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Small but spirited, Sumner High choir finds hard-fought harmony

Piano accompanist Paul Cereghino, center left, works on chords with student Obadiah Simms as Sumner’s choir works through a piece.
Jane Mather-Glass
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St. Louis Public Radio
Piano accompanist Paul Cereghino, center left, works on chords with student Obadiah Simms as Sumner’s choir runs through a piece.

In August, hopes were high as choir rehearsal returned to St. Louis’ Sumner High School. It was the first time in about two decades the historic school attempted to form a choir, and it came on the heels of an effort to save the school from closure.

For the students and for Maria Ellis, a local choral conductor and radio host tapped to lead the new class as part of the school’s new focus on arts and activism, the first semester has proved to be a challenging one — but also full of reward.

“[During] first quarter, my focus really wasn’t on singing,” Ellis told St. Louis on the Air before a recent rehearsal. “My focus was on learning basics — treble clef, bass clef, staff, lines and spaces, measures [and] how to count rhythms. And now we’re getting into, ‘OK, so now we’ve learned how to do this; let me show what it actually looks like on sheet music, and let’s go from there.’

Sumner High School choir students rehearse a song in preparation for their winter concert during a recent rehearsal with instructor Maria Ellis.
Jane Mather-Glass / St. Louis Public Radio
/
Sumner High School choir students rehearse a song in preparation for their winter concert during a recent rehearsal with instructor Maria Ellis.

“Now they’re getting comfortable actually singing with each other. But that comes from building relationships.”

At the beginning of the school year, nearly 40 Sumner students were enrolled in choir, Ellis said. That number has dwindled to about a dozen, making it more of an ensemble than a full-blown choir at this point. But the young singers who remain in the course seem eager to be a part of it.

That includes alto Daatha Love.

“I feel comfortable around everyone who’s here, [and] our teacher’s great,” the student said. “She’s fun — she’s one of the cool, hip teachers and stuff like that. She makes everything easy to understand and she’s just a lovable person.

“She cares a lot, outside of, like, teaching [itself]. She actually cares about the home life and stuff like that. And I just like this class overall, because, like, look at the piano man. He’s awesome. He’s so talented, he can play by ear. That’s so cool.”

As the group prepared for its invitation-only winter concert set for this Thursday, piano accompanist Paul Cereghino kept up with the students and Ellis as they moved quickly from page to page and piece to piece. He also worked closely with student Obadiah Simms, who sat masked alongside him on the piano bench at the front of the room, practicing chords.

“I’ve mostly learned the majors and the minors and the seventh notes … and I’m going to try to get into octave notes,” Simms said.

Inside choir rehearsal at historic Sumner High School
Listen as "St. Louis on the Air" checks in with the ensemble as Maria Ellis and her students prepare for their winter concert.

First opened in 1875, Sumner High was the first high school west of the Mississippi River to award diplomas to Black students. Among its alumni are Chuck Berry and Tina Turner. Ellis is frank about the difficulties she and current students have encountered as they find their collective voice and aim to help reinvigorate the school’s storied legacy.

Dealing with everything from COVID-19 quarantines, which forced them to rehearse via Zoom for several weeks this fall, to the sheer challenge of “building a culture” of being excited to come to class hasn’t been easy, Ellis said.

But then there are the moments of accomplishment and growth that make it all worth it, like one Ellis recently shared on Facebook.

“When your students are singing so well and are so hype that teachers walking by the classroom have to stop in their tracks and come listen!” the choral director wrote on her page after Monday’s rehearsal. “SING SUMNER!”

St. Louis on the Air plans to continue following the choir’s journey throughout the school year.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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