Choir Travels From Harlem to Harvard

NEW YORK—Walter J. Turnbull is no ordinary school director—after all, not everyone founds a public school in Harlem whose world-famous touring choir possesses the keys to eleven cities and gets 98 percent of its students into college.

A golden Grammy Award gleams from a trophy case in the front hall of the Choir Academy of Harlem.

The Grammy of Special Merit was awarded to the Choir Academy in 2000 for its “outstanding commitment to music education.”

And the distance the Academy has come is an accomplishment in itself.

The Academy was formed as a church after-school choir by Turnbull in 1968.

Today, its 560 boys and girls take the standard New York state school curriculum, practice jazz, classical and gospel songs for at least two hours each day while touring 50 weeks out of a year.

In early February, the Boys Choir of Harlem, one of the school’s two traveling choirs, will turn into Harvard students for a week.

They will live in the Houses, take classes with Harvard’s top professors, and rehearse with Harvard’s music groups.

And at the end of their visit, Harvard singers and choir students will take over Sanders Theatre in a concert unlike any of the other hundred the choir gives each year.

‘Dr. T’

Turnbull has invested his life in the Academy.

His study would resemble an ordinary school office—except for the musical clutter.

A shiny baby grand piano stands in the center of the room, covered with sheet music and pictures of the choir posed with dozens of celebrities ranging from Bill Clinton to Michael Jackson.

The color of the walls is hidden beneath the white and gold of prizes, certificates and trophies won by the students Turnbull endearingly calls his “children.”

Turnbull is known around the school as “Dr. T,” a portly disciplinarian with a tender heart, who speaks deliberately in a resounding deep voice.

At one point, Turnbull interrupts himself. Class has let out, and blurs of children dressed in the Academy’s uniform—gray slacks, white shirts and ties, and maroon sweaters—zoom past the door, accompanied by the deep rumble of footsteps and high-pitched squeals of laughter.

“Slow down!” Turnbull booms. “Quiet in the halls!”

The children obey him and stare at their feet with sly smiles.

A 1966 graduate of Tougaloo College in Mississippi with honors in music and voice, Turnbull came to New York City to study opera at the Manhattan School of Music. He says he taught part-time in Harlem to make ends meet.

Two years later, Turnbull founded the Boys Choir at Ephesus Church in Harlem as an afterschool program.

“I founded it with the idea to give kids something interesting and exciting to do.” Turnbull says. “It’s not just about music, it’s about total development.”

Turnbull says he soon found he could not accomplish this “total development” in a low-commitment afterschool program. He wanted to create an antidote to academically poor public schools, bad guidance counselors and unsupportive home lives.

“We needed to raise money, we needed to give kids counseling and academic tutoring,” he says. “That way, I could more easily control what happened academically.”

In 1986, Turnbull got his wish. Supported by the Board of Education, he expanded the choir into a full-time school for students in grades 4-12. In 1993, girls were admitted to the Choir Academy.

Teaching the Big Apple

The school has the challenge of providing education in the inner city. According to the school’s literature, three-quarters of its students are from single parent households, two-thirds live below the poverty level and 90 percent are considered at risk of dropping out from high school.

But the Academy’s statistics are on par with New York City’s best schools. Its average daily attendance rate is 96 percent, and its test scores are the second highest in its district.

Admissions are competitive. Less than 150 students are accepted each year from a pool of over 3,000 that audition.

The school day is packed full. In addition to a traditional curriculum, the students take voice, music theory, sight-singing, bells and violin. Everyone sings in one of the two choirs.

And they travel.

The Boys Choir just returned from a two and a half week tour of the Midwest and spent part of last year touring Japan.

The students continue their schoolwork on the road, with traveling teachers and laptop-based tutoring.

“There are 4 hours of school a day on the road,” Turnbull says. “Technology makes everything possible. Kids who go out on tour do better than kids at home.”

The Choir’s philosophy rests on cohesiveness and teamwork, according to Turnbull.

“There are no age distinctions on tour. It’s all camaraderie and working together,” Turnbull says. “It’s like a football or a basketball team, I tell them. If one link is weak the whole team suffers.”

Turnbull says he believes music is at the root of his students’ academic excellence and moral development.

“Not everyone is motivated to be academically excellent just for the sake of it,” Turnbull said. “Children need things like the Boys Choir to help the process...We teach kids to feel and to think, to be embracing, inclusive, respectful of all people.”

Meeting the Boys

James E. Waller, Kibuchi E. Banfield and Nile N. Johnson have impeccable manners, firm handshakes and sit with near-perfect posture on Turnbull’s red couch. They carry themselves like professional singers.

Waller is a bass and the oldest of the three, a senior who modestly says he had already submitted several of his college applications.

Banfield, another bass and a junior, flashes a Cheshire cat smile, especially when he speaks of his possible future as a politician.

Johnson, age 13, is a small soft-spoken soprano whose wide eyes shine behind his round glasses.

From the corner of the couch, Johnson says the best part of the choir for him is dancing, singing, traveling and meeting new people.

“I’ve met Stevie Wonder,” he says without a hint of pride.

He says he hopes to go into business or law, but that music will always be a part of his life. “It’s how I got discovered,” he explains. “It’s what my talent is. I have to take my talents to advantage”

Johnson says music is a constant in his life. “When I go home, I listen to my stereo—I always have some piece of music playing.”

Johnson says the rapper Nas is his favorite musical artist “because he speaks the truth—he doesn’t just make it sound cool.”

Asked his favorite genre of music, Banfield replies diplomatically: “I appreciate all types.”

Turnbull guffaws. “Politician!” he chides Banfield.

“I just met with my guidance counselor to discuss choices, because I can’t do everything. I’m in the process of cutting down,” says Banfield, who has interests in politics, music and computer science although his favorite subject at school is physics. But he says he won’t forget his musical past.

“I grew up with music, not only rap and hip hop, but classical too. If I don’t sing, a CD or tape will be with me,” Banfield says. “When I’m happy or sad, I sing. When I’m angry, classical music calms me down.”

His eyes sparkle.

“There’s no school like this,” he says. “It’s not a normal school. There are no fights. Everyone talks. The older [kids] are role models to the younger people.”

Waller lists the places he has traveled with the Choir, among them Japan, the Netherlands and Alaska and the celebrities he’s met—the last two presidents, Whitney Houston, Brandy, Santo Domingo. “I never would have been there [otherwise]. The best part of the Choir is that you get the travel to places you’ve never seen.”

He describes the Choir’s trip to Israel in 1999, when the group swam in the Red Sea and planted a tree in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “It’s so different—when we went and now. It was real peaceful, now every few weeks there’s a bus bombing. No one might ever get to go there again.”

Waller says the school is like an extended family. “It’s something different—I know everyone. A close-knit school is hard to find.”

Like the others, Waller has ambitious plans for his future. “I sing so I can perform because I like entertaining people. But after college, I’ll go to graduate school for sports medicine, start my own business, my own sports agency.”

These three boys reveal what the Choir has meant to them growing up in Harlem.

“Music, to me, has been everything,” Banfield says, and the other boys nod in assent. Turnbull looks fondly at them and nods slowly.

Coming up I-95

Last summer, Office for the Arts director Jack Megan attended the farewell performance of Seiji Ozawa, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in an outdoor concert at Tanglewood, where the Boys Choir was performing.

“I was lying on the grass when I heard an amazing sound, a truly beautiful sound, and it was the Boys Choir of Harlem,” Megan says.

Megan says that Ozawa was so inspired that he stopped conducting and started to dance.

“I was just very moved by their sound and their youth,” Megan said. “It is telling that Ozawa, after performing for 30 years, would pick this choir for his final performance.”

He went backstage to meet the Boys Choir of Harlem later that same day, and resolved to bring the group to Harvard.

“I asked President Summers, knowing of his passion for the arts, if he would be interested in this, and he said he would be happy to sponsor [the event],” Megan says.

Megan says he convinced Turnbull to have the choir travel to Cambridge and cultivate academic and artistic interests in a four-day residency hosted by Harvard students.

“This is an amazing collaboration,” Megan says. “It’s meaningful because it celebrates the things my office cares most about, and those things are artistic achievement and artistic excellence.”

Soon the details came together.

“When I asked professors to be a part of this program, I did not receive a single ‘no,’” Megan said.

University Organist and Choirmaster Dr. Murray Somerville says he is enthusiastic about the visit.

“The remarkable thing is what the Boys Choir of Harlem does and where it does it,” he said. “I’m a great believer in first-class musical education for children—it is a life-enriching, life-affirming experience.”

The Choir Lives Harvard-Style

The 43 members of the Choir, ages 11 to 18, will arrive at Memorial Hall on Feb. 4 to kick off their residency at Harvard.

In the evenings, they will rehearse with over 100 Harvard participants from the Brothers and Sisters of Kuumba, the Baroque Chamber Orchestra, the University Choir and Choral Fellows, and the Brattle Street Players. This collaborative preparation will culminate in a concert at Sanders Theater on Friday, February 7.

During the days, the students will be divided into two age groups to take specially designed classes, from Harvard’s top professors—including a lectures by University President and economist Lawrence H. Summers, Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, IBM Professor of Business and Government Roger Porter, W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. and chemistry demonstrations from Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach.

John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Maria Tatar, who teaches the popular Literature and Arts Core class “Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature”, says she plans to explore the notion of what it means to “grow up” in our culture by focusing on Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

She says she is “delighted” to teach the Choir and “add an academic element to the visit.”

“I see this as a great chance for academic and artistic interactions,” Tatar said. “I hope that some of the classes will get the students excited about Harvard.”

These kinds of interactions, Megan and Turnbull say, mean that the visit will be more than just a performance.

“It’s exciting,” Turnbull says, “[Harvard is] up there and attainable to everyone—they need to know that.”

“I want to see how everything works. It will get me prepared for an early start [in the college process],” Banfield says.

Turnbull says he hopes that Harvard will learn valuable lessons from his boys as well.

“The perceptions people had of black children—what they could do and what they couldn’t do—are wrong,” Turnbull says. “We will not be categorized. That’s very important.”

He says his children face particularly great challenges.

“I don’t hold back the realities of what they have to do to prove themselves,” he says. “I want to prove that their ancestors on the floor of the Atlantic, the suffering their people went through was for all of that. They must succeed.”

—The Harlem Boys Choir will perform at Sanders Theatre on Feb. 4.