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The Choirmaster: Larry Bland celebrates 50 years leading the Volunteer Choir with a performance featuring Cora Harvey Armstrong 

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Sandra Sellars

"I have over 300 children, probably," Larry Bland says in his congenial way, laughter tumbling behind his words. He speaks of spiritual, not biological, sons and daughters. Like the Levites in the Bible days, Bland's life has been one of full commitment to God.

A picket fence, wife-and-kids kind of existence didn't fit into that for him — and he's OK with it. For more than 50 years, Bland has poured his time, efforts and essence into musical ministry, specifically through the lens of gospel. He's passed on his lessons to as many young, aspiring musicians and directors as he can.

"Maybe children would have been a distraction," he murmurs. "Who knows? I do know that I'm grateful God has directed me in his will and his vision for all these years. ...  I'm right where I'm supposed to be."

It's hard not to argue his purpose as divinely appointed when surveying Bland's five decade-long career in gospel music. At the Richmond Folk Festival this year, Bland will appear with the Volunteer Choir, as they celebrate 50 years of music ministry together. On Sunday, Oct. 14, at 3:15 p.m., they will perform with a musical guest, Cora Harvey Armstrong.

Bland says that Armstrong, a gospel veteran in her own right, is "like family." They met at Virginia State University when Armstrong joined the Virginia State University Gospel Chorale, which Bland formed in the spring of 1972. Armstrong has publicly credited Bland as one of her earliest gospel music influences and she became a director of the Gospel Chorale after Bland's tenure.

"Cora is an extraordinary musician and vocalist," Bland explains. "[Her] vocal delivery and the spirit that she brings to her performances is simply overwhelming is some instances. ... She is equally committed to her beliefs as to her musicianship, and you feel that, hearing her."

Bland says at the Folk Festival they'll perform a song Armstrong composed and taught the choir "many years ago," sure to be braced by their signature dynamism and her fervor.

Bland's decades of gospel musicianship started when he was a boy living in a flat over a barbershop on Harrison Street. His family first attended Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Mosely, where his mom and dad served in different capacities.

"They were both singers, and mom was in the choir, my father was a trustee and deacon."  During his formative years at the church, Bland formed a bond with his godmother, Bettie Keel, who was the choir director. Because of her, Bland gravitated toward music. When he was about 8, he began taking piano lessons from her.

His mom bought a piano for their home — "a huge sacrifice" — and young Bland's development as a pianist and vocalist continued. On the radio, he often heard the man who would become one of his greatest influences, the Rev. James Cleveland. "I'd listen to him all the time," Bland recalls. "His style of traditional gospel singing and playing, I based my own playing on that."

In his pre-teen years, Bland's family attended Second Baptist Church, where he and his older brother Andrew participated in "Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, all of that," he says. There were opportunities to act in plays and to create and present both visual and performance art. Keel recommended Bland, when he was 14, to fill an opening for a youth choir director at nearby Abner Baptist Church. It was there his ability to direct gospel choirs was honed.

After graduating from Richmond's Maggie L. Walker High School, Bland began his freshman year at Virginia State University in 1971, studying music education. His high school music teacher, Robert L. Jones, and then-director of Virginia Union University's music program, Odell Hobbs, helped him secure funds and scholarships for college.

In the same period he was learning and growing with his college choir, Bland stepped in to lead Second Baptist Church's Volunteer Choir in the early 1970s, which had been formed in 1968. What he learned at college, he applied to his directorship of the Volunteer Choir.

"In terms of musical arrangements, but especially in terms of musical professionalism, we were doing what other gospel choirs in Richmond and elsewhere weren't," Bland says. "I was teaching [the Volunteer Choir] anthems, hymns, Negro spirituals. I taught them a chant in Latin." He taught the group how to visually present themselves as a musical ensemble, patterned after formal concert choirs. "The ladies were in gowns and pearls, the men in tuxedoes."

He also picked up pointers by watching the Marching 110, Virginia State's marching band. "The precision drills, the sharpness, the uniformity, I started including that in our choir's presentation," he says. His signature style of "gospel show choir" formatted performance was directly influenced by the band; Bland is one of the earliest gospel artists in the country to include choreography in his choir's presentations.

The musical showmanship was a crowd-drawing boon at most churches — not so at others. "Some churches were like, 'Get this dancing choir out of here, what is this?'"

After recovering from a car accident that nearly maimed his arm permanently, Bland graduated from VSU in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in vocal music education. Since that time, Bland has toured on both coasts with the Volunteer Choir and led the group as it performed before the Queen of England and three Virginia governors, including Gov. Ralph Northam at his January inauguration. He has also worked with the Richmond Symphony and forayed into the realms of theater and opera.

Throughout the Richmond-Petersburg corridor, Bland has led numerous choirs, facilitated music workshops at many churches and racked up awards for his artistry. Now, for the first time that he can remember, he is about to take a break.

"I need some time to re-energize spiritually," says Bland, who will officially retire from directing the Volunteer Choir this year. "I'm glad God has allowed me the insight to see that I need to take some time to step from the front and position myself in the pew."

The lasting legacy of gospel music is beautiful in its simplicity, Bland believes.  

"Gospel has the power to communicate the love of God like nothing else in this world can. It transcends everything and reaches into whoever is listening."

Larry Bland and the Volunteer Choir perform with guest Cora Harvey Armstrong on Sunday, Oct. 14, from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m.

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