Daily Reporter staff writer

NASHVILLE — From where she sat, Grace Gearlds could see a large screen. She could see what was going on, but since she was behind it, everything was backward.

When the moment was right, however, the lights came up on her and the rest of a large choir facing forward to back up Casting Crowns at the 46th annual Gospel Music Association Dove Awards.

“As the curtain parted, and I saw the audience, I could feel the excitement build while the choir added volume to Casting Crowns’ singing,” Jordan Crump, 16, wrote in an email.

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Gearlds and Crump were among 11 Hancock County Children’s Choir members who traveled to Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena in Nashville for the Oct. 13 awards show. The event is regarded by some as the “Christian Grammys” — although some of the artists there, including Casting Crowns, have won actual Grammys as well.

The choir sat in rows of seats behind the stage and rose, suddenly in the spotlight, to offer vocal embellishment to Casting Crowns’ adaptation of the late 1800s song, “At Calvary.”

Gearlds, a home-schooled high school freshman, said after the performance, choir members slipped out to the front of the building, had their tickets checked and joined the audience for the rest of the three-hour awards show.

It was the finale of a long and full day. After arriving in Nashville on Oct. 11 and attending an initial rehearsal the next afternoon, choir members showed up at 7:30 a.m. Oct. 13 to line up for an 8 to 11 a.m. rehearsal. Casting Crowns members turned and waved at the choir when it joined the song. Ashley Heady, 16, said lead singer Mark Hall talked to the choir and prayed for its members before leaving.

The hours between that rehearsal and the show included a VIP experience with opportunities to meet and take photos with various big names in Christian music. With a tight time slot, “You had to pick your line and stick with it,” Gearlds said.

Still, Gearlds and Heady said the artists they met there and in the general milling around before the awards were friendly and genuine, engaging in conversation. Former “American Idol” contestant Colton Dixon even took time for a photo while having dinner with his fiancée.

Heady said that lack of pretense was especially evident during the awards show. During several nominees’ performances, the audience stood, sang along and/or clapped to the beat.

“When the artists were performing, it was more like it was a worship service, and we were all at church together,” Heady said. “None of the artists were like, ‘We’re too good for you.’ … It was incredible.”

The journey to the Dove Awards began with another journey for the local children’s choir, which has more than 80 members ranging in age from 5 to 18 performing in six ensembles. In January, some members traveled to Carnegie Hall, also to sing with Casting Crowns.

“We found the band members of Casting Crowns to be genuine, down-to-earth and passionate about their faith and mission,” Gayle Roschi, founder and artistic choral director of the choir, wrote in an email.

When True North Presents, an organization that brings musicians together for concert ministry performances, invited the choir to be a part of the choir for the Dove Awards, “We quickly agreed and invited the older students in our choir to go to Nashville, Tennessee,” she said.

When it sank in that they would be going, Gearlds said, the excitement built and built.

“A trip like this is a wonderful opportunity to bond with other choir members, because during regular rehearsals, we don’t have much time to talk,” Emily Crump, 14, wrote in an email.

After two invitations to Carnegie Hall and getting to perform at various community events, Heady said, being part of the Dove Awards was another amazing opportunity.

“It’s insane how many things we’ve been invited to do,” she said. “All of us were so excited, we were jumping out of our skins.”

Roschi wrote she’s proud of the students for building a reputation of being prepared, hard-working and of good character, which leads to exciting invitations. She also sees life lessons in the experience.

“They were able to get a glimpse at the work invested in doing things well, learning patience in production and experiencing the exhilaration of being a part of such a huge event.”

See the performance

You can see a video of the Dove Awards performance featuring some Hancock County Children’s Choir members on the choir’s Facebook page. Or enter “casting crowns dove awards calvary” in the search field at YouTube.

Hancock County Children’s Choir was founded in 2011 and rehearses at Mt. Comfort United Methodist Church. Learn more at hancockcountychildrenschoir.org.