For members of Voices of GVSU Gospel Choir, Monday practices and performances throughout the year mean more than singing traditional and contemporary gospel songs. Choir members said they consider themselves a large family, one that celebrates together and commiserates together.
So it's apt that members call the choir's matriarch "Mama C.C."
Cassonya Carter Pugh started the choir when she was a student at Grand Valley in 1987. Then it was just 10 students who
enjoyed singing together. Now, with 135 members, the choir performs about 20 times a year and travels to events in Detroit, Flint and Lansing.
"I am like a mom or a big sister," Carter said, acknowledging her honorary title. "But I can keep the balance and they know where the line is drawn. I'm a Grand Valley employee, but they know if they need help personally, I also am a listening ear, and students need that."
When she's not serving as choir director and adviser, Carter is a program adviser at Grand Valley's Educational Connections, a resource center for people who want to continue or resume their education. At times, Carter's two roles blend together.
In her Eberhard Center office, she counsels high school and returning adult students about career and college choices and often makes referrals to area service agencies or programs. Carter said she sees her role with the choir as mentor, in addition to director.
"When students are away from home, they can't always call or go home," she said. "They need someone they can lean on."
At the end of each rehearsal, choir members sit in a circle and pray for each other.
"It's a family chat," Carter said. "Sometimes it's a cry for help, sometimes it's a cry for rejoicing. I tell them that they have to understand that life has some ups and downs. Someone once told me that life is like a heart monitor: you see the blips rise up and down on the screen. Life is like that; it means you're alive."
Choir president David Miller said the family atmosphere helped him transition into college life. Now a junior, Miller joined Voices as a freshman.
"At first I was timid, but after the first rehearsal, everyone just opened up and it was like a big family - like we had known each other for years," said Miller, a Detroit native. "That's good when you first get to college."
Miller has helped initiate study groups and e-mail lists for students struggling with the same class. "We'll go around the circle at the end of rehearsals, and you'll hear, "Who has Math 110?" or something of that nature," he said.
While Miller sang with his home church choir and high school choir at St. Martin de Porres, prior singing experience is not needed to join Voices. The choir, which receives funding from the Student Life Office, is non-denominational; some members do not practice a religion. But singing and moving in rhythm to songs seems to aid spiritual healing, however it's recognized.
"We're taught to keep things inside, but gospel music is good news, we need to spread it," Carter said. "And if it helps someone, why not?"
It helped Artina Drake find her confidence. Prior to joining Voices, the junior from Detroit said the only singing she did was in the shower. After three years of tutelage from Carter, Drake now sings loud and proud.
"I used to be just a little peep in the back row," Drake said.
Whitney White, a sophomore from Lansing, said voices that are not so finely tuned blend well together because of the choir's large numbers - and its director.
"It's all Cassonya. She's such a good director," White said, adding that she has also gained poise. "It's more about your confidence than your singing. Plus, it's my confidence in God."
During performances, Carter will sometimes sing with the choir and let a student direct. Voices is known for performing new gospel songs and original songs written and arranged by members.
"Some people have a versatile voice and I like to highlight that.
It's not about me. I like to showcase our talent," Carter said.
"If you're singing and loving the Lord and being a good Christian, that will definitely get you into heaven, but it will not help you walk across Grand Valley's [commencement] stage. You need to study."
-Cassonya Carter Pugh
To allow more people to hear the talented choir, Carter hopes to produce a CD of its live recordings this year. But more than guiding successful singers, Carter is trying to guide successful students - a point she often makes to members during rehearsals.
"I say, 'If you're singing and loving the Lord and being a good Christian, that will definitely get you into heaven, but it will not help you walk across Grand Valley's [commencement] stage. You need to study,'" she said.
Like Mom's, Carter's advice is heeded and appreciated. Last year, current and past choir members threw a surprise concert to honor Carter, telling her only at the last minute. When she walked into the Louis Armstrong Theatre, Carter found more than 200 people ready to sing and celebrate her work.
The concert was a surprise but the positive impact Carter has made on students' lives was well-planned, according to her personal goals.
"I want to be the best example I can be, to be a mentor," she said. "Their success is important to me."
Sounds just like Mom, doesn't it?
Page last modified March 17, 2014