Bringing the Music Back
On West 132nd Street in Harlem one day late last year, a group of twenty or thirty tiny kids, boys in khaki pants and girls in green and blue skirts, walked up the aisle of St. Aloysius Church, clutching single flowers and their teachers’ hands. The St. Aloysius preschool was performing and their singing was shaky—one particularly adorable boy sang to the ceiling of the church rather than to his waving parents—but the adults, clutching cameras, nonetheless met the group with a standing ovation. Also performing that day, to an equally enthusiastic reception, was the Alumni Ensemble of the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem—a group of twenty- and thirty-something men and women, all of whom grew up performing in either the Boys Choir of Harlem or its sister Girls Choir at the height of the two groups’ acclaim.
“I’m starting a new initiative,” said Michael Glover after the performance. Glover is a twenty-eight-year-old audio technician with long dreadlocks and a permanently serious disposition. “I want the Choir to get back to what it was.” An alumnus of the Boys Choir and the sound engineer for the Alumni Ensemble, Glover has outlined a plan to make the Choir once again a viable community endeavor and a positive force for youth in Harlem.
A decade ago, few neighborhood residents would have predicted a day when the famed choir would not be important to young people in Harlem. James Waller, a twenty-seven-year-old law school student, former brand manager for Def Jam Records and active member of the Alumni Ensemble, ascribes much of his success to the values that he learned while performing with the Boys Choir of Harlem. Waller performed with the choir for nine years and also attended the Choir Academy of Harlem, the affiliated school the organization ran with the support of the New York Board of Education. In high school, James traveled to Israel, Japan and all over Europe with the Boys Choir. Closer to home, he performed in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. He performed onstage with Jewel, Natalie Cole and Jackson Browne in a Lincoln Center production of The Wizard of Oz in which the Choir played the munchkins.
Like Waller, young people who joined the Choir at ten or eleven years old usually stayed through high school, and often returned to perform with the Choir on summer vacations from college. Central to this dedication was a great respect and admiration for the Choir’s founder, Dr. Walter Turnbull, who served as an important role model for many of the youth who sang in his group.
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Walter Turnbull grew up in Greenville, Mississippi and attended Tougaloo College there in the mid-1960s, a time when many young Southern African-Americans were organizing sit-ins at diners and bus depots. In his memoir, Turnbull ascribed his ability to transcend race limitations to his operatic tenor—he grew up singing in church and was awarded a music scholarship to attend college. His talent eventually brought him to New York, where he studied for a doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music. While in school he made extra money by singing in the choir at the Second Ephesus Church in Harlem, as well as working as a teacher’s aide in the overcrowded and underfunded Harlem public schools. It was there that his education as a community leader and his desire to effect positive change in the lives of urban African-American children was fully articulated.
With the support of lay leaders and influential members of the Second Ephesus Church community, Turnbull started a choir. His group was modeled on the famous boys’ choirs of Europe, but was meant to mesh classical and urban sound in a unique Harlem way. “No one had developed a standard for black voices,” Turnbull writes in his memoir. “Young men in Harlem can remain true to the tradition of boys choirs without sounding European.” Although the original members of the Boys Choir of Harlem were the sons of the mostly middle-class members of the church, the intention was to provide a space for all youth growing up in Harlem to experience a different kind of education; Turnbull saw himself as a father figure who could mentor his choir’s members through music, giving them the responsible male role model that, he wrote, many of them were lacking. Turnbull’s passion for the project and his natural charisma helped get his vision off the ground, and soon the Choir’s demographics diversified, and its reputation grew within the wider Harlem community.
For almost four decades, the Boys Choir thrived. They were invited to perform all over the world, from Amsterdam to Korea. Donna West, James Waller’s mother, says that the turnaround between tours was sometimes too quick to do laundry; she would just buy James a package of clean socks to take with him on the road each time.
When the New York Board of Education partnered with the Boys Choir of Harlem in 1993 to open the Choir Academy of Harlem, Turnbull’s vision came into sharper focus. The Choir, which had employed a full-time counselor since the early 1970’s, had always made guidance, academics, and a commitment to raising responsible young adults the foundation of its philosophy. The Board of Education worked closely with Dr. Turnbull to apply these values to an entire academic program of study, providing a school building on Madison Avenue and 127th Street, as well as academic teachers to balance the music-focused curriculum. Turnbull was not the principal, but he was a major power in the school, and employed music teachers with the profits garnered from performances by the Choir. The Girls Choir of Harlem was also housed in the school, and toured the United States under the direction of Ms. Lorna Myers.
Turnbull and Myers were like “two peas in a pod,” according to Tyneshia Hill, now twenty-seven, who attended the Choir Academy from ninth through twelfth grade and was in the touring group of the Girls Choir. They “wanted to draw positive attention to a group of kids from Harlem, who people [unfamiliar with the Choir or Harlem] thought of as disrespectful and loud.” For this reason, discipline was hugely emphasized in the Choir: if students were unable to keep their grades up, they were kicked out or not allowed to travel on tour. “Diction and manners,” Hill says, “were really important to Ms. Myers.” She laughs and imitates her former choir director with a proper Caribbean accent: “Children should be seen and not heard.”
Hill recalls being taught the importance of concert position for a professional choir member—straight back, knees slightly bent, and arms hanging purposefully at the sides of the body with the chin raised, parallel to the floor. The pose allowed them to stand still for hours at a time as they sang through performances, and the good posture denoted musical discipline and professionalism. “We were in concert position twenty-four seven,” says Hill. “Walking in the halls, sitting at our desk—we were always in concert position.”
Presentation was an especially important mission for the Boys Choir, whose members were taught to think of themselves as ambassadors of Harlem. Waller recalls waiting outside a Paris concert hall in anticipation of a performance and dancing to loud hip-hop music on a boom box with some friends in the park. “We were told to stop playing around,” says Waller. “We didn’t just represent ourselves, you know, but also the Boys Choir of Harlem and Harlem itself. We were expected to have good behavior.”
Sadly, the soaring reputation of the Choir and Turnbull himself was soon to come crashing to earth.
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In 2001, a fourteen-year-old boy accused Frank Jones, one of the Academy’s most beloved school counselors, who had helped initiate the Choir’s counseling program in the early days, of sexual abuse. The incidents had allegedly occurred years earlier at the counselor’s home as well as at the Choir’s Summer Institute, a weeks-long summer camp in Saratoga Springs required for all members who wished to tour with either the Boys or the Girls Choir. The boy’s concerned mother contacted Turnbull and other school officials, but nothing was done. Unsurprisingly, there are conflicting accounts of what occurred, and Turnbull was inclined to believe the word of his good friend and longtime collaborator. When the student and his mother brought the Choir, and Turnbull, to court in 2004, the publicity was bad, but the resulting financial difficulties were perhaps even more devastating. Ultimately, Jones was convicted and spent two years in jail. To this day, no other student has ever come forward with similar allegations, and to this day the community remains deeply divided, with many people associated with the choir still expressing a degree of disbelief that the abuse could have occurred.
While the family’s movements against Turnbull and the Choir were ultimately dismissed, as a result of the legal drama and ensuing financial hardship, the Boys and Girls Choir was virtually shut down. It was evicted from the Choir Academy, which the Board of Education continued to operate without the Choir’s involvement. By the time the legal issues had been resolved, the Choir was reduced to fewer than fifty students and was almost five million dollars in debt, now practicing at the Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church on 126th Street and Madison Avenue. Turnbull passed away soon after the close of the legal case, in 2007, at the age of sixty-two. Although the Choir did not officially disband until 2009, on Turnbull’s death the halls of the Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church fell silent.
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But even through that trying time and, ultimately, the dissolution of the Choir, its legacy remained strong and important to its alumni, many of whom stayed in touch with each other and Turnbull even after they had graduated from college. On the second anniversary of Turnbull’s death, Terry Wright, a music teacher at the school and close friend of his, founded The Alumni Ensemble of the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem as a way to keep the Choir’s legacy alive. It would be open to any alum of the Choir Academy, making it the first mixed-gender choir to arise from Trumbull’s original project.
Sulé Thompson, forty, a city government employee and Alumni Ensemble member, reluctantly joined the Choir in elementary school—he had also gotten into Alvin Ailey’s youth program, and was keenly interested in dance, but his mother wanted him to do the Choir. He has never regretted it. “The Choir was like a family,” says Thompson, who has large expressive eyes and a quick laugh. “We were encouraged to come back to the Choir during vacations in order to give back to the community. When we were in the Choir, alumni would return and mentor us in a way, and we did the same.”
Those strong bonds are evident in the Ensemble today. Two or three times a week, members spend two hours after work singing and practicing choreography in the basement of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Community Center. The space is a bustling community center and much-used facility where the dull tiled hallways are in sharp contrast to the nearby church social hall they once practiced in, singing in majestic German amid finger-painted watercolors of Jesus Christ.
There are between fourteen and twenty-two singers in the Ensemble at any given time. At rehearsals, depending on their day jobs, some wear suits, ties, and dress shoes, while some are in jeans and T-shirts or sweatpants. Tyneshia Hill, a public school administrator, has been the director of the Alumni Ensemble since Terry Wright’s death in 2010. Tall and slim, with a commanding presence and a knockout soprano voice, she puts in even more time than the average choir member. She works almost daily, sometimes with the group’s twenty-five-year-old music director, Antoine Dolberry, to arrange songs and sets for upcoming performances.
Performances are usually structured in hour-long increments: the first is composed of classical music—songs and hymns in German, Latin and Italian. The second hour is made up of a medley of R&B and feel-good Motown music (songs like “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “ABC”), with simple, fun choreography. The program is similar to the performances of the members’ childhoods, if less strict and intense. A favorite moment for audiences is the pause before the Motown starts, just after the gospel or classical tunes. For five minutes or so, Hill welcomes the crowd and introduces the Ensemble, encouraging the audience to rise in their seats and “get into the music.”
Over a year ago, the Ensemble started working with school officials and other community arts groups to get permission to run an after-school choir program at the Choir Academy of Harlem. They hoped to bring the Choir back to its original home.
“Michael [Glover] has gone back a few times to talk to the kids so they could get to know him and—you know, see that we’re supporting them,” says Hill. “He heard them sing and he said, ‘We need to get back to the Choir…They are not learning anything artistically. And beyond that, their grades are sucking. That is not the Choir we were in.’”
But despite the Ensemble’s progress and high hopes, the Department of Education recently decided to close the Academy. As Hill says with a sigh, “The Choir is failing. They’ve gone through at least seven principals in the past five years.”
In today’s Choir Academy, Hill sees a distinct contrast to her experience there. As an Academy student, she learned how to eat at a fancy dinner table, perform in front of hundreds, and maintain a B+ average even while on tour. Now, the Academy is floundering. It is run as an arts-based public school in New York, and with a high principal turnover rate and the added stress of dwindling public funding for all New York public schools over the last ten years, students’ test scores have dropped rapidly. In 2012, it was branded as a “Failing” school according to city standards.
The Eagle, “the official newsletter of the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem family,” recently sent out a call to save the Choir Academy from the threat of closure. According to Hill, the problem now is a lack of discipline, ironic given Walter Turnbull’s emphasis on excellence and strict order. “From working with children for years, I’ve learned that children love, need, want discipline. When you demand respect, children recognize that,” Hill says. The Choir provided a structured atmosphere for generations of students; and by all accounts, as a direct result of Turnbull’s philosophy of hard work and strong ethics, produced alumni who are self-confident and articulate. “The teachers at the Choir Academy worked hard and diligently to help the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem raise model students, not just good musicians,” says Hill.
“College was a breeze,” agrees Waller. “When I went to college, I had morning classes every day. There were no excuses for skipping class, and I always got to school early. No one else was early: in order to get to school on time, I had to leave at five o’clock in the morning. The kinds of things I learned in the Choir set me up for that.”
In the collective experience of former Choir members, school and music were irrevocably linked. “Choir and academics work hand in hand,” Hill told me one recent evening. “Math! You need to know math in order to read music. You need to know about timing and meter and calculations to read music. History and music work together because you have all these different operas, and you have to know what the history of an opera story is in order to sing it with emotion.”
When Hill recently visited the Choir Academy to show the Alumni Ensemble’s support in the Academy’s mission to save the school, she visited the school’s choir and rehearsed with them in anticipation of an upcoming fundraiser performance. The choir, singing in Swahili, “really sounded like Swahili, you know what I’m saying? I had no idea what they were saying–they were definitely not articulating the words and there was no emotion in their voices. Watching them, I don’t believe that they want to stop the school from being closed—their posture is horrible. I told them, ‘You have to sing with conviction.’ I was really getting on them,” she says, laughing. “But as time went on during the day, I kept drilling it into their heads, and they understood why and they welcomed it.”
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At a recent rehearsal of the Alumni Ensemble, Hill sat in the back of a half-circle of fourteen adults holding sheet music, tapping her foot and nodding her head. At the front of the group, Antoine Dolberry kept time by lightly pounding his fist against his knee, sometimes pressing a key on the electric keyboard, sometimes counting “one, two, three,” under the impressive singing voices that surrounded him.
“Again,” he repeated, amid groans from his peers. The moment passed, however, and they sang in unison once more—that is, until Dolberry stopped them again and told them to repeat. Over and over again, until the song sounded perfect.
After a short break an hour into the rehearsal, Hill led the group in an operatic version of the National Anthem. They would be performing it at a Knicks game later in the week. She turned to one of the newest members of the group, a young man, twenty-three, who joined just last year, after graduating from the Choir Academy a few years earlier. “You can’t fidget,” she said to him. “You need to stand still and straight like I know you know how, and you have to sing.”
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Rachel Howard is a writer living in New York City. She likes hearing strangers’ life stories and posting photographs of her dogs on Twitter.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.