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

Given their demographics, the chorus members are understandably confused about how to sing an ancient Polish ballad. They are not, after all, carbon copies of the cherubic choirboys (and -girls) who spring to mind when one thinks of the classic church choir. These kids trickle into rehearsal wearing Starter jackets and Backstreet Boys T-shirts, bandannas over their hair and headphones swallowing their ears. Roughly half are black, one-fourth Latino, and the rest Asian-American and white. Most of them point to diversity -- in repertoire and membership -- as one of the main reasons they spend their afternoons at First Presbyterian Church. And while most don't consider themselves "at risk," they know the value of a safe haven.

"I listen to my third-period teacher get cussed out every day," says Delia Gardner-Price, a 14-year-old from Oakland who is wearing a gray sweat shirt that says "Hollywood Pop Stars," a red bandanna, a cluster of silver chains around her neck, and jeans with blue handprints on each side of her posterior. "If you spend your time in East and West Oakland, hangin' around with drugs and prostitutes, you don't get the chance to realize you're nice. There's too much, "I've gotta be a gangster, a drug dealer, a moneymaker.' If you hang out here, you get comfortable with yourself."

Like most of her colleagues in the Oakland Youth Chorus, Gardner-Price has dreamed of a professional singing career. Her school doesn't have a music program, so she auditioned for the chorus and now sings second soprano. And it's no mystery to her why kids at her real high school don't achieve as much academically as her peers at the OYC: There's not enough music in their lives.

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.

"Nobody's so bad, so untouchable, that you can't touch them through music," she says. "Everybody has a song. It may be by DMX, it may be by Mozart, but there's a song that will touch them. Maybe too many people think ghetto kids are different. They're not ... they all want knowledge. At-risk kids just don't have a way to express it."

Over the years, staff members say, the Oakland Youth Chorus has often played a pivotal role in the lives of kids who might otherwise have slipped from at-risk to in-trouble.

"We have a lot of kids who don't have fathers," Executive Director Faust says. "We don't poll the kids, but we have quite a few families who can't afford to pay, a fair number of kids who live in neighborhoods where shootings are not uncommon, who are very much at risk at school, the whole gamut. One of the kids we had in the chorus, about 18 months ago his brother was killed at 38th and Telegraph. It wasn't drugs, but it wasn't random."

The Oakland Youth Chorus' lifeline quality inspires a fierce loyalty in its alumni, many of whom return to sit in with the chorus, teach the occasional workshop, or merely watch as Morant leads the singers through a tricky Renaissance piece, instructing them to "sing in the English language, please." Jennifer Johns, an alumna who bypassed college to start a singing career in Los Angeles, returned to Oakland for the first time when her sister enrolled in the chorus. She choked up during a parent meeting when staff members quizzed her about her fledgling career, where she was living, whom she was dating. Now, at 22, she's a member of the chorus' board of directors.

Because she couldn't stay away.

"Nothing else has played such a large role in my life as the OYC. It will be a part of my life until my life is no more. I know, with all that I am, that they have my back," she says. "I always tell them, when I'm a superstar, I'll buy them a big building."

There is a downside to the chorus, says Tacha Burke, a Richmond teacher and resident whose son performed in the choir for about five years. No other ensemble compares to it. Burke remembers her astonishment when her son Ryan reported back from his first day at Boston's Berklee College of Music, generally regarded as the nation's best, and said it wasn't as good as the Oakland Youth Chorus. Years after Ryan left the chorus, he's rooming with former OYCers, and his mother still attends every performance.

"I don't think there are many times in today's life, our culture, that we get to celebrate kids," Tacha Burke says. "When I go there, the feeling I get is a feeling of hope, particularly in this trying time. They have the kind of discipline and attitude that can make a difference in the world. There really is a chance that things will get better."

Arriving at a late-October rehearsal in what appear to be gold pajamas and black slippers, Trente Morant immediately senses the energy -- or lack thereof -- in the room. In the back of the cafeteria, where a smattering of parents read romance novels as their children slouch in place, a half-dozen choir members have planted their heads on a table, seeking refuge from fever and flu. Morant claps his hands, strides to the piano, and begins leading the chorus' healthy faction through his own funked-up arrangement of "Over the River and Through the Woods."

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