Harlem choir sings its way out of the inner city. Learning harmony in music and living
Singing with the Boys Choir of Harlem is more than appearing in 100 or so concerts a year, more than disciplined rehearsals for boys 8 to 18. It's traveling to the concert halls of Europe and Asia. It's leaving the streets of Harlem to sing with the New York Philharmonic. For many it's trading an inner-city life style for an extended family of friends, singers, tutors, and counselors.Skip to next paragraph
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Most of all, it's director Walter A. Turnbull, a tenor who is at home on both the concert and opera stage.
``Our singers are artistic now, yet they see themselves as normal kids from Harlem,'' Dr. Turnbull says.
The choir's purpose is multifaceted, he says: It educates aesthetically and helps youngsters realize their creative potential. It offers music, counseling, tutoring, and recreation to develop the whole child.
``We achieve these goals through competition and pursuit of excellence,'' says Turnbull, a graduate of Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., with advanced degrees from the Manhattan School of Music in New York. ``At rehearsals our singers learn vocal music, solo voice, music theory, sight reading, handbells, and piano. We also offer academic tutoring, counseling, human development.''
The choir routine is hard, but it's fair, say two sopranos who beam as they talk about their experiences.
``You're admitted to the choir, take a year to get your voice in shape; then you can tour and sing,'' says Marcus Clark, a fourth-grader from the Bronx. ``I like it, but not all the time! Sometimes, you get tired and want to go home. But you think twice before doing that, because they discipline you.''
Austin Conyer, a Harlem sixth-grader, has survived a voice change during his four years with the choir. ``I was auditioned at my school when I was still a soprano,'' he says. ``It took me a year to make the concert choir.''
``Sometimes I like it; sometimes I don't,'' agrees Phillip Scott, a high school freshman from Harlem and a baritone, who started out as a soprano six years ago. ``My voice has changed several times, and it's changing now,'' he says, ``but I'm not left out of anything. That's what I like. The choir keeps me busy. My mother tells me it gives me direction.''
And he has had direction in two ways.
``At first I didn't think I needed any tutoring. ... But I found myself not doing so hot. So I talked to a counselor, and now I have a tutor. I've caught up in school.''
More than 90 percent of the choir members go on to college, Dr. Turnbull says.
``When they come home, our alumni often sing with us,'' he says.
Turnbull demands as much of his boys during the summer as he does during the school year. They may attend day camp at headquarters or ``live away'' camp in Connecticut.
``A boy must meet his school's academic standards and our musical standards to make it in this choir,'' Turnbull says. ``We provide tutors and counselors so they will not lose ground in school when we tour. Every boy must call us if he is to miss a single day of after-school work with us.''
Choir members were overjoyed in April when they sang at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre, where many black entertainers have made their debuts.
For 40 boys from New York's inner city, it was a great thrill because they sang with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of guest director James DePriest, one of the nation's few black conductors.
Such appearances boost the choir, which operates on an $800,000-a-year budget. Although the choir's typical fee is $7,000 an appearance, it still needs contributions to balance its budget. ``Foundations are tightening their belts this year,'' says Turnbull.