America’s Choir

SOULFUL CELEBRATION: North Carolina's Salvation and Deliverance Church Choir during their finale-winning performance at the Verizon 2011 "How Sweet the Sound" choir competition.

At any mention of Verizon’s popular How Sweet the Sound choir competition to director Kristian Herring, you might as well tune up the Hammond organ for him to cut a step in praise for his choir’s recent win in the 2011 competition.

Judged on presence, technical merit and originality and interpretation, Herring’s Salvation and Deliverance Choir from Tarboro, North Carolina, was crowned grand finale winner and “America’s Church Choir” Oct. 28 in Los Angeles. The group won after three rounds of competition against groups nationwide by performing a rearranged rendition of “Hallelujah” from “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration,” complete with a few surprises.

See the video here:

We talked to Herring just days after the competition and a whole year after the Salvation and Deliverance choir participated in the 2010 How Sweet the Sound but lost in the finale.

UF: To get as close as you did last year and not win, some people would’ve been discouraged. What motivated you to try again?

Let me tell you what that was. I was one of the ones last year that said, “I won’t do this again.” I thought we should’ve won because of what we presented, but maybe every director feels this way. But at the end of the last year, the Lord gave me what to prepare for this year. I was like, “What the Lord has given me, we must do this.”

It’s as if the Lord himself took over my mind and said, “Here’s some music …” It was surely amazing, and it’s definitely not me — definitely His inspiration.

UF: Who did the choreography? The arrangement?

Some of that came from the initial vision. My plight has been to never bore the audience. I just tend to use a lot of choreography. I think it makes for a great interpretation. The choreography is another form of expression.

One thing I tried to stay away from: gospel singers tend to sing classically or as if they’re in a choral choir. They’ll clasp our hands at the abdomen level, and that just gets me. Where did that come from? I tried to stay away from things that were common.

When we sang, “The kingdom of this world,” the music was a go-go style, so we did a go-go style of movement.

UF: Also, showmanship aside, there seemed to be clear evidence of a spiritual sacrifice of worship and praise. How did you maintain your focus on who you sang about in the midst of performing and preparing to perform?

I think that’s what makes us unique: We are a church choir. A lot of time, a lot of community choirs don’t have that same spirit. We know how to tap into that otherworldly realm, that’s what I call it, otherworldly realm that a lot of people don’t understand. We pray together, we fast a lot together. Can I tell you, that day of the competition, we had a worship experience in our dressing room.

One person started a song, “We give you all the glory (we worship you our Lord. You are worthy to be praised)…” And another person, it was that person’s sister, picked it up, but she didn’t hear when it started. It blew our minds when we talked about it afterward. She took over her sister’s song and didn’t realize it. It was just beautiful.

We’re always focused spiritually, but that deep worship that fell was atypical. So it was like God’s stamp of approval even more.

UF: What did it do for you when host Donald Lawrence restarted the praise after your performance? (‘Cause, basically, it was clear y’all just went in.)

SWEET REWARDS: Salvation and Deliverance choir director Kristian Herring (right) accepts the championship prize check from How Sweet the Sound host Donald Lawrence.

From there, it was on like popcorn. That’s what we needed. I kept trying to say to the choir: “None of this stuff is new to us, we do this all the time.” We sing classical music, we sing a capella, we sing in different languages, we can “take a song to church” if we need to.

I was saying, “Forget the choreography, y’all. Go to church!” So when Donald came out … I had to come out of my jacket.

From my college days, I cannot wear a choir robe. I just feel stiff. I cannot conduct in a choir robe, but even with a jacket — I just snatched it off. From there, we went to work (praising God and dancing) like we do on Sunday morning.

UF: What are the perks of winning, beyond the $25,000 and opportunities to sing?

To be VIPs at the Stellar Awards and the Super Bowl: (Pause). That’s my response: silence. Those were some musical rests. That’s when I really knew this was colossal. It’s just too good to be true. I was always saying, “I’m gonna go to the Stellar Awards. I’m gonna go” and never made it. Now, we’re going and we’ll be VIPs.

UF: Everybody always tries to play it cool, but were you a little star struck singing in front of judges Marvin Sapp, Shirley Caesar — who is, like, gospel royalty — and Israel Houghton?

Mervyn Warren, who actually arranged “A Soulful Celebration,” you know, the hallelujah chorus. I was extra nervous when I saw him in the hallway; I didn’t know he was gonna be there. When I saw him, Mervyn Warren, I got so nervous.

When I saw (the judges) stand up during our performance, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

BACKSTAGE HALLELUJAH: The Salvation and Deliverance choir members rejoice upon learning of their victory.

UF: What advice — technical or spiritual — do you have for choirs who may never minister on a national stage? What encouragement do you have for them?

To find your niche. When you concentrate on giving God your best, He’ll breathe on whatever you’ve got to give. That’s it.

Before we went to How Sweet the Sound, we went and sang at a small church. Our choir could’ve filled the whole church. As a matter of fact, it did. But we sang the way we sing everywhere. The pastor of that church, she got up and said, “You all sang here like you sing at the national competition.”

I don’t care if it’s two people in the audience, if you concentrate on touching a life and changing a future, God has no choice but to extend your borders. He will do it because He can trust you.

We will always give it 100 percent.