Building community, one note at a time

     

Profiling Create the Vote Coalition members

 

In music, the key to success is harmony.

That’s why harmony is intrinsic to Boston Children’s Chorus (BCC)—which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2013—in a particularly profound way. Scan your eyes over members of the youth organization at a concert, as they stand tall and smile proudly in their snappy crimson jackets, and you’ll see tremendous diversity. There are boys and girls of different colors, creeds, religions, neighborhoods and backgrounds; outside the Chorus, socioeconomic lines may have kept them apart. But when they open their mouths to sing, these very different youngsters create one beautiful, resounding, unified sound. 

“Diversity is a key objective,” says David C. Howse, executive director of the BCC, which refers to its young participants as Ambassadors of Harmony. Indeed the organization was created by esteemed Boston civic leader Hubie Jones, founder of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, as an artistic opportunity to inspire social change among underserved communities and build bonds between young people. The Chorus has grown exponentially in a decade, from a pilot program of 20 children to an organization of nearly 500 diverse members (38 percent white, one-third black, half from families making less than $65,000) representing 50 different urban and suburban neighborhoods. 

“Embracing differences and understanding other people is vital to building a more empathetic, just and equitable society,” says Howse. Yet even as the Chorus teaches young people to work together as one voice, it also helps each member find his or her own.

“It was a very traumatic experience,” recalls Shyana, a Boston mother describing a difficult period in her son’s life: he was in eighth grade, had just started a new school, and the once straight-A student was suddenly pulling Cs. He was despondent, his behavior troubling. Shyana was readying to move him to a different school when he tearfully confessed: he was being severely bullied. “His self-esteem was gone,” says Shyana. On a hunch she enrolled him in the Chorus, which regularly rehearsed just down the street. “I said, if you absolutely hate it, I’ll never mention it again,” she says. “But I have a hunch you’ll love it, and find people who embrace you.” She was right. 

“Within weeks the smile was back on his face,” says Shyana. “He had made best friends and gone from rock bottom to sky high. It makes me very emotional to think of how bad things were, and how wonderful they are now.” Her son had found a place that valued his voice.

“Often kids are seen but not heard,” says Howse. “We want them to have a voice both inside the organization and out in the community.”

Community engagement is a core value within the Chorus. It gives 40 to 50 performances a year: at churches and schools, for occasions both celebratory (the National Anthem at Fenway Park!) and somber (a post-Marathon interfaith service with President Obama). It allows underserved young people to travel the world, from Jordan to Japan, immersing them in new cultures and offering opportunities for community service. And it uses music to engage important conversations around social issues at home: as with A Boy Called King, a commissioned work performed earlier this year in partnership with the Institute of Contemporary Art, that meditates on race and gender relations. These experiences, say parents, offer experiences that help kids become more motivated, engaged citizens.

Mike Miles says he has seen that in his son Branden, a BCC member since its inception 10 years ago. Miles says his son gained confidence and climbed the chorus ranks by learning the value of hard work and dedication. He also learned the value of service; at just 11 years old, Branden established a now-annual “Jazz Fundraiser” at Cambridge’s Regatta Bar to send kids from less fortunate families on the Chorus’s national and international trips.

And that makes community service seem cool, says Miles. “As a young person in Roxbury, being involved in the arts isn’t always considered the cool thing to do,” says Miles. But his son’s experiences have shown other kids that, “you can travel your own road and feel good about it.”

“Music is inclusive, especially for kids,” says Miles. “It takes the noise and hardness out of life. And it brings in harmony.”

 

Boston Children’s Chorus is part of the Create the Vote Coalition, a collaboration of Boston arts, cultural, and creative institutions and leaders organized by the statewide advocacy group MASSCreative. Create the Vote is running a nonpartisan public education and advocacy campaign to ensure that the next mayor of Boston will be a champion of arts and cultural organizations like Boston Children’s Chorus, and will support efforts to build community through art

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