Michelle Fowlin, a native of Queens in New York City and the daughter of Jamaican parents, has always had an unquenchable passion for music.
And while it’s been her bread and butter for the last 29 years as an instructor and choir director in the D.C. Public Schools, she said her greatest joy has come because of the work she does with a determined group of youth who have committed themselves to singing songs of praise and worship.
In her role as the conductor and vocal coach, officially as the artistic director of the Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Choir, a position she’s held for 15 years, she has the opportunity to pass on her love of music to the next generation.
But perhaps more important, she said it provides her with the awesome responsibility of helping to shape the minds, hearts and souls of children who live in the D.C. area as they prepare themselves to tackle the most pressing challenges faced by society — both now and in the future.
And make no mistake, these children have a message that they intend to share in ways that illustrate their creativity, their dedication and their refusal to be denied their seat at the table.
During the day, Fowlin, a child prodigy who began her musical studies on piano after being accepted into the Juilliard School’s pre-college program for aspiring young musicians at the age of nine, works with youth in Greenbelt, Maryland. Since 2009, she’s served as the director of choral programs at Eleanor Roosevelt High School while also teaching workshops and conducting various church choirs in the area.
After moving to the District in 1990, she enhanced her skills by matriculating at Howard University where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance and pedagogy with a minor in piano.
And while she has a long and impressive list of accomplishments to her credit, she said she’ll never forget one day in 1997 when she received a call inviting her to work with a local summer camp.
It would mark her introduction to the Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Choir [COTG], although at the time, she had no idea what the future would hold.
“Kathy Brewington, who’s now the manager of operations for the choir, asked me to lead a group of over 200 students who were interested in singing gospel music,” she said, adding that they were rehearsing at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest, where they still gather for practice.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘one day I’m going to direct this choir.’ Several years later, in 2003, I returned and began to lead the camp and to teach mobile workshops. In 2006, I took over as the artistic director,” she said.
Since its founding in 1993, COTG has served as one of Washington Performing Arts’s resident ensembles, providing opportunities for youth in grades four through 12 in an environment that promotes self-confidence, teamwork and respect. Choir members come from D.C., Maryland and Virginia, ranging in age from nine to 18.
And despite the current pandemic, Fowlin said they haven’t allowed the shutdowns or other unprecedented changes to deter them from their goals.
“We’re finally beginning to experience a sense of normalcy and that’s been refreshing,” she said. “Children, like adults, need human connections. For artists, that’s what keeps us alive. But our children, around 45 in total, found ways to remain active and engaged.”
What’s on the agenda for the choir?
Fowlin points to their annual concert which will take place at the Kennedy Center on April 10 and will feature the combined voices of Washington Performing Arts adult and children’s choirs. Their end-of-the-season concert will take place June 11 at Prince George’s Community College, Center for Performing Arts.
She said she’s been surprised at the children’s resilience.
“They are such deep thinkers and social revolutionaries and have so much they want to share and to say about what’s taking place in the world today,” she said. “Somehow they tie everything into their own creativity and do it at a superior level so they’re respected and not judged.”
“And they’re using the platform of music so that people will listen to them, perhaps a bit more willingly. I respect that so much and their work and I’m very proud of them. Our children are Black, white, Hispanic and Indian and they are students and performers of all genres of music – not just gospel music.”
“We want people across America to know about these children. Most important, we hope people will recognize what we already know – that they’re committed to becoming adults who have a love of and passion for music. And as they mature, they’re learning essential principles like self-discipline, timeliness, being prepared and present and perseverance. These are qualities they will be able to take with them no matter what they do with their lives.”
“They want things to change and they know things can change so that diversity becomes something which all Americans will embrace. But they need adults to hear them and join them and support them,” Fowlin said.
For more information, go to www. washingtonperformingarts.org or @childrenofthegospel on Twitter.