is gospel because it’s what I believe in and what I love to sing.”

The students enrolled in the course range from those that are unfamiliar with the genre to students who have also sung gospel in their church’s choirs for years.

“I’m trying to find ways to include everybody. I actually had a bass [vocalist] who sings with us,” LeGrair said. “Usually in gospel choir, there’s not a bass part. I want him to feel special in the choir, so I make sure I teach him his own part.”

He said having more voice parts just means more harmonies to enhance the group’s sound.

A contributor to the gospel choir’s sound is Carvell Austin, a sophomore music education and piano performance major, whose piano playing can be heard accompanying the voices of the group.

“What made me want to take this course is I think it’s something different for YSU, and now that they’ve brought one back, it gives me some sort of way to be an example of Christ in school,” he said.

Austin has been singing gospel music his whole life at his church and feels that the genre enhances his overall musicianship.

Malik Montgomery, a sophomore music recording major, said he also grew up in a church atmosphere and believes gospel music is another way to express oneself.

“I know some people, they tell you to give praise to God, and some people don’t know how to do that,” he said. “So gospel music opens that door to have a way to give your praise.”

Both students also perform with the Dana Chorale and have to be disciplined to switch from a classical style to gospel style.

Carvell Austin, a sophomore music education and piano performance major, accompanies the voices and keeps tempo. Photo by Frances Clause/The Jambar

“Gospel music definitely has a lot of key changes and chromatic notes, and you have to memorize them,” Montgomery said, comparing stylistic differences between the two genres. 

But regardless of the challenges that can come with gospel’s different style, LeGrair encourages people of different backgrounds and majors to join for the next semester.

“We have fun in here, we smile, we laugh, we joke,” he said. “We want more people in here to get us engaged and going for the spring.”