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

But the impact of the Oakland Youth Chorus stretches beyond the intersection of 27th Street and Broadway's Auto Row, where the spire of First Presbyterian Church rises against the backdrop of downtown Oakland. The chorus not only performs for some 5,000 people a year at gigs around the Bay Area, it has earned its share of national attention. When first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton heard the Oakland Youth Chorus at a Bay Area fund-raiser in 1997, she promptly invited it to perform at the White House's winter holiday concert. And after serenading Washington, D.C., the chorus sang for the rest of the country on CBS's This Morning.

But that East Coast swing -- following a decade that saw the chorus tour Japan, Jamaica, Canada, and the United States, as well as contribute background vocals and a cameo to a Sprint commercial starring Candice Bergen -- marked the peak of the chorus' national visibility. In the late 1990s, as music education became a lower priority for financially beleaguered school districts, many of the foundations that provided the chorus' essential backing became less interested in performance-only ensembles, shifting their focus and funding to organizations that also boasted a strong educational component. So-called "Music in the Schools" programs, especially those that took a "multicultural approach" to music instruction, became all the rage, while the Oakland Youth Chorus suddenly found itself in a crisis of cash flow and identity.

"We were struggling, and we tightened down the economic screws pretty heavily," says Bob Trevorrow, president of the chorus' board of directors. "The chorus alone was always a struggle to keep funded -- a lot of kids can't pay the tuition."

Diversity is one of the Oakland Youth Chorus' main selling points.
Paolo Vescia
Diversity is one of the Oakland Youth Chorus' main selling points.

To attract more funding and keep the choir afloat, the Oakland Youth Chorus decided to bring its teaching methodology into Oakland's public schools. It was a natural leap: The Oakland Youth Chorus had a ready-made curriculum, a proven record of educating young singers, a stable of professional musicians from which to cull teachers, and a dire need for the funding infusion a Music in the Schools program would provide.

The organization hired Angela Wellman, a professional trombonist with roots in the Kansas City jazz scene, to head the project. "I thought, "If I can't pay the rent playing the trombone, I need to be doing something worthy,'" says Wellman from an office cluttered with spare drums, binders full of lesson plans, and educational tomes. "This job puts bread on the table and feeds my soul. This is not a job, this is a calling. This work touches thousands of people's lives. And when I stand up at the Hollywood Bowl at the Playboy Jazz Festival and play my trombone, that touches thousands of people's lives, too.

"A touch is a touch, I guess."

Under Wellman's stewardship, the Music in the Schools program now teaches in 10 Oakland schools and reaches about 2,000 students a year. Not only does Music in the Schools secure funding for the Oakland Youth Chorus, it acts as a recruitment tool; several Oakland kids have joined the chorus because they liked what they heard in their classroom. Indeed, enrollment in the concert choir has jumped to 55 this year from 32 last year (although both numbers are a far cry from the 100-singer choruses of the 1990s). Moreover, the success of the Music in the Schools program provides a blueprint for how the Oakland Youth Chorus might someday expand into its own academy. "The endgame for me," Trevorrow says, "is a music center where the OYC and the Oakland Youth Symphony can be together, or an academy, a magnet school, or something like that."

That kind of expansion, following in the footsteps of organizations such as New York's famed Choir Academy of Harlem, seems to be a logical next step. But Holly Babe Faust, who left a lucrative career as a real estate developer to tackle the comparatively low-paying post of executive director, says that move would push the OYC into "another stratosphere," and that, for now, the organization will continue to focus on teaching only music -- and whatever life lessons the students learn along the way.

"This is a performance-oriented organization," Wellman says. "It's not a music class in a public school. This is about teaching kids really deep performance skills. Some of them will grow up to be excellent musicians, others will have children and make sure their kids learn music. Hopefully, they'll become parents or concerned citizens who have 40-hour-a-week jobs, but volunteer their time or vote on bond issues that support the arts in schools.

"That's our expectation: At the very least, we hope they will become arts advocates."

Two weeks after Halloween, the concert chorus runs through all of the songs in its holiday repertoire and again struggles with "Lullaby, Jesu." Although Morant has distributed typed notes -- "careful of your breathing on page one; if you start those dying gasps here, it will continue throughout the piece," "men, when you come in, it should not sound like a mistake," "we are going to hold the last chord until the cows fly away!" -- the chorus hasn't figured out how to sing the song gently. "Prettier," Morant repeatedly insists, leading his chorus again and again through the first phrase. "This should sound beautiful, not raw."

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