by Dawn! E. Robinson

11 November 2005

Choral arranger/director, ARPHELIUS PAUL GATLING III, passed away suddenly from a heart attack on November 4, 2005.  He was only 57 years old.  To say I was shocked by the news would be an understatement.  All I could think of was how unfortunate it is that generations of singers coming up won't have the chance to work with him.  I really feel badly for them.

I can't tell you how many choral groups and choirs Mr. Gatlin directed and/or arranged pieces for.  I sang under his direction as a student at DC's Duke Ellington School of the Arts where he would visit periodically to teach Concert Choir one of his arrangements or, on a rare occasion, substitute for our regular teacher/director, Edward Jackson.

Reading a tribute a friend emailed to me, there was a statement from a student who had sung under Mr. Gatling's direction that by the end of a rehearsal, you might hate him, but by then he would have taken you to another level.  That, too, was an understatement.  I couldn't help remembering the dread I would feel when Mr. Jackson would say, "Paul Gatling will be here in a few minutes to teach..."  Not that I didn't want to learn one of his arrangements.  But Mr. Gatling would work a piece so hard and for so long, you not only hated him, you hated the song too.  Not only that but, on a personal note, Mr. Gatlin's very presence meant that I would be in the unpleasant position of having to deal with an angry father.

See, technically, the school day at Ellington was over at 5:30pm.  Concert Choir was always the last class of the day for vocal music majors.  My father took me to school every morning and picked me up every afternoon.  A fact that led to some minor teasing from my classmates, but only until a rehearsal ran really late and one of them would have missed that last bus going across town and they would need a ride home.  My dad would always agree to drive them home, mainly because he just had a thing about kids being out in the street alone after dark.  My father really wasn't a mean guy, but he always had a look of - what... disdain - that would scare other kids just enough not to bother me.  But I digress...

When I think about it, Pop didn't really ask alot of me.  Basically, I was supposed do as I was told, go to school, get some decent grades and be wherever he had dropped me off when he came to pick me up.  The moment Mr. Gatling walked into the choir room, I knew that last item would be shot to hell.  I knew that choir was gonna run well past 5:30 and Pop would have to find a parking space somewhere around 35th & R Streets NW - or if he was really angry, double-park on the R Street side of Ellington - come inside and climb the steps to the third floor (which would only make him angrier) and glare at me through the glass of the choir room door.  While singing a certain line or section of Mr. Gatling's song for the thousandth time, my internal radar would gauge Pop's every step until I would feel his gaze and I'd look over at him through the glass sheepishly and shrug as if to say, "C'mon, Pop, you know I can't just walk out."  This would spark whispers among some of my well-meaning classmates: "Dawn's father is at the door and he's pissed;" or "Dawn, you'd better go, your father's at the door;" or "Her dad's not pissed, he always looks like that."  Eventually, either Mr. Jackson would notice Pop in the hallway and try to ruffle his feathers or he'd just tell me I was free to go - or, if Mr. Jackson wasn't there, I'd have to find the nerve somewhere during a pause between phrases to ask Mr. Gatling if I could go while pointing pleadingly at my father glaring at me through the door.  Then, all the way back down the steps, outside, to the car, during the entire drive home (with his angry foot on the gas pedal) and all through dinner, I'd hear it: "The day is over at 5:30 - by 5:35 you should be on your way out the door - I don't care what's going on, you are supposed to be ready to go when I pick you up - I don't care who he is, people need to go home at the end of the day..."  I'd try to make an effort to get a word in and plead my case, but there really was no point in arguing with my dad.  By the time dinner was over, Pop would have let it go.  That is, until the next visit to Ellington from Mr. Gatlin.

Truth be told, I'm glad I had the opportunity to sing some of Paul Gatlin's arrangements.  I don't remember how many of them Concert Choir did when I was at Ellington, but two come to mind in particular - "Hold On" and "We Shall Overcome" - both of which challenged our young voices and ears to their limits and beyond.  Usually, the kids who had learned the piece in previous years (or who had sung it with DC Youth Chorale) would sing through it first.  Then the rest of us would sightread the sheet music and we'd learn the piece note by note, line by line, phrase by phrase.  I remember the first time I heard "Hold On" I was convinced Mr. Gatlin was temporarily insane when he wrote it.  The thing was in 8 parts which means that the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses were split into first and second harmony parts and there was syncopated counterpoint among the parts.  So, you not only had to know your part but everyone else's so you didn't come in too soon or too late.  At first, I really thought Mr. Gatling was nuts.  And he would work each section, each line, each phrase, each part, call on people to sing solo, go down the rows of whatever section kept singing wrong, pick out quartets (or octets, in the case of "Hold On") and then, as a full ensemble, we'd sing it again and again and again and again and again... Ultimately, by the time of the performance, the piece was ingrained into each of us.  It was a part of our very soul.  And all of the time and energy put into learning and perfecting the piece was well-spent.

Whenever people ask me about singing, I tell them that, in addition to doing solo work, they should have the experience to sing with a really good choir under a really good director.  I've been blessed to sing under a few choral masters.  Paul Gatling was definitely one of them.  He will truly be missed.


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