PRX Radio: Making Beautiful Music


Jo Reed: That is the Young People's Chorus of New York singing “Every Stop on the F Train.” YPC Founder and Artistic Director Francisco Nunez is conducting. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. 

Francisco Nunez is one of those forces of nature. He’s a musician, composer, conductor, music educator, and a 2011 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. A musical prodigy who composed his first choral work at the age of 15, Francisco graduated from NYU with a degree in piano study and went to work at the Children's Aid Society. Within a year, he began the Young People's Chorus of New York, an organization that provides children of all ethnic and economic backgrounds with a program of music education and choral performance. Francisco’s aim is to harness the power of music to fulfill the potential of each child, to bring a diverse group of kids together regularly to learn about music and to learn about each other – creating lifelong lessons in the arts and in social awareness. The result has been phenomenal; an internationally recognized chorus that’s renowned for its artistic excellence, virtuosity, and its cross cultural performances that build understanding and bridges, both within this nation and with other cultures of the world. In fact, in 2011, YPC was presented with the nation’s highest award for youth programs – a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. 

When Francisco Nunez stopped by the NEA studios, I wanted to know about the thinking that led to his starting the Young People’s Chorus of New York. 

Francisco Nunez: Well, when I came out of college, I knew that music was so important to me in my personal life. When I was very young, my mother had purchased a piano in a Salvation Army and brought it home, and I started playing it, and they found out that I had a bit of a gift with piano. And growing up in a working class family in Washington Heights area of New York City, I was the only one that actually played a musical instrument. So all the kids were downstairs playing stoop ball or stick ball in the streets, and the windows were open, and they could hear me playing, but they were very supportive of that. But what it did is that it took me out of my neighborhood, and I was allowed to meet other kinds of kids that were just as interested in music. But it opened up a whole new world for me because they lived in different neighborhoods than I did. And I said, “One day I want to help my mom to get into one of those neighborhoods.” And when I graduated from college, I wanted to create an organization that would bring different kinds of kids together. But not just black and white, you know, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, but the real spectrum of New York City. I mean, everyone from the different economic stratas. You know, extremely rich with extremely poor. ‘Cause I had noticed early on that that is what really separated us. And when you – if you can bring those two groups together, then there’s something that magical that happens. But what attracts them? What do they all have in common? And what it was important for me was music. Now I couldn’t get instruments at that time so I started with the voice, and I started the choir. And that’s, that was the common core program that we – that I – worked with. 

Jo Reed: What made your mother get a piano? Did she love music? Was there music in the house? Were you fake playing on a table? What inspired that? 
Francisco Nunez: Well, my mother grew up in the Dominican Republic, and she was always an artist. In fact, my whole family are artists – poets and guitar players and drummers – but because they were poor, they could not pursue that part of life in a serious way. They had to work. My mother believed in the arts. She knew that the arts made us different, and she always wanted her two boys to have music in their lives. They wanted us to paint, they wanted us to dance, they wanted us to play music and sing, and she would take us around and say, “Sing, sing,” you know, “Play the piano!” And that was important to her, and it helped us become very serious young people because we were disciplined on that piano bench. And we sang, we played guitar, and we wrote poetry, and my entire family supported it. But when I played the piano, something different happened, and I happened to be born with a gift. And she was smart enough to say, “Well, let’s see how far we can go with this.” And that’s how it all started. 
Jo Reed: You’re out of college. You’re working at the Children’s Aid Society. Your idea for the Young People’s Chorus of New York was very ambitious. How did you get it off the ground? 

Francisco Nunez: I applied to different kinds of jobs – any job – when you’re coming out of college, you’re not really sure what you want to do, so you look for any kind of job. And I noticed that there was a job opening at the Children’s Aid Society down on Sullivan Street in Manhattan. And they were looking for a counselor that would pick children up from P.S. 41 and P.S. 3, walk them over, took care of them with other kids there, after school, and we played some chess, maybe play some pool, do some homework, and the parents pick them up at six o’clock. That was my job, a wonderful $5.25 an hour. It’s a good thing we’re going to college for that. But when I went there I said, “If I do this, is it possible that I can start a choir?” And they said, “No, we don’t need a choir director. We need someone to pick up the kids and do homework and play pool and play basketball.” I said, “Fine.” So I did that for a couple of weeks. Eventually, I started the kids singing. And more and more kids were coming to my group. So I went from seven to like 50. And I started the choir there. And it started to grow from that. 

Jo Reed: How did it grow from being a part of the Children’s Aid Society to becoming a whole citywide independent program? 

Francisco Nunez: When I was at Children’s Aid Society, I said to the executive director at that time – was very supportive. It was Phil Coltoff and Pete Moses, two wonderful mentors of mine – I said, “I would like to open up this concept and bring all the different centers together.” There were five centers in Manhattan. Harlem, East Harlem, Upper East Side, Upper West Side – actually there were two in Harlem – there was the five centers. First of all, I had to go into those centers and recruit, which they told me would be very difficult. And they already had some kind of music happening there. And the concept that I wanted to do was never done in the history of the Children’s Aid Society. At that time, they were about a hundred and – I think – a hundred and forty, hundred and thirty years old. So I was doing something unique to them, but they gave me the green light to go. So I went to the different centers, and I promised these kids, who I never met before, if they joined this choir with these kids with all the different parts of the city, they’re going to sing in Carnegie Hall and wear great uniforms. And they said, “Great. Where’s Carnegie Hall?” And I had to tell them where Carnegie Hall was. And they said, “Well tell us about the uniforms.” And then they asked if I was sneakers as well. I said, “Yes, we’ll get you everything.” So the very first day, 70 kids were picked up from the different centers. It was incredible. After the first rehearsal went by, 13 came back. 

Jo Reed: Not quite what they had expected, eh? 

Francisco Nunez: Not quite what they expected. Reality was this is going to be work. The concept was difficult and hard. And creating diversity in society – it’s easy to look at diversity, it’s easy to see it and to be part of it, but it’s another thing to live in it and work within the concept. And, how do you maintain diversity? And what does diversity really mean? There’s so many different concepts of it. So the concept that I was looking at was – there’s diversity in talents, diversity in religion, et cetera, et cetera. So how do you bring all this together? You have a kid that’s extremely talented, and a kid that has never sang before. How do you bring them together and get them to the same level? It was simply the song that brought them together. They all want to sing. I have never met a child did not want to be excellent. That’s all I looked for. If they wanted to be excellent, I will give them a path there. 
Jo Reed: So talent doesn’t really factor into it. It’s the wanting. 
Francisco Nunez: I think so. Now if you’re born with something, it’s different. That’s great, makes it easier, but someone has got to recognize it. I always say, “How many sanitation workers have perfect pitch?” Many of – 
Jo Reed: I always wonder about that! Because how do you know if you have perfect pitch if you know nothing about music. 

Francisco Nunez: Right, exactly.

Jo Reed: Thank you . 

Francisco Nunez: So there is, there is something there that people have gifts. Reality is you have to work. You have to take care of your family. And when you’re young, you still have to take care of your family. It’s not only when you’re older and married or have a child. When you’re a young person, you have to take care of your family. So if your mom is working, and there’s possibly no dad around, and there’s five or six siblings, you know, you all take care of each other. Who has time to go to a choral rehearsal and sing songs? I knew that because I come from that. And I said, “What do I need to give to these young people so they can come to my rehearsals? Whatever it is, I want to make sure I have that. I don’t want any excuse.” Now, many of these kids could not sing. I will be honest. Many of them could not read very well. The diction was very challenging. And many of them were exceptionally gifted and wonderful and had it all. When they came together, after the few difficulties at the beginning – what I mean by beginning, I mean five years or so – it started to click. It started to work, but the entire time during this journey, I never felt that it wasn’t going to work. If we just keep with our own people, which is very powerful and very strong, we will learn a lot. We really will and we’ll survive and will be great people. But if we can learn from others, I think the opportunities grow even bigger. The spectrum of choices is wider. And why not have a wider spectrum of choices? 

Jo Reed: Is there any charge to be in the program? How do you – how do you pay for everything? 
Francisco Nunez: We have a pretty big budget. Right now, we have about 425 children in our afterschool program. That includes our core program of 375 or so and about another 50 to 80 depending – I know my numbers are not adding up because it, you know, there’s no fixate number. It always changes. But let’s say about 425 to 450 in our afterschool program. And they meet from one to four times a week, and they perform approximately 60 to 80 performances a year. And then we have another 900 or so in our satellite school programs, where we go into 12 different schools around New York City, and we become the music program for them. Those children become our pool to choose from, and they become very important in our working. The budget we have is a pretty large budget. If we were to collect from the 400 children the small tuition that we charge, which is about $800 a year, it still would only be about, I think, eight percent of our budget. So most of our funding comes from very generous individuals, family foundations, corporate foundations, our board of directors and government funding, such as the NEA, which is a, has been, a very good friend to us.

Jo Reed: What were some of the lessons you learned very quickly as the Young People’s Chorus of New York City took off?

Francisco Nunez: I think the one that I learned mostly is – we always think about how, you know, someone that comes from a lower economic means gets so much from something that we give them. What I learned is that those that are coming from the upper echelons get so much, as well. And they want to give as well. You know, the concept of children in need is not just one type of child. So it’s always difficult to explain to people that all children need a great education and just because you come from a family that’s extremely wealthy doesn’t mean that you have everything. And just because you come from a family that’s very poor doesn’t mean you need everything. There’s a diversity in need in the types of children that are out there. And the biggest lesson I learned is – bring these kids together, you learn so much from them and what they need. So I ask a lot of questions all the time. And the first one is, “What can I do to help you come to my rehearsal?”

Jo Reed: Your repertoire, how do you choose it? It is very, very wide and certainly varied. 
Francisco Nunez: I think one of the things that keeps the type of children coming to our program is the program, which means the concert program. As I said, every child wants to be musically excellent. If you can choose music that inspires a young person and gets them thrilled to do something amazing, they will keep coming. How do you do that? You have to work very hard to choose a repertoire that they feel good at. So the concept is just to find pieces that work from the diverse neighborhoods and backgrounds of children that we have. And one of the things that we did do was, when I started very early on, we created this concept called Transient Glory back in 2001, where I would seek out the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur -winning, the Guggenheim-winning composers who were being commissioned by the philharmonics and ballet companies from around the world and ask them, who never wrote choral music, let alone choral music for children, to write a piece for me, for the first time in their lives. And it took off in 2001, and what ended up happening is that concept of this new music by these great composers, it brought the children at a very different level. Two things happened. Once again, not only did the children rise to the level, the composers started to see the child instrument as a real instrument. Everything always works in two sides when you have that, and that’s what I see, what’s going on. So that Transient Glory series has continued to grow. Today we have over 70 commissions from some of today’s greatest composers, from John Corigliano, Meredith Monk, et cetera.

Jo Reed: And NEA Jazz Master, Paquito D'Rivera. 

Francisco Nunez: Yeah, that’s right. And Toshiko Akiyoshi, another NEA Jazz Master. That’s exactly right. 

Jo Reed: Go, Jazz Masters . And what I find so interesting is that the chorus brings different sensibilities to each piece. They’re not singing Brahms the way they’re performing Rufus Wainwright. 

Francisco Nunez: Well, that’s, that’s what’s amazing with working with such a diverse group of children. They have a sense of what is necessary, and they teach each other, and they teach me. So if I am doing a piece in Swahili, I will usually have a kid in my choir who can speak Swahili, or someone in their family speaks Swahili, so I can get how to do the pronunciation and the dialect that’s necessary for that song. I’m speaking French, or if I’m doing pop music or gospel music. Some kid’s parent is involved in that arena and we bring ‘em in. And all that helps to just create a sound. And what’s fun is that we’ve been told that our children sing with such intent. And I’ve always wondered, “What does that mean, ‘with such intent?’” It took me years to figure it out. What they’re saying is that every child on that stage is completely committed to making this the best musical-making moment on their lives, and that just becomes incredible. And after a while, I also started to bring in incredible staff that helped me. Our conductors are just incredible, and they also are helping to build this sound and this concept around the city. 

Jo Reed: I loved “Rikki Tikki Tavi.” That was fantastic. They sounded terrific. They’re dancing on the stage. You’re conducting and playing the drums at the same time. 

Francisco Nunez: Well, what’s fun about that is that it’s a piece that I heard on the radio by a group in Italy, and I created an arrangement for the YPC to sing. And it was a fun piece, you know. And our concert choir wanted to have something fun, and it was done with Jim Bayer. And we went to the ACDA – 
Jo Reed: And ACDA is the American Choral Directors Assocation. 

Francisco Nunez: Yes. The national convention. It was our first time invited to do that, and it was not put on the program but we knew it, and we have a standing ovation after one piece, in the middle of the program – really great. And at the end of the program, another standing ovation, and everybody’s looking around. I didn’t know what to do. And we just started singing it. And there we were and we walked off with the piece “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” and I was told it was the first time in an ACDA convention that it was an encore. But it really worked, and it was just exciting. 

Francisco Nunez: “Rikki Tikki Tavi” is like that kind of piece that uses the voice in a very different way. You know – forward sound, and the rhythm and the dancing all comes together. It’s just, it’s so natural for these kids to move and to sing. It’s really a lot of fun. 

Jo Reed: It was fun just watching it on YouTube. I wish I had been in the room. You’re a composer yourself. Do you ever compose for YPC? 

Francisco Nunez: I do, I do. I write a lot of pieces for them. I just did a couple of arrangements and some new pieces. I wrote a piece called “Forever Is My Song,” recently, for the All-State down in Georgia, but I readapted it for the YPC. We’ve been singing that around the world, and I wrote a couple of arrangements of American songs. I have a new song, “Take This Hammer” which is a chain gang song. 

Jo Reed: Radio Renaissance is another program of yours. Explain how that builds on Transient Glory. 

Francisco Nunez: One of the things that happens when you’re working with new music is you’re always trying to see, “Okay, what can we do next?” You know, music is always changing so programming has to change, and I wanted to figure out a way of disseminating the sound of composers to other young audiences because young people love new music, so how do we get to them? So we created a program called Radio Radiance. For several years, we were a part of the WNYC, and we noticed that we were always premiering some of our Transient Glory pieces there, or excerpts of them, before we did it onstage. And I noticed that some of the pieces didn’t work as well on the radio, but for whatever reason, they worked well on a concert stage, but not in the technology of radio. So I asked composers to please write pieces that would work using microphones and the technology that comes with radio. So now, with Radio Radiance, we have been able to take those pieces – I think there’re about 12 of them now that we’ve commissioned – and we’ve asked choirs around the country – we’re partnering with six to ten choirs – to also perform those pieces on their radio shows. And they’re getting attention from the radio stations in the area and from the public in the area. And here, they’re, for the first time, they’re honored to be doing world premieres in their area of these compositions that, of composers, they always wanted to do, and now have the opportunity to do. 

Jo Reed: When did touring become part of the program? 

Francisco Nunez: If you ask a young child in YPC they say it’s been there forever.  It is the treat. It is the icing on the cake for them. It is what makes them into a global citizen. So here, we take the concept of coming from different parts of New York City and meeting these young people and getting to know them, and imagine taking that group and bringing them to another society and learning from them. Going to Japan for one month. Going to 16 cities in 28 days, performing full concerts. Getting this appreciation from these audiences and, then, learning from those different cultures how it’s like to be a young Japanese person. They come back, and they become very different, and they write their college essays on these trips. And eventually, when they get to college, they start studying Chinese. They start studying Japanese culture or French culture. And they become these incredible global citizens. So touring has become an integral part of what we do, and it’s gotten to the point that we’re doing about three or four tours a year at this point. Now, this year we’re focusing on the United States. First we’re going to go to Greece, in September, to the World Public Forum. Then we’re going to go to Minnesota in November. So these kids are really starting to become part of American culture in that way. 

Jo Reed: You have a College Bound program that’s associated with the programs. So there’s also a great focus on what’s going on in the classroom, as well, incorporating that into what they’re doing at YPC. 

Francisco Nunez: Because we have such a diverse group of young people, their needs are very diverse. If you come from a particular kind of background where your parents are giving you, and your school is giving you, everything you need to prepare for your future, it works, but when you surround a person with excellence, and you see that everybody else is getting something, and you’re not getting something, you’re going to quit because you don’t feel that you can be at the same level as them. So, as I said, what do you need? So we created an official program where we hired a director of education to focus our attention on helping them with subject tutoring, SAT preparation, essay writing, financial management, time management – all the different things that they need in order to maintain great grades in their high schools. 100% of our children are going to college at this point, and I will say, easily, that many of these children, in their sophomore and junior years, told me they were not going to go to college. Now is college for everyone? That’s a different story, but we are helping them to figure out what they want to do with their lives and, at least, have the opportunity to want to go to college. And eventually, they all decided they want to, and now it’s getting to the point where we’re tracking to see how many of them are actually graduating from college and what they’re doing after they graduate from college. So our alumni group is starting to grow pretty, pretty largely. 

Jo Reed: You know, we hear about – we all know about – the lack of arts education in schools more and more. Children have no exposure to the arts because of budget cuts. The arts are seen as superfluous, and I’m going to assume that you take this as short-sighted thinking. But from your experience with YPC, can you explain why it’s short-sighted to people who might be very, very concerned with the bottom line? 
Francisco Nunez: I find it to be a mixed message, the concept of the arts. ‘Cause you have so many communities that are growing in the arts. Every school has the capacity of having arts in their program, but they face different realities. So I’m not gonna go into the politics of that, but what I do know – the biggest problem that I do have with the concept of arts – is the difference in importance of the intrinsic value of the arts versus the evaluation of the arts on paper with numbers. How do you prove the arts is good for you if you’re always going to give evaluations that are based on numbers versus the importance of what it does for you as a human being and what it does to make you a better person? What I do know is that everyone that is involved in the arts – and Chorus America had a huge survey that came out – that everyone who is involved in the arts, overall, is just a better person because they get involved. They get more involved in the civic duties, such as voting and volunteering and their neighborhoods. They go to other civic functions like musical theatre and opera, and they become involved in their communities. Arts changes the brain and it be, and it helps you to look at so many different ideas besides just one concept. And I believe that without arts, it – what would be the difference between us and anything else? 

Jo Reed: It’s the arts that make us human. I honestly do think that. I think, “What makes us human?” We know we’re going to die – that makes us different from any other creature on the earth – and we tell stories, and we do that musically. We do that through visual arts. We do that verbally. And it’s that storytelling. It’s that expression. I believe that is, in fact, what makes us human. 

Francisco Nunez: I love the idea of the storytelling, and it’s so important. I think we all have a different story to tell, and we have the individual story, and we have the collaborative story. And the collaborative story is the large ensemble. You know, and your story can be told in many different ways. We need to learn the ability to be creative, and I think what is going to shape society is not only having young people know how to deal with math examples and how to write better, but how to take a problem and solve it in a creative way. That’s what’s going to make us different. And what helps us to be creative? The arts. 

Jo Reed: 2011 was a very good year for you. You were awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. What difference did that make for you? 

Francisco Nunez: Well, it was surprising. It was incredible. Actually, I was the first choral conductor to receive the phone call from the MacArthur Foundation. Besides being floored, I was afraid. I didn’t know what this actually meant, and there was no rules. There was just like – what does this mean? Is there an awards ceremony to go to? No, no awards ceremony. You’ll just get the recognition. It’ll be in the newspaper. People will know, and you’ll start getting checks.” But what it has done for me personally is that it gave me strong legs to stand on. I’m no longer afraid of what I’m doing. I feel like it’s been recognized. And what’s been wonderful is that my community has been so supportive. My choral community, my friends have all been very supportive of the concept and very – they’re very happy for me, and I’m trying to give back with that support. 

Jo Reed: Well, the other thing that happened in 2011 is that the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities selected YPC to receive the nation’s highest honor for youth programs, which is the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Congratulations. That’s huge. 

Francisco Nunez: That is very big. I was so excited, and we got to take 12 young people to the White House, which is very hard to select 12 people to go to the White House. It was, it was exciting, and when we went there to be at the White House in the East Room, and then, of course, to meet the First Lady, who is very tall and wonderful – we were warned that she will give us all hugs. And it was just incredible. The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities has been so supportive of our work that at the ceremony we were allowed to perform. And right there and then, the First Lady said, “Bring these guys back,” and we got to come back, and I was able to bring a larger contingent of YPC-ers to come and sing at the White House for the Christmas holidays. It was just incredible. 

Jo Reed: Now, it’s 25 years, isn’t it? 

Francisco Nunez: It’s our 26th year, this year. 

Jo Reed: So, you have a quarter of a century under your belts. What are you taking into the future? 

Francisco Nunez: Well, I’m reinvigorated this year. We’re growing our satellite school programs. We’re growing our community school programs. We’re reaching out to more children. We’re at 1,400 or so right now. We know we’ll be at about 2,000 or so very soon. We are commissioning more works. We are singing around the states, around the country, and we’re being invited more and more to sing. We are changing children’s lives and helping them to create a future for themselves, where music was the vehicle that allowed them to be happy and gave them the strength to pursue a dream, which is just simply to get a higher education. 

Jo Reed: Yeah, well, I can’t wait to see what you’re going do with the next 25. Francisco, thank you. 

Francisco Nunez: Well, thank you, Jo, it’s a real pleasure for us. 

Jo Reed: That was Francisco Nunez. He is the founder and artistic director of the Young People's Chorus of New York. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Next week, the founding members of the contemporary string quartet, ETHEL. 

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. 

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.