Harlem choir sings its way out of the inner city. Learning harmony in music and living

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

There's a marked contrast between this group of inner-city singers and the group that was founded 20 years ago as the Ephesus Boys Choir of Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church in Harlem.

``Back in 1968 our church had no activities for boys,'' says Turnbull, who along with another church member, Ruth Nixon, founded the choir. ``So we organized this group to keep our young boys off the streets.''

In 1978 Turnbull had it incorporated as the Boys Choir of Harlem.

``We no longer limit our repertoire to religious music,'' Turnbull says. ``We also sing the classics, pop tunes, and the contemporary. This choir is more than a choral group, it is an expression of the cultural development ... of academic achievement of young people whom some would call disadvantaged.''

In a recent Carnegie Hall appearance the choir sang two major works, Leonard Bernstein's ``Chichester Psalms'' and Duke Ellington's ``Take the A Train.'' On typical programs they may sing such soul music as ``God Bless the Child'' or their own version of the contemporary ``Just Say No!,'' a protest against drug abuse.

How does a choir made up of boys from the streets of New York survive? ``Through dedication, through discipline, through practice, through regular school attendance, through sacrifice!'' Turnbull booms. And that's how he runs the choir, which is housed on the second floor of what used to be Public School 38 in Harlem.

There is also a Girls Choir of Harlem, organized in 1979. ``We had to form a girls group,'' Turnbull says. ``Siblings won't allow for a boys-only activity. As a community venture, we must serve the whole family. The girls don't sing with the boys. ... They have their own schedule.''

James Wingo, a counselor, tells why he quit his job to work as many as 11 hours a day with the Boys Choir of Harlem: ``We work with people, and we work with schools. Schools and parents cooperate with us when we have concerts or go on tours....''

Traveling is an education for the boys, he says. ``They see a different type of city when they sing in Boston. [The choir sang at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston in late May.] Sometimes we have discipline problems,'' he adds, ``but who doesn't have trials if he comes from a family of 10 children?''

Turnbull says his goal from the start has been to have the choir recognized as a musical force in New York. ``The turning point in the success of the choir came in 1984 when the New York Times gave us such wonderful reviews,'' he says. ``Then, everybody wanted to sign us up to sing....''

The choir may have as many as 200 boys enrolled at one time. But only 40 usually perform at a concert, which means the boys are always seeking to make it into that top 40. ``We actually can't keep a permanent 40 in the performing choir,'' Turnbull says. ``Voices change. ... Boys go away to college....''

A typical day for a choir member includes: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in school; 3:30 to 5 for tutoring and a snack; 5:30 to 8, rehearsals - five, sometimes six days a week.

Last September the new Harlem Boys Choir Academy opened. ``We work so hard with the boys to help them attain a high academic standing,'' Turnbull says with a smile. ``Now it's time for us to help them get a better education and ... a stronger foundation in basics.''

``We've opened our academy to boys in Grades 4 to 6,'' says principal Jacqueline Patton, ``because we audition boys from these grades for the choir. We plan to [add] Grade 7 in September. Our goal is to wind up with [all 12 grades]. We plan to enroll both boys and girls later.'' The academy occupies a wing of choir headquarters and is an approved satellite school.

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