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 after a few halfhearted trips to grandmother's house, Morant heaves a huge sigh, quiets the chorus, and asks, "Did everybody have a hard day today?" His fingers noodle over the keys, his eyes playing across the faces in front of him. "How many of you had stuff to turn in and didn't?"

Eyes sink, feet shuffle, and a few hands rise.

"How many of you didn't eat when you should have?"

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.

More hands, followed by a giggle or two.

"How many would like to sit down and take a nap?"

Every hand in the place shoots toward the ceiling.

"How many of you are broke?"

The room erupts in hollers and hoots.

"Five hugs," Morant says, when the tumult dies down. "Don't forget the people in the back."

It's a remarkable sight: 50-plus teenagers, many of them wearing clothes much too baggy or much too skimpy for grandmother's house, spend the next few minutes hugging anyone within arm's length. Morant, as always, watches the teenagers' expressions, eavesdrops on their conversations even when they think he can't hear, and brings them back to earth with the following caveat: "By the way, if I play a pitch, and you can't find it, stop singing. Just stop singing."

By turns hilarious and stern, coddling and critical, Morant embodies all that's wacky and wonderful about the Oakland Youth Chorus. His short black hair is tinged yellow, his outfits are sleek and outrageous. He speaks quickly but smoothly, with an eloquence and enunciation that bespeak a lifelong singing career. A graduate of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., Morant has sung for Eugene Ormandy, William Steinberg, Zubin Mehta, and Leonard Bernstein, and routinely performs in shows around the Bay Area. A three-time recipient of an Artist in Residence grant from the California Arts Council for his efforts with the Oakland Youth Chorus, Morant has brought in several big-name performers -- Bobby McFerrin, Pete Seeger, Branford Marsalis, Nancy Wilson -- to work with the kids.

But it was an experience with Bernstein, whom Morant pinpoints as one of his greatest influences, that inspires his one-on-one approach to teaching in the Oakland Youth Chorus. When Morant was still a student at Westminster, he sang in a local production of Trouble in Tahiti, a one-act opera written and composed by Bernstein that often gets dwarfed by the grandeur of his larger works. After a joint rehearsal of the Westminster choir and his own orchestra, the legendary conductor spotted Morant's sheet music and picked the young singer's brain.

"He stopped, with his little bodyguards all around, and talked to me," Morant says, eyes twinkling at the memory. "I've never been the same since. He said, "Are you having any problems with the high part? Are you a high tenor?' He was really interested in the way I was doing it, because it wasn't done very often. Was I having fun? What did I think about the way it was sung? I was astonished by the fact that he, at the end of a six-hour rehearsal, would take time for me, when he didn't have to, when he could have rushed back to wherever the big conductors go."

Many of the Oakland Youth Chorus singers tell similar stories about their interactions with Morant. And although he says it's too scary to think of himself as a role model, he realizes the importance he holds in their lives.

"In their hormonal transition years, shall we say, they need something to take the edge off the change in life," Morant says. "And that's what we do. When they go through that period of life, they're saying, "Who am I? What am I doing? I don't like my mother, I don't like my father, I don't like school, I don't like the world.' In the middle of all that stuff, you need something to take the edge off, something that's not parent-guided. We're something that takes the edge off."

In turn, Morant says, the teenagers recharge his own batteries, now pushing 50. "There's an authenticity and a realness about them that cuts through all the adult bullshit," he says. "If I come in and I'm not focused or I'm too tired or I'm mad, they say, "Who are you mad at today?' If I'm doing a workshop and as I'm leaving, I change clothes, they don't miss a trick. They say, "We're not going home tonight, are we?' As adults, we don't put people on the spot like that, but they have no qualms about doing it. So it does keep you very honest about how you feel. It's very hard to put up a façade or lie to them, because they're very in tune with who you are. They can tell whether you're hemming around the truth or not."

The chorus members may not realize it, but Morant plays them as well as he plays the piano. Unlike other choral conductors, Morant doesn't rely on shouting or tantrums to quiet his students; he gets their attention by singing one note and holding it, unwavering, until everyone stops talking and starts humming. Never bombastic, Morant projects a confidence and calm, conducting with his gaze as much as his hands. When he wants more volume, his eyes bug out wide; when he wants to cut off an inappropriate conversation, they narrow to slits.

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