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Sumner High School’s choir is bringing '90s R&B to upcoming Black History concert

Maria Ellis stands at the front of the room on the right side of the image with her arm raised, directing her students in vocal warmups. a few students are pictured facing her on the right side of the photo.
Jane Mather-Glass
St. Louis Public Radio
Maria Ellis leads her students in vocal warmups.

Maria Ellis took on a big job when she relaunched Sumner High School’s historic choir. More than six months since its start, the group has had its ups and downs — but the students have shown growth in their relationships and in their abilities.

“I think my relationship with them is stronger than it's ever been before. And I'm very, very proud of that,” Ellis said before a rehearsal this week.

The students have a Black History Month concert coming up, and Ellis has them performing hip-hop songs — one student even wrote his own rap for No Diggity.

“I wanted to take the music through the '90s era, because that's my era,” Ellis said. “We’re doing some SWV, the group Escape, and we have No Diggity with Blackstreet.”

She said having her student write a rap for No Diggity was a challenge initially.

“He's like, ‘I can't rap without cursing.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you can. Go take some time, go sit on the couch and write this out for me.’ And he came back with just bars and bars and bars.”

The students are excited about the more modern turn the choir is taking with this performance, too. Brooklyn Robinson, who’s been in the choir since August, is looking forward to the performance. She said that the choir is in better shape than at the beginning.

“Last semester was like, trying to get us to sing, but we're singing more now — and we're better from last semester,” Robinson said. She added that she loves the songs. “They’re way better from last semesters’. More modern and more things that we know.”

But, the choir is not without its off days. With a class full of busy teenagers who are new to choir, there are bound to be some days where not everything goes as planned. Sometimes the students don’t want to project or sing much at all. At this point in the process, Ellis didn’t totally expect this — but she’s rolling with it.

Listen: Sumner High School's choir prepares for Black History Month concert

“In January, I thought — and this could be my misunderstanding as the teacher — I thought, because our December performance went so well, that we were just going to keep going up,” Ellis said. “But we traveled down a few steps, took a few steps back. And now we are on a trail back up.”

Her students sometimes need some extra encouragement to get singing. It’s hard for some of them, like Robinson, who considers herself a quieter person.

“I'm very shy and I don't talk too much, so it's kind of nerve-wracking,” she said. “But I like it because she’s giving me an opportunity to show everybody I can sing, but I just know I gotta crack open my shell, you know?”

Despite the days when the students are quiet, Ellis is glad to see how dedicated they’ve become to the choir.

“On Monday, actually, we had some kids who were trying — they weren't in this class — but they were trying to disrupt our class,” Ellis said. “And the whole class was like: ‘No, get out of here. Like, we're not playing.’ And I appreciate that. They've really taken pride in what they do, and it is really inspiring to see.”

As far as plans for next year, Ellis has some big things in store.

“I've been asked to conduct at Carnegie Hall next year, and I would love to have students from Sumner on that great stage with me if we're ready. And if we're not ready, that's OK,” she said. “We'll do some other gigs. But I'd love to have some of the kids onstage with me. So that's what we are looking forward to next year. Come on, let's rise up to level so we can go to Carnegie. They deserve that.”

Overall, Ellis said she’s glad to be where she is. She’s a good motivator for the kids, and even on their off days, she’s always able to get them up and singing.

“It's a journey, but it's a fun journey. And I'm loving every minute of it.”

Related Event

What: Sumner Black History Month concert

When: 1 p.m. March 16

Where: Sumner High School

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