PBS Newshour: Conversation - Francisco Nunez, Choral Conductor for Kids

September 23, 2011 at 12:29 PM EDT

Last week, the latest round of MacArthur fellows were announced. Francisco Núñez, a conductor, a composer and pianist, was on that list.

Núñez is the artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, which he also founded in 1988. That program draws in over a thousand children from across the city to participate in after school programs.

He joined me on the phone from Manhattan:

JEFFREY BROWN: Why don’t you tell us: What’s the idea behind the Young People’s Chorus? What are you trying to do?

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: Well when I was young, I grew up in Washington Heights here in New York City, and my mother wanted to keep me inside, because the kids downstairs were up to no good. And one thing that kept me entertained was the piano she bought at Salvation Army. So I was home practicing for hours. I became very good, I found out that I was a prodigy, so that helped. And when I went to give concerts or recitals, I would meet other kids completely different than me. Jewish children, Asian children, black children. All types of children. And we all had so much in common because of the music, and we learned from each other. So when I graduated from college, I wanted to a create a program where I can take a kid from Harlem, from the Bronx and put them together with a kid from the Upper East Side or from Queens, and let them learn about themselves by learning about others. And the most important thing is when you are rehearsing together, after those rehearsals, you start asking each other questions: What do you want to do in life? What’s next? And it opens up so many roads and paths. So the idea of that diversity coming together is life changing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You bring them together and then this is for rigorous music-making, right?

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: Well, the music-making is quite intense and they sing exceptionally well, they travel around the world and they sing what I call today’s Mozarts’ and Beethovens’ music. We were able to successfully figure out how to get today’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oscar-winning and MacArthur-winning composers to write for the very first time for young people.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you do that?

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: Well, it was tough at first. People were saying no, they didn’t want to be stigmatized as a person who writes for children, you know? So what ended up happening was, in 2001 I went to the 92nd Y. Ned Rorem, who is an amazing composer himself, was hosting a new music concert. He added us to his fifth concert of the series and he allowed me to come there. And I said I want to call it Transient Glory, transient because it’s during a time of a child’s voice when it’s just before he becomes an adult, and glory because it’s glorious music. And we were able to get Michael Torke to write a piece for us and John Tavener — first time they wrote for children here in the United State, — as well as Elena Catch Turnen and Nora Cora Rosenbaum. From there it just took off and we started doing concerts each year. But what it did was, it put the children on the map of new music, real music. Even the New York Times started to critique it and that was what was unique.

JEFFREY BROWN: I bet it excited them. I mean, then they have to take themselves all that more seriously as well, right?

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: Well, they do. The amount of respect that they have is great. It was another MacArthur winner — I can say that now!


FRANCISCO NUNEZ: It was another MacArthur winner who did, I believe, the 52nd Street project. He had a beautiful quote. He said when children bow, when they come up, they come up taller. And it’s true. It’s an incredible feeling. You know, these children when they hear the applause that are not from their parents, but from a general audience of music lovers, people who know music and the applause is so strong. They say, you know what, I’ve contributed to society and I feel fabulous about myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talked earlier about bringing together kids from all kinds of backgrounds. How do you find them or do they find you at this point?

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: When I started, I had to go find them. I went neighborhood to neighborhood, through the schools, through the afterschool programs, looking for children. I would tell them, if you join me, you’ll get a t-shirt, and you’ll get a jacket and one day you’ll sing in Carnegie Hall. That was a long time ago. It was 23 years ago. Today kids are coming to us and we have 1,100 children in our program here in New York, and 250 or so out of the city, because we’re growing. And we actually are starting a series of choirs down at the Dominican Republic, where we are going into neighborhoods, putting together the different children down there and creating the National Children’s Choir of Santa Domingo.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said you came to this at your own home, learning to play the piano because your mom didn’t want you to go in the street. Was there music at home? Is that how it started?

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: My whole family are poets and musicians. None of them are trained, but you know, we are of Dominican background, and my mom always wanted to be a pianist and a ballerina herself. But she had to work, so she left school in 7th grade and worked. So she had children and she wanted her children to have a better life than she did. I mean, she was afraid of losing us to the streets. The best thing she could do was buy a piano. She bought a really rinky-dink piano at the Salvation Army, but that piano saved my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: We hear a lot today, of cours,e about the problem of the arts in our culture, especially the lack of exposure to art and culture for young people. Do you see that as a problem and do you see your mission as helping address that?

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: I do see it as a problem, it’s unfortunate. I think it is dichotomy, mixed message going on. All the entertainment that we see is about singing and the arts. Children want to do boy bands and girl bands and sing on television, yet, in schools, there is less and less of it being offered, especially to children of less social economic means. So how do we balance that? Even when I have auditions children come to me, they don’t even know a folk song to sing, they don’t know what to sing. So they sing music they hear on the radio, usually an octave too low for their range. So how do you teach a child that knows so little about music? Most of the auditions we have are of children singing pop songs, and we have to teach them everything. I do believe that more and more of us want to have music in our lives, but for some reason it’s the first thing that gets cut.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it sounds like you’ve managed to address it quite well. Now I have to before I let you go, I have to ask what happens with the — what is it, $500,000? It’s a nice award this year.

FRANCISCO NUNEZ: It’s very nice. Now it doesn’t come in one shot, it comes over time. And it does start next year, which is giving me time to figure out what I want to do. I feel that more than the money, the award itself, the title, is going to help me leverage being able to figure new things to do. I feel like there is a spotlight that’s been placed on the Young People’s Chorus, on me, and choruses all over the country, actually. And we have to do something for the society and to build communities. You know, using the child voice as a way of reaching out to each other, especially if we get them when they are young. We can really educate them properly.