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Students from underserved schools get chance to shine in NYC chorus

Thursday, May 2, 2013
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“There was not much music in the New York City schools,” said Francisco Núñez, founder the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. “It was too expensive to buy and maintain a piano, or to get instruments. All kids could afford was the voice. So I started with nine kids from different neighborhoods through the Kids Aid program.”
“There was not much music in the New York City schools,” said Francisco Núñez, founder the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. “It was too expensive to buy and maintain a piano, or to get instruments. All kids could afford was the voice. So I started with nine kids from different neighborhoods through the Kids Aid program.”

Kids love to sing. That was something Francisco Núñez was counting on when he founded the Young People’s Chorus of New York City 25 years ago.

“There was not much music in the New York City schools,” he said. “It was too expensive to buy and maintain a piano, or to get instruments. All kids could afford was the voice. So I started with nine kids from different neighborhoods through the Kids Aid program.”

Now there are 1,200 children involved in five after-school choruses. One of them will give a concert on Sunday at the First United Methodist Church Schenectady as part of the church’s concert series.

Núñez said he didn’t have to look further than his own life to know that getting kids involved in music was a steppingstone to better things. He had grown up in a close-knit Dominican family in Washington Heights (an area of Manhattan’s upper west side known for its ethnic diversity) and spent much of his time practicing piano. Considered a piano prodigy, he also began composing during his teens.

But after graduating from New York University as a piano performance major, Núñez turned his attention to helping children.

Young People’s Chorus of New York City

WHERE: First United Methodist Church, 603 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 374-4403, www.ypc.org

“I wanted to make a difference in society and kids’ lives,” he said. “There are so many kids in New York City, at least 1 million. And they’re multicultural. Most are speaking English and from various economic and ethnic strata. I wanted to do music making and life making at the same time.”

His chorus thrived and after eight years the children not only ranged in ages from 7 to 18, from musically underserved neighborhoods to privileged backgrounds, but also came from several ethnic cultures. The regimen then was the same as now: two-hour rehearsals at least three times a week after school. All kinds of music were studied and performed. The kids also learned dance routines to go with their singing.

Auditions were always held partly because, Núñez said, the kids seemed to value getting into the chorus more. But he was not listening to whether the child could sing in tune or knew rhythm.

“They don’t have to have a great background of skills. It’s more [to have] a love of singing,” he said.

He also considered the child’s family, since he believed that a family committed to learning would be more supportive.

Expanding organization

Since those early days, Núñez’s efforts have grown to become an organization based at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall. It involves 13 choruses in the Satellite School Program in inner city schools, a new after-school community chorus in Núñez’s old neighborhood in Washington Heights, as well as the five after-school choruses.

There are also now affiliate choruses in Erie, Pa., and Tenafly, N.J. Besides the 100 concerts they do annually, the various choruses have appeared on radio, television (the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting, “Good Morning America” Christmas Day specials) and sung from a float on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) and done Coca-Cola commercials for which Núñez wrote a new arrangement of its “Buy the World a Coke” jingle.

There are 15 full-time staff and several part-time. One of those staffers is Sophia Miller, who will conduct Sunday’s concert. As the chorus’ assistant conductor, she leads several of the younger groups, directs the choruses in the Satellite School program, and prepares them for all radio broadcasts, recordings and tours.

The chorus of 14- to 18-year-olds tours and has been to five continents with several tours made on invitation. These include representing the United States at Kyoto’s Seventh World Symposium (2005); representing North America at the 2012 World Choral Summit in Beijing; being the first American youth choir to participate in Sweden’s Adolf Fredrik Festival and at Polyfollia, which is an international choral showcase in Normandy, France.

This summer the chorus will do four weeks in China and Japan, where it will work with the Tokyo Philharmonic.

One of the most important things for Núñez is to expose the children to all types of repertoire, especially new music. Although he writes several of the songs they sing, YPC has commissioned 70 new pieces over the years, two of which (“Celestial Fire” by Thomas Cabaniss and “WICBM” by Toby Twining) were recently premiered and will be performed on Sunday.

Also on Sunday, the chorus will sing several spirituals, Paquito D’Rivera’s “Tembandumba,” which he wrote for the group, and an arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

“We’re always premiering more music and doing more recording — up to 100 new pieces a year,” Núñez said. “That and learning Chinese and Japanese music for the tours.”

Looking forward

Singing isn’t the only thing at YPC.

“We want all our children to go to college,” Núñez said.

“Forty percent of children in New York City don’t graduate from high school, but 100 percent of our children graduate and go on. Only about 10 percent to 15 percent go into music. We don’t push for that although many play other instruments, even ukulele.”

Núñez himself has garnered many awards, including several Man-of-the Year awards from Latino publications and organizations; 2009 ASCAP Concert Music Award; 2009 NY Choral Society’s Choral Excellence Award; and in 2011 the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.

He said the funds he received from the MacArthur grant will go to creating programs that show how to use choral music to make social change.

The chorus was also awarded the 2011 National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award, which Núñez received from first lady Michelle Obama at the White House.

All these responsibilities leave him with little time for anything else.

“I’m exhausted,” he said laughing. “But I’m exhilarated.”

 
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