How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

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Members of the Church of the Palms choir gather around director Norma Brown upon their arrival for rehearsal prior to the concert Dec. 2 at Carnegie Hall. COURTESY ALVIN ARCAYAN

In December 2018, the Church of the Palms UMC (COTP) choir received a prestigious invitation from the Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) to participate in a performance of composer Pepper Choplin's "Heaven's Child," scheduled for the following December.

A very limited number of choirs and ensembles were invited to perform in this international concert, and Church of the Palms was one of them.

At the time, Norma Brown, COTP music director, said, "We feel highly honored and excited to be invited to perform 'Heaven's Child' with composer Choplin and other distinguished choirs at Carnegie Hall. We appreciate the opportunity to represent the Lowcountry of South Carolina at this event."

From that moment forward, the COTP choir members realized that they had a tremendous opportunity - but also a significant challenge to raise the funds necessary for 18 choir members to make the trip and perform in this concert. The goal was to raise $36,000, which would cover the travel, hotel and other costs for all choir members in New York City for five days of rehearsals and the actual performance.

Over the next 12 months, the choir held a dozen fundraising events, including spaghetti dinners, movie nights, potato bars, candy and flower sales, and a tremendously successful shoe drive.

Throughout the year, the choir received generous support from the Lowcountry community in their fundraising efforts.

The choir's efforts were successful. They raised their goal of $36,000, thanks to the generosity of COTP church members and other people throughout the Lowcountry community. To show their appreciation, the choir wishes to report on their experience which was made possible by that support.

On Dec. 2, 2019, the COTP choir joined hundreds of other choir members, orchestra members and composer Choplin in the Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, for the performance.

It was the thrill of a lifetime. "I feel so blessed to have been a part of such a wonderful experience and am very grateful to those who helped us get there," said COTP choir member Jill Swab.

Another choir member, Cindy Pringle, added, "It was such a privilege for our choir to be among those chosen to perform at Carnegie Hall. It was certainly an experience that I will never forget. Pepper Choplin's talent and skills as a conductor were quite impressive. Of course, sitting in the Stern Auditorium and actually performing on the Perelman Stage cannot be adequately described. I'm so grateful to Norma Brown, our music director, for her leadership and for the full support our choir received from the church congregation and community at large."

This was truly a diverse experience, as COTP choir member Alvin Arcayan describes. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine performing with 275 choir members from all over the country and of different beliefs (Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, etc.) at Carnegie Hall! Even the rehearsals were extraordinary, interacting with so many different people and the amazing composer- conductor Pepper Choplin."

Speaking of dreams, another COTP choir member, Lib Sanders, said she had dreamed of performing at Carnegie Hall as a child. "When I was a little girl," she said, "I always dreamed of performing there ... that was the ultimate. I always said I wanted to dance on that stage. Well, during our rehearsal, I actually did dance a little time step routine, and a singer behind me took a video without me knowing it. So now I can honestly say that I sang AND danced at Carnegie Hall."

Of course, none of this would have been possible without Brown's leadership and vision.

As Dr. Jonathan Griffith, artistic director and principal conductor for the DCINY said, "The Church of the Palms in Okatie received this invitation because of the quality and high level of musicianship demonstrated by the singers and the quality of their audition recording." COTP has performed numerous Choplin cantatas over the years under Brown's direction, and they have always been popular with the COTP congregation and community members.

As fate would have it, the Carnegie Hall concert would be among the last performances for the choir under Brown's direction. She announced her retirement effective Dec. 31, 2019.

"I'm so grateful that we were able to participate," said Brown. "It is something that I will never forget, and I'm so proud to say that I performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. It is unbelievable and I still think about it and all that we did while in the city. What a way to end my second career!"

Donita Todd is the communications coordinator for Church of the Palms United Methodist Church.

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