Young kids gain self-respect singing in Boys Choir of Harlem

February 04, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

For 25 years, Walter S. Turnbull has been scouring New York for hidden talent, smoothing the rough edges of life in tough neighborhoods by teaching music -- and creating one of America's premier youth choral groups, the Boys Choir of Harlem.

The job hasn't changed much, he says, despite the nation's current worries about guns and violence among urban youth.

"I think it has been around for a long time, it's just politically correct for everybody to recognize it now," Dr. Turnbull*says bluntly during a telephone interview in advance of a two-concert appearance Sunday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"Now that it is affecting more than just the [inner city] community, affecting the entire country, more people begin to care. We've known we had drug problems for years, and it's not just in the black community. We've sort of ignored these things.

"I think the chicken's come home to roost, like they say down home," adds the native of Greenville, Miss.

No braggadocio enters his voice when he says, "one of our mottoes is 'The Boys Choir of Harlem saves lives.' "

The Boys Choir, now marking its 25th season, has grown to involve more than 300 singers ages 8 to 10, including girls. It has its own school, the Choir Academy of Harlem, for grades four through 10 and is expanding by a grade a year in hopes of soon offering a high school diploma.

The singers are divided into several groups -- a Preparatory Choir, Concert Choir, Girls Choir and the elite Performing Choir, which will bring 40 singers to Baltimore with a program ranging from Bach to Thelonious Monk, from "Amazing Grace" to "Maple Leaf Rag."

The choir has performed at the White House, United Nations and many of the world's famous concert halls, as well as on PBS' "Great Performances" and the soundtrack of the film "Glory." A year ago, "The Boys Choir of Harlem and Friends LIVE on Broadway" even ran for two weeks at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

"Kids might come in with sort of rough edges, dealing with the day-to-day life of their environment," says Dr. Turnbull, himself an operatic tenor.

"But the opportunity to travel, the opportunity to meet othe people around the world and perform in some of the greatest houses of the world has a really wonderful effect" on the young singers, he says.

Some 2,000 young people audition each year, as choir counselors visit New York City schools seeking talent among third and fourth graders.

"At that point . . . you can recognize whether or not there's a musical talent," the choir director says.

But there may be little musical knowledge.

Many have no background in music at all. We . . . teach them from the beginning. Certainly someone can come in with raw talent, the ability to hear and the ability to repeat rhythms."

Along with learning music, members must progress in other ways. Academic performance, attendance, dress, conduct and other factors all play a part in a student's remaining in the traveling choir.

"Socially, kids really home in on a sense of responsibility andevelopment of their self-esteem," says Dr. Turnbull.

In its 25 years, the choir has also gained a reputation that helps young people overcome the peer pressure of the streets.

He tells the story of a choir school counselor, who was at a laundromat when "this young man came in the door, waving his letter of acceptance, crying, 'Oh, I've been accepted in the boy's choir!' and bragging to his friends. And this is 163rd Street in Manhattan, considered a rough neighborhood."

"One of the good things about the notoriety we have received . . . is people know the Boys Choir of Harlem is an opportunity to advance themselves."

CHOIR CONCERT

What: Boys Choir of Harlem

When: 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $16 to $34; age 6 to 12 half price, group sales available

Call: (410) 783-8000.

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