Elisha Mitchell Age: 33. Vocation: Choir director.
Some people discover early in life that they possess a gift.
But what if your gift is directing choirs? How early can you expect to discover a gift like that?
Let’s put it this way. Elisha Mitchell has been directing choirs for 20 years. And she’s only 33.
Mitchell, who now directs several gospel choirs in Spokane, including the youth gospel choir Angels With Attitude, was handed her first choir at an almost ridiculously young age.
It happened when the music director of her Seattle church announced she was quitting and her replacement was - young Elisha. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She couldn’t direct a choir. She was only 13.
Every single member of the choir was older. Her mother was in the choir. All of her mother’s friends were in the choir.
And you know what happened? Young Elisha Mitchell turned out to be a born choir director.
“That music director saw something in me that I didn’t see,” Mitchell said. “I never had a problem with anyone saying, ‘You young whippersnapper, where do you get off teaching me something?’ Whatever I would ask of them, that’s what they would do.”
A teen teaching an adult choir - it turned out to be excellent training for an adult teaching a teen choir. Angels With Attitude, a 45-member group, performs several times a month in the Inland Northwest and has been invited to sing in three states.
Mitchell is the co-director of that group, along with the Rev. Otis Freelon and Donna Vaughn. Mitchell also directs the Fairchild Air Force Base gospel choir and the Martin Luther King Day citywide choir; and she is the minister of music at the Bethel AME Church in Spokane, where the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, her husband, is pastor.
“She will sit down and work out the song and then teach it to the choir,” Freelon said. “She makes the song come alive.”
“I’m a singer, and part of what I do is interpret the song for them,” Mitchell said. “How it should be sung, and the feeling and emotion that’s supposed to be in it. I feel that when you’re singing a song, you’re putting on the character of whoever is the speaker in the song.”
Meanwhile, she makes certain that rehearsals are fun.
“I will make people laugh,” she said. “I will do everything short of sin to get across what I need to get across. If you’re not smiling, and I’m directing, then I’m going to pretend to stick a finger up my nose or something.”
Mitchell’s other gift, her gift for singing, she discovered at an even earlier age.
“When we would sing the national anthem, I always noticed I was louder than everybody.
“The kids would turn around and look at me, and I’d say, ‘But this is how it’s coming out. I can’t help it.”’ When she was 9, she was in a Christmas musical at school.
“Everybody said, ‘You can really sing,”’ Mitchell recalled. “I didn’t know it was a gift. Everybody in my family could sing. They weren’t musical, nobody played any instruments. But we’d be going to grandma’s house, singing.”
She wanted to sing like her mother. She also had some other role models. She sang along with them on her little Mickey Mouse record player.
“I wanted the range of Stephanie Mills, and the emotional quality of Barbra Streisand. Ohhh, man, she just had a way with a song, it just transformed me somewhere else. Especially ‘Evergreen.’ I just loved that song.”
So by the time she was handed her first choir, she had a fine singing voice and an uncanny ear for music. What she didn’t have was formal training.
“I would listen to songs on the records, listen to what the sopranos, the tenors, the altos were singing, and I’d write the letter notes and I’d stack them on top of each other and teach my choir,” she said. “My little choir had 10 people, 12 on a good day, and they sounded like 50. And we did everything a cappella.”
But she thought maybe a little accompaniment wouldn’t hurt. The only problem was, she didn’t know how to play the piano.
“There was this hymn that I loved called ‘Be Still My Soul,’ and I asked one of the ladies where middle C was on the music, and on the piano,” she said. “And I counted up all of those lines and spaces, because I wanted to play this hymn. And that’s how I started to play the piano.”
She learned as she went, and sometimes, it wasn’t pretty. There was one pivotal moment when she almost chucked the whole thing. She was playing in the empty sanctuary, trying to pick out “Be Still My Soul,” when the pastor came in.
He said, “Oh, Elisha. Please. Spare me.”
“It crushed me,” she said. “For a minute … but the desire was still there. And I just kept going.”
She eventually took lessons, but much of what she does is intuitive. She gets a secret thrill when a formally trained choir director comes to her and says, “Can you show us what you do?”
“Now, that’s fun,” she said, laughing.
Still, she occasionally gets the jitters when she’s asked to do a big job, such as direct a citywide choir.
“I’ll say, ‘Surely there’s a more qualified person. Why are you asking me?’ That’s what I’m saying in my mind, but my mouth is closed.
“And the Lord is saying, ‘I’m giving you an opportunity. I’m opening doors for you. Whenever you are weak, I’m going to fill in the gaps.’ And He does it every time.”
Singing is her first love, and she often sings solos in her church choirs. She has sung for many city events. She even sang the national anthem (loudly, no doubt) for an NBA exhibition game at the Spokane Arena. Someday, she would like to pursue singing as a career.
Right now, family comes first. She and her husband have four children: L.J., 11; Chae, 9; and Camille, 3; plus a stepdaughter Shawntel, 20, who lives in Seattle.
She home-schools the three youngest to spend as much time with them as possible. “They’ll never be this age again,” she said.
Like many people with a gift in one area, she has a certain shortfall in another. Her shortfall is organization.
“Just mailing something,” she said, laughing. “First, I’ve got to write it, that’s a holiday, right? Then if I can get it in an envelope with the stamp and address, now we’re really talking. But then if I get it out to the mailbox, oh my goodness, we’ll have to declare a day of world peace or something. That’s how I am. But you give me some music? Ummm.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
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