Monday, June 24, 2002

His experience counts in leading 4,000 singers

Choir director Cliff Barrows has combined music and ministry for more than 50 years

By Larry Nager,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Leading a 4,000-voice choir can be like riding a wild bull — the hardest parts are getting on and getting off.

        “I tell them if they start together and end together, it doesn't much matter what happens in between, because folks won't remember that. But they remember the beginning and the ending,” says choir wrangler Cliff Barrows, 79, the Rev. Billy Graham's music director for more than half a century.

        Mr. Barrows led the 3,000-plus voice choir for the Rev. Mr. Graham's 1977 crusade here, and he'll be at the podium for the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission, Thursday through Sunday in Paul Brown Stadium.

Outdoor performance poses problems for choir
    Singing outside offers its own unique challenges, particularly in late June.

    “No air conditioning!” exclaimed singer Katie Laur, who spends most of the summer months on outdoor stages at bluegrass and jazz festivals. “The sweat just pours down your eyes and stings them, and hair-dos are impossible.”

    The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has the right idea, she said. When the CSO performs on hot summer evenings, the musicians have individual electric fans. “I think we all ought to have those,” she said.

    The only fans they'll have are hand-held ones, but the red polo shirts worn as uniforms by the 4,000 members of the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission Choir should help. Still, that crowd standing tightly together singing will probably generate plenty of additional heat.

    “Just imagine the space that all of those people will occupy,” said Catherine Roma, artistic director of MUSE Cincinnati's Women's Choir and co-founder and director of the Martin Luther King Coalition Chorale. “It's exciting to think about, but frightening to think about executing.”

    Then there's the possibility of rain. A thunderstorm can dampen even the most ardent evangelical zeal.

    But Ms. Laur points to far tinier troublemakers.

    “Singing outside, I've swallowed more than one bug,” she said.

    And while instrumentalists often prefer the heat because it loosens up muscles, it doesn't necessarily work that way for Tristate singers, because of what Ms. Laur calls the “Cincinnati crud.”

    “The pollen and mold count this year is so high, it really messes with your throat,” she said.

    With the sun going down around 9:30 p.m. and missions starting at 7, Ms. Laur has more words of advice for the choir: sunscreen.

    “You can sunburn really bad, especially the top of your feet. I did that at the Women in Jazz Festival in Dayton, and I mean severely,” she said.

    “You have to be careful out there.”

        Leading an all-volunteer choir — no auditions — of 4,000 people isn't the herculean task it appears to be, Mr. Barrows said. And it's because of those 4,000 people.

        “It really isn't (too hard),” he said. “First of all, they're interested and their attention is really riveted and that's the basis of getting anything accomplished.”

        “I'd rather have 100 volunteers than 200 paid professionals, because you have their hearts when you have their volunteer commitment,” Mr. Barrows said.

        Catherine Roma, artistic director of MUSE, the Cincinnati Women's Choir, and co-founder and director of the Martin Luther King Coalition Chorale, got a taste of what Mr. Barrows does at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center last Monday. She was one of two directors of the 700-voice volunteer choir.

        “It can be hard keeping everybody together when you have that many people,” she said. “To start together, to stay together, to end together, that's the challenge. Then you're dealing with miking and the sound and the keyboards. There's a lot to juggle.”

        “I'm not that good of a singer,” says choir member Dan Appenfelder, 64. of Fairfield, who also sang in the 1977 choir. “But in 4,000 people I don't worry about it.”

        “Singing praises to the Lord in the choir is uplifting,” Mr. Appenfelder said. “It's blessing the people that are doing it as well as, hopefully, blessing the people that are listening.”

700 churches represented
        The choir for the Graham Mission was organized through 700 Tristate churches. For the first of three rehearsals, thousands of singers from age 13 (the minimum requirement) into their 80s streamed into the Tri-County Assembly of God in Fairfield on a hot Monday night the first week of June. They filled the 3,300-seat church, dozens of sopranos and altos spilling into the balconies. Mr. Barrows' job: to turn them into a choir.

        He hit the stage, part cheerleader and part choir director, sporting the official red polo shirt the choir will wear at the stadium. The altos, sopranos, tenors and basses are arranged in sections throughout the church as Mr. Barrows leads them though the official songbook.

        There are 14 songs in the book, including “Victory in Jesus,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Shout to the Lord” and “Just As I Am.” The choir will probably sing them all during the three nights they perform. (The choir does not sing on Saturday.)

        The songbook with the bright red cover is provided free. Shirts are $15, but those unable to afford it may wear any red shirt.

        The choir is predictably raggedy at the start. Not everyone is singing and uncertainty is evident on many faces. The well-known songs go by smoothly, but there's a marked unevenness in tempo on the less-familiar material.

        Mr. Barrows never loses his smile or his energetic demeanor at what is the largest of the three pre-mission rehearsals. The entire 4,000-voice throng won't sing together until Wednesday, when Mr. Barrows raises his arms at the final “grand rehearsal” at the stadium.

        That's a nerve-wracking way to do it, Ms. Roma said.

        “We never had everyone all together (before the Freedom Center groundbreaking),” she explained. And when you're dealing with hundreds of choir members, “you never know who you're really going to have until the event.”

        The size of the choir does help cover up mistakes, pitch problems, tempo shifts and other musical gaffes that would be more noticeable in a smaller group, she said. And there's no substitute for experience; Mr. Barrows has been doing this since 1949.

Some sang in '77
        It's still an exciting challenge to him, and his eyes shine as he sits in the church conference room, planning the first rehearsal, deciding who will speak first, who will introduce him, how he'll start the process of turning a crowd of strangers into a choir.

        “I don't really organize the choir,” he said modestly. The basic work, he explained, is done by local church members.

        The Graham organization helps with mailings and announcements. “And we have a great advantage in that most of them have seen a mission on television. They know the ministry of a crusade choir, they know it's a large organization and they're inspired about the possibility of seeing it. It'll be interesting, we'll have many people there who sang 25 years ago, and we'll have their offspring there.”

        Mr. Appenfelder never has forgotten the feeling it gave him to sing in the 1977 choir. This week he'll try to bring it back, adding his bass voice to the massive choir.

        “It's terrific, surrounded by 3,999 other people, just the sound,” he recalled. But it's what they're singing and why they're singing that makes it a truly transcendent experience, he adds.

        And while it has all the lights and staging and other trappings of a concert, “it's a form of worship,” Mr. Appenfelder said. “We are merely leading other people in worship. That's the exciting part of it.”

        The material ranges from the venerable “How Great Thou Art,” to the newest song, 2000's “Redeemer,” written by former Cincinnatian Nicole C. Mullen. The choir will perform on its own and with some of the featured singers, including Ms. Mullen, 2001 and 2002 Dove Award female vocalist of the year.

Started as substitute
        Mr. Barrows has worked with the Rev. Mr. Graham since meeting him in 1945. He and his late wife, Wilma ""Billie” Newell, were honeymooning in Asheville, N.C., where a fast-rising young evangelist was preaching for the Youth for Christ movement.

        When the song leader became ill, Mr. Barrows was suggested as a substitute.

        “And Billy said, "Come on, Cliff, we won't be choosy.' That's the first time I met Billy. He was 24 or 25 and I was 22.”

        In 1949, when the Graham organization began its crusades, Mr. Barrows was on board as music director. In 1950, he helped start the Hour of Decision radio show and served as program director, a position he still holds.

        His lifetime in music and ministry (he's an ordained minister) earned him induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996.

        “Music touches everybody at different levels. It's the best communicator of a message and motivator of a heart response. Martin Luther said next to the word of God, music deserves the highest praise. Next to the gift of language, God gave music for man to best express the message of the gospel.”

        While the Graham mission ultimately has loftier objectives, on one level, its goal isn't much different than Ozzfest or the upcoming Rolling Stones tour — no empty seats.

        For that, the 4,000-member choir can be just as important as Ms. Mullen or the other platinum recording artists, dc Talk, Michael W. Smith, Kirk Franklin or Third Day.

        “They'll invite their friends, their families,” says Mr. Barrows.

        “They'll encourage others to come to hear the choir. And if you get 4,000 musicians, each of them with 10 interested friends, they're going to help the attendance a lot.”


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