Gospel Choir: Longtime LSU music class holds reunion

The day’s problems always disappeared in this class.

Yes, Gospel Choir is a class at LSU and has been for the last 35 years.

And Shaun Mena remembers undergoing a kind of transformation on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That’s when the class was scheduled during his choir tenure from 2001 to 2003.

“It was at the end of the day, when all of my other classes were done,” he says. “And it was a time where I could forget about everything and sing with my friends. All the stress of being an undergraduate would disappear. That’s the way it was for everybody.”

And today “everybody” is coming together for one of the largest tailgate parties preceding LSU’s first home game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Make that everybody who signed up for the LSU Gospel Choir Reunion with Mena among them.

“There are about 200 of them,” Rachel Emanuel says.

The Gospel Choir was formed in 1978, the year after Emanuel graduated from LSU. Though she didn’t have an opportunity to sing in the choir, she’s heading the reunion committee.

Emanuel is the incoming president of the LSU A.P. Tureaud Sr. Black Alumni Chapter, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of A.P. Tureaud’s son, A.P. Tureaud Jr.’s 1953 enrollment as LSU’s first African-American student.

Tureaud Jr. spent less than a semester on campus before a court ordered him to leave the university. He then transferred to Xavier University in New Orleans, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He has since worked as a professional educator in White Plains, N.Y.

“The choir has come to the point where a second generation of families are taking part in it,” Emanuel said. “Past choir members have been talking to Everrett Parker about having a reunion for some time now, and with Mr. Parker retiring this year, we thought it would be a good time for the reunion, and we made it a part of ours.”

Parker helped organize the choir and was its director for 25 years. He retired last spring.

“I’ll be at the reunion,” Parker says. “They had a concert for me last spring, and I didn’t know some of the former members would be there. That was a surprise, and I suspect there will be a similar surprise at this reunion.”

Parker looks forward to the future, when he’ll help organize an outside support group for the choir, but he’s already missing being its director.

“No two semesters were ever the same,” he says. “The students would come in as individuals with different talents and backgrounds, all of which went into making up the choir. I’ll miss seeing the anticipation in their faces as to what the new semester would bring. But I believe the best of the choir is yet to come.”

Succeeding Parker is the choir’s longtime accompanist Laurence Hebert.

Hebert put together the choir’s part in the alumni chapter’s production “Here’s To You, Mr. Tureaud,” in the Manship Theatre on Sept. 6. Some 40 current members and alumni made up the choir, though Mena wasn’t among them.

Still, his plans were to attend the program, then party with the tailgaters. The tailgate party is when the Gospel Choir comes together in a true family reunion.

And the choir is a family. Take Mena, for instance.

He refers to some of his fellow alumni as sisters and brothers.

“And once you’re in the choir, it’s as if you’re always in the choir,” he says. “We stay in touch online.”

And they talk about good times, such as the time the Gospel Choir toured north Louisiana. The trip was fun, but it also was a challenge for students like Mena, who had never performed with an ensemble before joining the choir.

“You didn’t have to audition,” Mena says. “You just signed up for the class. I’d never sang in a choir before, and I thought if I sang off key, no one would hear me because I was singing in a group. But Mr. Parker could hear it. He’d stop rehearsal and point out the person who was singing off key. I think that’s amazing.”

Mena, 31, earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from LSU in 2003. He worked for Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Sen. Mary Landrieu before pursing his law degree at Southern University. He’s now living in New Orleans and studying for the bar exam.

“I couldn’t be a part of the choir in the program at the Manship Theatre, because I’m too busy studying,” he says in the week before the reunion. “But I will not miss the reunion. There have been so many people in the choir, and it was a diverse group, not just one ethnic group. And it included students in academic disciplines from throughout the university.”

But the best part always was going to class.

“It was always a peaceful and spiritual experience,” Mena says. “It was the best part of the week.”

Classes now take place Mondays and Wednesdays, and Hebert’s transition from accompanist to director has been smooth.

Hebert started out as a choir member.

“I was in the choir as an undergraduate, and Mr. Parker saw that I could play the piano as well as I could sing,” Hebert says. “I earned my undergraduate degree in music in 2006, then came back to LSU and earned my master’s degree in collaborative piano in 2010.”

Yet the view from the director’s seat is much different than from the piano bench.

“I’ve been rehearsing with Mr. Parker weekly for so long that I know what to do,” Hebert says. “But it’s still different. This comes with all things expected from a leader of an organization. You have to have organizational skills, and you have to spearhead all activity. It’s quite an undertaking.”

But it also has its rewards, which include a family of alumni.

“I not only made friends, but the music stayed with me,” Mena says. “There’s a song titled ‘He Can Fix What is Broken.’ It was a song the Mississippi Mass Choir sang , and we picked it up. It’s still one of my favorite gospel songs. Music defines a lifetime, and this song defines that time in my life when I was in the Gospel Choir.”

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