Sound of Success

If you're looking for good news -- about kids, the future, and the power of art to change the world -- you needn't look beyond the Oakland Youth Chorus

On the day after Halloween, as a half-circle of folding chairs blooms around a black piano, the 55 members of the Oakland Youth Chorus' concert group warm up their vocal chords by gossiping, giggling, and gushing about last night's trick-or-treating. "My Halloween was so fun," reports one girl, dragging a chair to her place in the alto section. "Even the projects gave out candy."

Trente Morant, a former Catholic school teacher and the chorus' musical director since 1992, takes a seat at the piano and tells everyone to spit out gum, sit up straight, and concentrate. The church cafeteria, which doubles as the chorus rehearsal room, comes alive with the sound of shuffling sheet music. And when the first tune, a lilting Polish ballad called "Lullaby, Jesu," reveals a soprano section unable to hit and sustain high notes, Morant's hands leap from the keys and clutch exaggeratedly at his neck, a high-pitched screech mimicking the sopranos' throat-straining notes: "What kind of baby gonna rock to sleep to something like that? Come on, people, sing. Sing loud and wrong."

For the next 30 minutes, the chorus takes Morant's latter piece of advice a bit too literally. After one particularly unsteady attempt to soothe the savior, Morant decides it's his chorus that has fallen asleep.

Trente Morant conducts the Oakland Youth Chorus with his eyes as much as his hands.
Paolo Vescia
Trente Morant conducts the Oakland Youth Chorus with his eyes as much as his hands.

"Time to get serious," he says, eyes locking with the few singers who aren't staring at their shoes. "We have six more rehearsals before the Christmas concert. You should all know these pieces by now. That doesn't mean you have them memorized, but when I start playing ..." Morant bangs out the opening chords of a jazzed-up "Let It Snow" "... you should instantly be thinking, "Oh, I know how that goes.' You're not learning these for the first time." The room falls silent, Morant's words echoing in place of the music.

"What I'm hearing," he explains devastatingly, "is not the OYC sound."

That sound -- a blend of rhythm and blues, jazz, classical, gospel, and globe-spanning folk, sung in a style Morant defines as "supported, round, with excitement in the middle of it" -- has made the Oakland Youth Chorus one of the country's best. Open to anyone between the ages of 14 and 21, the chorus has played the White House, sung on national television, toured the United States and several other countries, and become a fixture at Bay Area inaugurations, benefit galas, and sporting events. Forgoing the hands-at-your-sides, rigid-on-the-risers European choral tradition still favored by most American ensembles, Morant draws from his charges a slick, contemporary combination of inner-city soul and Renaissance refinement. As one singer puts it: "We can get onstage and boogie, but we can knock out some opera, too."

In a city full of voids, the Oakland Youth Chorus plugs several: It teaches the music education classes neglected by so many public schools; exposes teenagers to professional musicians, role models, and music-minded East Bay peers; and, perhaps most important, provides an after-school alternative to hanging out on the streets. More than 90 percent of the teens who have sung with the Oakland Youth Chorus' concert choir have gone on to college; Oakland's overall rate is one in four. Although not every student who lifts his or her voice with the chorus is "at risk" of flunking high school, joining a gang, or succumbing to drugs, members, most of whom live in Oakland, say the chorus' ethnic and economic makeup accurately reflects the city's populace.

"I left the chorus at my school because it wasn't diverse," says Shola Adisa-Farrar, 16, who dreams of attending New York University on her way to a singing career. "I remember standing on the risers day after day, singing the same boring songs. Here you sing opera, soul, everything. This place was like a savior to me."

Of the countless theories about why the Oakland Youth Chorus works, Adisa-Farrar's explanation -- that Oakland's singing teens will succeed given a welcoming and diverse environment -- may be the one most commonly advanced. But the weeks of rehearsals leading up to the chorus' Christmas concerts, to be held Friday and Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, suggest another reason: At OYC, teenagers aren't regarded as students; they are treated like professional musicians. Sculpting the chorus' sound is a difficult, rigorous enterprise, exemplified and strengthened by Morant's almost military efficiency.

If, amid the myriad personal disasters of teenage life, kids fall behind, they will eventually face the music -- and find they can't sing it. And when that happens, as it does to several students per semester, they either catch up -- fast -- or drop out even faster. The fear of falling behind, the desire to live up to previous incarnations of the chorus, forces students to focus. "This place requires a lot of discipline," says Gustavo Hernandez, 19, who joined the chorus last year. "And if you have to be here every day and learn every day, it makes you put the rest of your life in order."

The chorus got its start in 1974, when Oakland's First Presbyterian Church and the city's Office of Parks and Recreation joined forces to develop a cross-cultural program to teach music to local kids. The chorus has since blossomed into a self-sufficient nonprofit (many kids can't pay the $350-per-semester tuition, so foundations provide scholarships and other funding) that rents rehearsal room and office space (in the form of a converted basketball gymnasium, hoop still intact) from the church.

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