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

"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.

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."

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."

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.

"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."

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?"

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.

"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."

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.

In the middle of one lackluster stab, Morant abruptly leaps from the piano seat and raises his voice above his students'. "I am dancing to the rhythm of the holy dance of life," he chants, and a half-circle of eyes widen at the rafter-rumbling melody line coursing out of Morant's slight frame, rigid with concentration. By song's end, every hand is clapping, every foot is stomping, and Morant again slips into the conductor's role, pointing at individual singers to chant louder, keeping the time with a bobbing arm. When the music finally stops -- and it doesn't stop for a full 10 minutes -- the room falls unusually quiet, everyone basking in the discharge of a strange energy.

The OYC sound.

"That's the way that goes," Morant tells the chorus simply, sweat glistening on his forehead. "You're going to sound that wonderful, but we have lots of work to do."

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