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Songs of praise bind them together

Lancaster students find gospel choir an outlet and a refuge.

LANCASTER - By singing with his classmates, Kiheem Bynum finds an outlet for the day-to-day frustrations and stresses he experiences as a high school senior.

Bynum, a tenor in J.P. McCaskey High School's gospel choir, said nothing beat belting out a tune to help him deal with a rough day.

"If I've had a bad day or I'm upset about something, when I come to gospel choir, it gets it all out," he said. "I leave in a better mood."

Soprano Tainora Smalls feels the same way.

"Gospel choir is a great way to escape school problems or everyday-life problems," said Smalls, a junior who has been singing with the group for three years. "I come to practice, and I can just get away from everything."

The 50 members of the McCaskey gospel choir - the only high school choir of its kind in Lancaster County - share not just a love for the music but loving support for one another.

"Being in this choir brings you closer to people," Smalls said. "I get along with every single person in the choir."

Saintalia Oracius, a senior, said she knew she wanted to be a part of the choir the first time she heard it when she was a child.

"I saw a concert at church, and I was captivated by the strong voices and the energy they brought to the music," she said. "I wanted to be a part of it."

Like others in the choir, Oracius auditioned for the group in eighth grade.

For Smalls, moving from New York City to Lancaster offered the opportunity to continue an activity she loved.

"I had been in the Choir Academy of Harlem in New York," she said. "I saw the gospel choir perform, and I thought, 'I have to be a part of that choir.' "

The group began in 1984 after a student asked an administrator and if she could start a choir that would allow students to share their love of gospel music, said Colette Scott, who directs the choir with Fatima Lewis.

Potential members are scouted during eighth grade, then asked to audition.

"The choir is a class," Scott said. "It's not a club or an extracurricular activity. The students are graded."

They are evaluated on singing skills, ability to read music, attendance at the many public performances, attitude, cooperation and class participation.

"We learn a diverse program of music," said Lewis, who chooses the material with Scott. "The students learn to perform spirituals, African and classical music."

The students are also encouraged to sing in the school's vocal ensemble or chorus to expand their ability and experience a wide variety of music, Lewis said.

During the school year, the choir rehearses five days a week; before public performances, students also practice several hours a day after school.

Since its formation, the gospel choir has earned a reputation for outstanding live performances and well-received recordings.

The group has entered numerous national competitions and released its third CD,

McCaskey Live

, in 2002.

Students have performed for Pennsylvania governors and in Atlanta; Orlando, Fla.; and the Bahamas. Locally, the group performs two or three times a month.

Although members say they enjoy their time together and the music, performing with the group is about much more.

"We're not just singing or performing," Bynum said. "We're ministering to the needs of the people who hear us.

"We're ministering to youth and helping them find a way to deal with their struggles and problems."