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

"Each teenager needs a certain type of energy from you to have a great experience here. To play that round robin thing with 50 people, even with 50 adults, is tricky, and when it's teenagers ..." His voice trails off, more weary and gravel-edged than usual. "Today they love you, tomorrow they hate you. Videos and movies have taught them to like instant gratification. They're like, "If I can learn it right now, and do it perfectly right now, and be a star right now, it's cool. If I have to start and it doesn't sound so hot, or work a bit harder than I'm used to, no way.' Some things are just not easy, and you have to work yourself up to the result."

Morant's discouraged that so few choral members know the venerable standards -- Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, etc. -- and that so many have no musical background when they join the group. But he says it's a credit to the organization's staff that the concert chorus inevitably winds up on the same page before the curtain rises. And he makes a point of watching as much MTV as he can stomach, because he says he needs to know what the choral members' ears are used to hearing.

"What makes our teaching method a little bit different from some of the other choirs is that we don't want to erase who they are," he says. "And that music is who they are. I don't want to get rid of that, but I want to give them some other alternatives."

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.

Seriousness falls away, and Morant explodes into a laugh that lights up his entire face. "God only knows, when I was their age I wasn't singing Renaissance music. I was going out dancing, listening to Motown." He claps, writhing his neck, snakelike, in an imitation of his old dance moves.

"When I had free time, I didn't get my little Renaissance music book out -- hell no, I didn't do that."

On a cold, windy night in November, Tiana Vallen huddles with a sobbing singer outside First Presbyterian Church, hugging the girl close and offering advice about relationships, schoolwork, home strife, succeeding in the chorus. Since joining the group in 1997, Vallen has graduated from Oakland Technical High School, enrolled in Diablo Valley Community College, and become the first teenage representative, elected by the choir, on the organization's board of directors. Still an alto in the chorus, Vallen knows the rehearsals at First Presbyterian Church sometimes add as much anxiety as they alleviate, and she makes an effort to help younger members navigate the obstacle course of adolescence.

"I love all of them, every one of them who comes through the door," says Vallen, who can't talk for 10 minutes about her life in the chorus without two different singers interrupting her for a hug. "I tell them, "If there's ever anything you need, call me.' They know that. I've been here a long time, and I've learned that this is a family."

But every family has its share of internal squabbling, and the Oakland Youth Chorus is no different. Although singers don't seem to have a bad word to say about the staff members or one another, they admit that there are afternoons when they feel more like slouching than sitting up straight, when they'd rather seek solace in their headphones than spend two hours drilling a song about fruitcake. "Someone will walk through the door with a messed-up look on their face, and I'll know they need somebody to talk to," Vallen says. "A lot of it has to do with school, sometimes it's family." She sighs.

"This takes up a lot of my time."

Vallen's own future remains uncertain. She hopes to transfer to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia next spring but hasn't found time to complete the application. Although she considered applying to the Berklee College of Music, she says, "Philly has been calling my name for a long time."

"I want to go there because ..." She pauses, considering. "When I got their brochure, the people that I saw ... there was an equal mix between black and white. I saw Asians, I saw Latinos. I saw a lot of diversity. For me, being in an arts field and trying to get to know myself as an African-American, I want to go somewhere I can feel that."

As she continues to explain her attraction to Philadelphia, Vallen gradually begins to paint a portrait of someone searching in Philadelphia for what she's found in Oakland. "I can get along with any group of people, but I like to see everybody come together in one place and prove it can be done, despite all the doubt in the world," she says. "I like the environment here. It's important to me because you get to know yourself while learning about other people at the same time."

As proof of his claim that professional musicians make the best teachers, Morant orchestrates an extraordinary moment at the end of one November rehearsal, when the energy level is flagging and the chorus can't get its vocal chords around "Oyaheya," a spiritual chant.

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