By Matt Parish
Much has been made in the contemporary music world of the recent push toward so-called “alt-classical” – creative approaches to showcase, perform, and commission new works of music that utilize new instrumentation, new venues, and new composers. A premium has been placed on opening up fresh audiences and unexplored formats. The world of classical music is getting smaller and smaller, so the search for alternative resources is on.
New York native and pioneering choral director Fransico Núñez has found what might be the most alternative resource yet: the children’s choir.
Núñez is the founder of the Young People’s Chorus, a New York-based music education organization that has gained widespread attention by assembling world-class choirs from diverse neighborhoods. The 46-year-old mastermind mixes kids of as many different cultural and economic backgrounds as he can and winds up with some of the most unique ensembles in the world. They not only develop jaw-dropping performances of established classics, they also premier incredible new work through their own commission series, Transient Glory, which has already commissioned over 60 pieces.
The whole thing has earned Núñez accolades worldwide. Last fall, he was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant for his work. The YPC has grown from a small after-school program of 120 students to a sprawling enterprise with over 1,200 students and has gained renown for its presentations of everything from Bach to Meredith Monk pieces, and has even served as a vehicle for Núñez’s own compositions.
In the process, they’ve won awards like the 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, Chorus America’s Education Outreach Award, and two Chorus America/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming. Since first performing at the World Choir Symposium in Japan, they’ve been invited back three times.
This February, the YPC plays host at Carnegie Hall for its Transient Glory Symposium and Carnegie Hall Choral Symposium, designed to bring together choral directors from all over the country.
Not bad for a group of kids who, were it not for Núñez, might never even have a chance to meet each other. That kids are learning from each other and pushing each other into new levels of skill is what Núñez might call his dream come true.
“I always knew our music would be great,” he says. “That was never truly my first mission, though. My first mission was to bring these kids together and use music as a means of allowing children to understand themselves better and become stronger.”
Choral Director spoke with Núñez recently after a very busy holiday season about his outstanding achievements so far and the group’s ambitious plans for the future.
Choral Director: What’s your early background as a musician?
Francisco Núñez: I always had music because of my mother. She was a working class woman. She had two boys to take care of but really wanted to be a professional. Even though we were poor, she wanted arts to be in our lives so she purchased a piano. By the time I was six years old, I had started playing. I started to be able to learn things very quickly and learned how to read. Soon I was concertizing throughout the neighborhood.
What the piano did was give me an outlet to meet children of means. There were not a lot of poor kids playing the piano. There were a lot of rich kids. But my mother made me practice, too. It was better to go home and practice than to be in the street. What happened in the street was dangerous. In high school, I’d practice around five hours a day. It opened up a whole different world. It showed you that if you put your mind to something, it can actually get better. It was inspirational.
CD: So after you graduated school, after having studied to become a pianist, what was the turning point for you? When did you decide your career would be so wrapped up in kids singing?
FN: When I was in college, I was a piano major and I told my guidance counselor, “I never want to teach. I want to play.” She said, “If only you’d try to teach, you might actually end up getting a job.” I said, “No.” I was young. She told me to do some student teaching.
So I did one stint at student teaching and I saw this man named Jerry Kerlin in the Lower East Side. He was a white guy and he was teaching in the daytime through the public school systems – black and Latino children – and on the weekends, he’d teach the children of means, which were mainly white children at that point. He taught them not just how to sing songs – he was teaching them to read music and understand music in their own way.
Once we get those kids together, it doesn’t matter. They don’t care who the person next to them is other than the fact that they’re important. So that was the turning point. I was 22 years old, and that’s what I decided I wanted to do. It was an approach that helped me and changed my life when I was young. If I had just stayed in my neighborhood with the people that I knew, I would have been limited.
CD: What was your first job trying to put that into action?
FN: I got job at Children’s Aid Society, which is sort of like the Boys and Girls Club of America. I went to them and said I’d love to start a music program for them. They said they didn’t need that, but they did need someone to pick children up after school and bring them here and work with them.
So I’d pick the kids up, take them to the program, we’d play chess, we’d play basketball, and we did our homework. A couple weeks in, I said, “Hey, do you guys want to sing a song?” So that’s when I started the whole program.
I didn’t want to separate them. I wanted to do it the way I had it when I was young. How can I create a program where I combine the rich and the poor, the black and the white, Hispanics and Christians and Jews, all together, and create a very sophisticated music program? It was two important factors – a high level of musicality and multiculturalism and diversity.
“I don’t want to only work with the kids from Greenwich Village,” I said. “Can I go visit your other community centers and try to bring them all together?” They had two community centers in Black Harlem, one in Spanish Harlem, one in a very rich neighborhood in the Upper East Side and one in a middle class part of the Lower West Side. So I got some busses and started bringing the kids and that’s how I started the chorus, which at that time was called the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, which was very successful.
In 1996, we went to Prague for a competition with all these “ragamuffins” and the New York Times wrote a story about these underdogs going to an international competition. Well, we came back winning the competition. The New York Times again writes an article about that. So I wanted to go independent.
CD: So here it must have been key to get help from the right people.
FN: My old teacher Seymour Bernstein talked to another of his piano students, who was director of the School of Music, Mark Riggleman, at the 92nd Street Y, so that we’d be invited to perform there. Being that we were a multicultural program definitely helped. I also brought my friends together – about 15 men and women – and created a board of directors. They would help with the financial structure of the YPC. So it took some working on my part to put all the pieces into place. That’s where we started. 1997 was our first rehearsal. By then we had about 120 kids or so. So now we have 1,200, but the concept has never changed – diversity and musical excellence.
CD: Is it challenging to maintain the cultural diversity as the program grows?
FN: The social work mission is very strong. With diversity, you have the entire array of challenges. People who are poor have very different needs. Other people can never really understand it – it’s something you have to work to understand. It’s much harder to maintain diversity than it is to sing a Bach motet. It’s much harder to keep children engaged who come from a very difficult background, and that’s what we do. It’s my mission to do that.
I always knew our music would be great. That was never truly my first mission. My first mission was to bring these kids together and use music as a means of allowing children to understand themselves better and become stronger. The only way that society can understand itself is to find benchmarks. How are other kids doing this? If you’re comparing yourself only to the kid next door, then you’re using a very small area.
CD: It’s very interesting that you assign so many different types of music – different kids can be experts by virtue of their own cultural backgrounds.
FN: Exactly. I mean, to the kid that grew up with Swahili, singing in Hebrew is fine – you’ll learn it. You might even hear a rhythm there that’s sweet. But do you understand what it is being Jewish? Do you understand what the song really means? Or can you ask the kid right next to you? He’s been sitting with you for several months and speaks it authenticity, with a good accent coming from a particular part of the culture. You can finally understand why the song is important and things like what Hannukkah and Passover are about.
Or if you’re a Jewish kid, sure you can learn a little Swahili – learn the phonetics and learn the words and hear about Kwanza, but being next to a kid that lives with it every day – you can ask what it’s like. You see their parents coming in, what they look like, how they dress, what they eat. You start to realize that there are different dialects of Swahili and different accents of Swahili. Holy cow, that song is completely different to you now. By having all those cultures together right there, when you sing Swahili it’s very different. It’s very social. And they all get proud.
CD: It seems so built to succeed in New York – how do you adjust to make the satellite program work in a place like Erie, PA. which can’t possibly have the same sort of diversity, can it?
FN: Erie is a very divided city. There’s a railroad track in the middle and one type of people on one side and another on the other side. Erie’s concept was that they’d work very hard at combining those children – to bring them together. That’s why we did this.
We have another program in New Jersey, which is part of the JCC – the Jewish Cultural Center. They’re putting together kids from all economic backgrounds. They have 90 children.
So there are two very basic pilots that we’ve got going. Now I’m working on creating YPCs in other places in America and other countries. The first country that approached me was Japan. I started to do workshops in Japan with the children there, where I found a need in bringing children of diverse economic backgrounds together. It’s not just about color. It’s about money, really.
CD: The most recent development is in the Dominican Republic, right?
FN: We put together a proposal that was accepted by the Dominican First Lady to create a choral system based around using choral music to bring diverse neighborhoods together. It’s our goal over the next five years to have the Young People’s Chorus of Santo Domingo – all of the people of Santo Domingo put together so that they can represent the Republic of Santo Domingo to the rest of the world.
CD: Have there been surprising results from the YPC for you?
FN: The biggest surprise is that it’s actually working. When kids leave YPC, they’re so comfortable in other communities that they start to seek out diversity. That is to me the most beautiful thing. Many kids become music majors, they study music, they become singers and want to become conductors – the whole thing. That, to me, is going to happen in any choral environment.
But I don’t want to just be a teacher. I want to make a difference inside. That is what I’m seeing is happening. I’ve seen so many of my students who are not music majors, but when they find themselves in a place that’s inhibiting their thought process about other people, they’re not happy to be there and they’ll walk away.
We have a huge problem in this area in the choral world. I think a respect comes because, musically speaking, we’re able to succeed. But, quietly, I’m showing people who think, “Holy cow, you can do Brahms with black kids? And then do gospel with white kids? And they all sound great?” That’s how we’re winning.
CD: You go out of your way to develop ability and skill in all of your kids.
FN: What I was taught was how to find the right voice to sing something a certain way. And I’ve always questioned that because you can’t always come from a certain background and your genes can sing something the right way – you have to be taught to do it, and anyone can be taught. That’s why we become teachers. So if you’re just going to wait for the person to walk through your door who can sing that music perfectly from the start, I find that limiting. If you can take anyone and create an existence of music, then you have changed society because that person begins a generation. You’ve got to start somewhere.
CD: What’s been your mission in terms of seeking out new collaborators and writers?
FN: Early on, the only people coming to our performances were my family members. I thought I needed to get people there who weren’t my family members, so I started studying programs of orchestras outside of my genre. They were doing music like Bach and Beethoven and Mozart – serious pieces! I thought, “Let me go to those composers.” I went to people like Mozart and Bach and Stravinsky and Britten, and the number of pieces for children’s choir was very small. They wrote a lot for boys’ choir. A lot for women’s choir, but very little for children’s choir, which is boys and girls. There was a little, but it was not enough to make year after year of music.
So I decided to figure out how to get today’s Mozart to write for children’s choir. Here we had people winning Pulitzers, Oscars, and MacArthurs and Grammys, being commissioned around the country, never writing for children. I wanted to get someone to write a substantial piece of music. That’s where “Transient Glory” comes from. I wanted to get glorious music written for children during the time when the young voice is very unique and beautiful. “Transient.”
CD: This all must have come to a head at your first concert at the 92nd Street Y.
FN: We had pieces by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, Michael Torke, John Tavener, Elena Kats-Chernin. We had a panel discussion of “What is children’s choir music in America?” I had the president of Boosey & Hawkes and the radio host John Schaefer from WNYC come in and speak with the composers. That’s where it all began.
At that concert, I was able to attract a whole new audience and I was able to attract media. They came in to hear these composers writing for this new instrument, and the composers wrote masterpieces.
People started to pay attention. “Hold on, hold on – you mean that in New York City, these composers who were winning these major awards are going to write great, serious, hard pieces for kids and they’re going to sing it well?” Other great composers started writing, even asking to write. We got some really big names – Steve Reich, Joan Tower, David Del Tredici, Meredith Monk – the list went on. After awhile, composers began to just call me directly to say, “Please commission me.” It’s so cool. Then we have organizations like Bang On a Can, Kronos Quartet, American Composers Orchestra – all saying, “What’s going on here?”
CD: Is it helpful to children’s choirs in general to have all this new music being written?
FN: It changed the perception of what children can do. The idea of diversity became common and the artistic excellence became real and it was understood that they were both there. That to me was very cool. Then other children’s choirs started to propose outside of the choral realm. So I think that’s the door that we opened.
CD: Advice for other choral directors moving on with programs?
FN: I think we’re doing a great job with choral music. I feel that there’s a divide between community choirs and classroom choirs. We have to work together and support each other to bring the children together so that they can understand that the world is much bigger than their community. The community has to understand that they’re much bigger than their own community – it goes on and on. And you have to figure out how to educate our students and still be challenging. I think we tend to get nervous about whether anything’s too hard for them. I think they’ll stay if you make it hard and interesting. People love to be challenged. A challenge, in my opinion, is what keeps a kid coming back.