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.