To Suzanne Palmer, music is everything. But so, too, is interacting with people from all walks of life.
Palmer, a Normandy High School alumna, teaches music at Jefferson Elementary School. She’s taught in the district since 1999, and for the past four years she’s also directed the nonprofit Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis.
The choir’s primary purpose is to break through racial, economic and cultural barriers with song. It’s meant to show audiences how much they have in common. To get them singing. To get them talking. To increase their understanding of themselves and each other. And, most of all, to bring healing to a metropolitan area whose divisions still run deep.
“We’re just people who love people,” she said.
The group puts together two major performances a year, a Christmas concert in early December and a spring concert in early May. In between, members perform at venues around the city as requested. Their music is primarily African-American gospel and spirituals, although about 30 percent of the choir is made up of men and women from a broad range of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Since Palmer has been at the helm, the choir has grown from about 50 members to about 80. And it only seems to be getting larger.
“Every time we go out and spread the love, we get more members,” she said.
Although Palmer was subject to a rigorous auditioning process for her role, choir membership is open to everyone. It doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from or how well they can sing. The group practices for two hours once a week at Second Baptist Church in Clayton. They’re even situated close to a MetroLink stop so members without their own transportation never have to miss a beat.
The choir began in 2007 under the leadership of Cecelia Stearman, who recognized the need for such a group in the St. Louis area. Originally from Mississippi, Stearman saw many of the same kinds of racial tensions unfolding locally as she had in her home state.
“She wanted to bring people together, and I’m continuing with that,” Palmer said.
When she replaced Stearman in 2015, Palmer had just ended a 25-year run with the Fabulous Motown Revue – a side gig that took her all over the country and parts of the world, and even to Washington, D.C., during President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration festivities in 2008.
Although the Revue was fun and exciting, the constant travel, in addition to a full-time teaching job, a husband and three children, had become too much to juggle. But then Palmer heard about the choir opening.
“I thought, yeah, I really want this,” the Mizzou graduate recalled. “When I let (the Revue) go, the door closed but the window opened.”
And, even though Palmer said she realizes she probably could have left St. Louis – and Normandy – long ago, she also knew her talent could be put to use right here at home. Normandy is where she first learned to play the flute in the sixth grade, it’s where she graduated from high school, and it’s where she’s spent many joyful moments with generations of music students.
“I knew I could do more good if I stayed in touch with the children here,” she said.
To learn more about the Community Gospel Choir, visit communitygospelchoir.org.