A Lasting Legacy: The mission and music of Tehillah

The Columns - A Lasting Legacy

Tehillah soars in Swasey on Martin Luther King Day, 2009: (from left) Jaelyn Johnson ‘11, Nicky Duncan, Vanessa Butler ‘11, Tiffany Allen, Charisse Mandimika, Tyra Owens ‘10, Ciara Scott, Derrick Hearns ‘12, and Victoria Roberts ‘11.

The nine members of Tehillah are standing side by side in a single line, facing the audience in Herrick Hall, rocking almost imperceptibly in unison. They’re taking a moment to feel the space, the music, and the message moving silently, rhythmically through them. Tiffany Allen ‘09 is the heartbeat of the gospel group (“They tell me I have rhythm in my bones…”), and the pulse and pace seem to emanate from her to the others. With no visible signal, the singers fall together on the first note of “Can’t Give Up Now,” right on the mark.

This signature Tehillah song, originally recorded by gospel singers Mary Mary, goes back to the Denison group’s earliest performances together, with soaring solos from soprano Nicky Duncan ‘09 and a steady driving beat: “I just can’t–give–up–now… come too far from where I started from….” As with every piece in Tehillah’s repertoire, the message is about faith, strength in adversity, finding and staying on the positive road. But for the graduating seniors and founders of the a cappella gospel group, this is also a statement of commitment and fortitude to pass along to the younger members.

This is the final concert for Tehillah’s three founding members, Charisse Mandimika ‘09, Nicky Duncan, and Tiffany Allen. Active and over-scheduled freshmen back in the spring of 2006, they recognized a common desire for the small-group, close-harmony singing they had known in their homes and churches before coming to Denison. They missed having the time set aside for spiritual and musical expression. Through their emails that summer, “Tehillah”–from Hebrew, meaning “to sing a spontaneous hymn of praise to God”–began to take shape. By autumn the three sophomores were ready to go all the way and create an officially recognized campus organization, with an executive board, an advisor (campus chaplain Mark Orten), and a mission statement. Mandimika, the group’s president, took the administrative helm (“Because I’m an organized person,” she says with a laugh), and auditions led to the first of many Tehillah performances in the spring of 2007.

With shifting membership each year and no written music, Tehillah’s unmistakable harmonies don’t come so much from standard four-part arrangements as from an improvised blending of voices, and members have the vocal range to go where they’re needed. With versatile talent like Ciara Scott ‘09, who covers mezzosoprano down to alto and even tenor, Tehillah singers shape themselves to the music, making each adopted song a strong reflection of the group’s identity.

But their sound is never more important than their message, and the members make it clear their mission is singing and sharing their faith. Ministry is the core of their commitment to the heavy lifting of rehearsals, campus performances, and traveling to churches in- and out-of-state on weekends.

They know their Denison audiences may not always share their Christian beliefs, but they also know their performances reach people on many levels. “Just hearing one person tell us, ‘that song touched my heart’ or you turned my bad day around,’” says Allen, “is what keeps me motivated.” Mandimika explains, “We want to bring people to their own transcendentally spiritual place, if you will … that place within us all. There’s something special in gospel music for everyone.”

Incoming president Vanessa Butler ‘11 already has auditions and possible musical directions on her mind this summer, but the next generation of Tehillah will still be about the message in the music. “We’re going to be reaching out to as many people as we can.”

Published August 2009