I write frequently about the dearth of arts education in our public schools and the impact this will have on the arts ecology, arts institutions, and most important of course, children's lives. It is interesting to note that every time I write on this topic, I receive criticism (often blistering) from young people who are both deeply interested and committed to the arts. They believe I disparage their generation by suggesting that there are too few young people engaged in the arts in a serious way. I can understand their anger. There are, indeed, thousands upon thousands of young people in this country who are passionate about their arts involvement.
I was fortunate to observe a group of them recently when I visited the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at the invitation of Dianne Berkun, the Artistic Director and Founder, and Valerie Lewis, the Executive Director.
While I was there to discuss programming, marketing and fundraising strategy with Dianne and Valerie, the highlight of my visit was observing a rehearsal of the Concert Chorus. Having been an avid choral singer in my younger days, sitting with the young singers was particularly moving. (In truth, I could not help myself from joining in.) The chorus was back for an intensive week of study after a summer recess. It was impossible to tell that this was only the second day in rehearsal this season. The group sang well, focused hard and displayed remarkable sight singing ability. Dianne led the group through a new work quickly; this rehearsal was not for beginners. The students were asked to demonstrate their skills at solfege and to explain chord structure. It was rather remarkable.
But then the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is remarkable.
Founded in 1992, the organization now trains over 350 students a year who have performed everywhere from the White House to Radio City Music Hall and on tours across the United States and Europe.
The Chorus will join Barbra Streisand on the first three stops of her upcoming North American tour and have performed with Lou Reed, Judy Collins, Andrea Boccelli, Elton John, John Legend and Ray Davies; under the batons of Valery Gergiev, James Levine, Marin Alsop, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Charles Dutoit, Robert Spano, and Leon Botstein; and alongside the Mark Morris and Wally Cardona dance companies.
The Chorus also won a Grammy for Best Classical Album Grammy in 2005 for On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams. They also sang at the 2002 world premiere of that Pulitzer Prize-winning work under Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic.
Rather than change my mind about the need for more arts education, this visit only reinforced my concern. Imagine if every American had the opportunity to participate in a chorus, orchestra, drama group or dance company. Imagine if the opportunity for creativity and self-expression were open to all. Imagine if every young person could learn to channel their energy through the discipline of an art form.
I have to believe we would have a far healthier, happier and more productive nation.