Harlem Choir Gets Taste of Harvard Life

Sandel, Summers, Gates lecture before elite performing group

Philip Zeyliger

University President LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS teaches basic economics to members of the Harlem Boys Choir.

Singers from the Boys Choir of Harlem chucked snowballs over John Harvard’s lap on midnight Friday, shouting as they tried to hit each other with icy grenades in the Yard.

Passersby would think they were Harvard students, and they’d be right—almost.

For the past week, the 45 teenagers have lived in the Houses, been taught by Harvard’s most famous professors and performed for a sold-out crowd in Sanders Theater.

And then they had their snowball fight.

The residency was planned by the Office for the Arts (OFA) to give the choir—a touring arm of the intensive choral academy—a taste of a Harvard education.

In turn, the world-famous choir gave the Harvard community a performance to remember.


It was a visit unprecedented for both groups—the choir has never done a residency and Harvard has never housed Sanders Theater headliners in its dorms.

Lift Every Voice

The choir received several standing ovations—and more than a few cat-calls—from the packed Sanders crowd for their Friday “musical celebration.”

Although the tickets were long since sold-out and many waited on standby, snow prevented the crowd from being as full as it might have been—but the show still attracted close to 900 visitors.

Harvard’s musicians—from the University Choir, the Baroque Chamber Orchestra, Kuumba Singers, and the Brattle Street Chamber Players—were equally enthused as they accompanied the choir in the classical, gospel and jazz program.

Boys Choir director Dr. Walter J. Turnbull conducted in a snazzy tuxedo with his whole body, smiling, swaying to the rhythm and mouthing the lyrics. The boys in their red blazers and bow-ties responded with perfect harmony and posture.

After an dramatic opening to the second act, Turnbull told the audience that he was grateful for the chance to visit.

“It’s about more than singing, it’s understanding how [the students] fit in the world and become good world citizens,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t any knuckleheads. They’re all adolescents.”

His speech stalled to allow the boys to complete a full costume change.

Having donned striped vests and bowler hats, they emerged for an energetically choreographed ragtime medley, complete with tap dancing and the classic 80s dance move, “The Robot.”