Clutching the microphone close to her lips, a girl in flip-flops stood at the front of about 170 young musicians, singers and performers in Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena.
She began belting out the lyrics to “Down to the River to Pray” as the orchestra behind her plucked strings and tapped piano keys, filling the basketball arena with ethereal-like melodies.
This song was but one of many that students practiced and performed during the 10th annual Fine Arts Summer Academy July 13-27 in Nashville hosted by the members of the Annie Moses Band.
The Annie Moses Band — a gospel-folk group of nine members of the Wolaver family — performs about 80 shows nationwide each year. But the Wolavers settle for a few weeks every summer to teach aspiring performers not only how to improve their talents but also how to use their abilities to glorify God.
The Fine Arts Summer Academy (FASA) is open to students of all skill levels, said Annie Dupre, lead singer and violinist of the band. Once enrolled, students submit videos of their talents, from which the Wolavers cast specific roles for musicians, singers, dancers and actors. Dupre added that she and her family create each show to coordinate with students’ skill levels.
Jacquie Mitchell, a FASA volunteer coordinator, said the students get their music, scripts and other performance materials when they arrive at the college. Within days, students memorize skits, learn choreography, practice vocals or familiarize themselves with sheets of music.
The list of songs for this year’s gala, titled “Rhapsody in Bluegrass,” ranged from gospel to jazz — all arranged by Bill Wolaver, father of the Wolaver family, pianist and composer/arranger of music for the family band.
Last year, the gala was held at Lipscomb’s arena. But for this year’s gala, the young performers had the chance to showcase their talents at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
During rehearsals, lines of blue tape on Lipscomb’s gym floor marked the size of the Opry’s stage in order to give students an idea of the size of the venue, which is the stomping ground for country stars such as Vince Gill and Carrie Underwood. The young performers’ chairs were tightly packed in the outlined stage area, with little room to spare.
Mario DaSilva, a five-year FASA guitar instructor and graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the managers at the Opry even were unsure at first how to fit so many performers on their stage.
“Last year we did it here [at Lipscomb] … which was packed,” said DaSilva, who was recruited as a FASA faculty member after giving the youngest Wolaver guitar lessons. “And now we’re doing the gala at the Grand Ole Opry. So no telling where it’s going to be next year. We’ll have to rent a football stadium!”
Space was not the only issue FASA instructors had to figure into their plans, as faculty also raced against time to prepare students for the gala on Thursday, July 25 — two days earlier than normal — because of the Opry being busy on weekends, DaSilva said. But most students had performed before, which DaSilva said helped better prepare them for the time crunch.
“I think what’s unique about this is the grandeur of it,” DaSilva said of the gala, which he described as having a “homemade, homegrown” feel to it. “There are moments where the students get to shine by themselves. The stages are usually big, there’s lights, there’s mics, there’s costumes. And there’s a certain sense of perfectionism that goes with it. There’s a little pressure that we are performing this the best we can.”
But the pressure doesn’t seem to scare participants away, as DaSilva noted that many of the current faculty members were FASA students themselves. Some faculty members such as Steven Bowman, a student at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, return to FASA each year to teach.
Meeting the Wolaver family at one of their concerts, Bowman said he “was captivated by the vision they had — the vision to see young people given the opportunity to excel at their art and glorify God in the process.” He became a FASA string mentor in 2007 and has taught violin and fiddle ensembles as well as private lessons at FASA since 2008. Bowman even traveled to New York City in 2012 to perform with the Annie Moses Band at Carnegie Hall.
The first week of FASA, which included more than 250 lower and upper division attendees, was spent getting the students familiar with the performance materials, DaSilva said. He and his fellow guitar faculty members, including his son James, listened to various ensembles to make sure the performers were learning their music. Bowman taught a violin technique class and a violin sectional during this time, in addition to bluegrass and fiddle ensembles.
By the second week, with the lower division students having left, the upper division students began preparing for the gala by practicing with the entire orchestra. In order to be ready for the Opry performance, students and faculty often rehearsed late into the night, Bowman said.
“Working with these kids is pure joy for me,” Bowman said. “It’s exciting to see the light in their eyes when they catch on to a new concept or finally play a passage at full speed. I try to not just give short-term instruction, though. I want them to be able to have tools that they can use when they return home that will ultimately give them more skill and freedom as an artist.
“Overall, though, I think my biggest desire is that they would see my love for God and how it influences what I do and why I do it,” Bowman said. “If the students realize how much of an impact they can have for the Kingdom of God and how much Christ’s love can be conveyed through the beauty of their art, then they will be free to make music that affects lives.”
DaSilva said the goal of FASA is to “further the Kingdom of God through excellent music,” with Bowman noting that the Psalms say to “play skillfully” while 1 Corinthians 10:31 instructs that “in whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
In order to intertwine Christ in FASA’s theme and purpose, the academy instructors held daily chapel services that were designed to encourage students in their faith, to challenge them to love and obey God and to serve one another in love, Bowman said.
“At FASA, these students are given the opportunity to play skillfully but point to God as the source of such gifts and the one worthy of praise,” Bowman said. “It is our hope that we will see this generation take back the world of the arts for the glory of God by being excellent in all they do for His purposes.”
— Beth Byrd is a staff writer for Baptist Press. For more information about the summer academy, visit www.fineartssummeracademy.com.