Brooklyn’s Children are Singing

For decades I’ve gotten the question, “My son/daughter wants to learn music; what’s a good way to start?” There are all sorts of ways to answer this. The parents are usually thinking about piano lessons, which works, but my answer is to have their children learn to sing.

Dianne Berkun, Shara Worden, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival, BAM, May 2012. Photo: Robert Maas.

All children sing and dance already, and it’s a joy. But learning music means organizing that joy into specific sounds, lines, and rhythms, then coordinating it with others. Adapting the joy into music is exciting and beautiful and satisfying on a very deep level, one that puts children (and adults) in touch with the power and meaning of what it is to be human.

If you’ve seen the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform, you’ll know exactly what I mean. There is an instinctual force in a person singing to you, turning their body into a resonating chamber, touching you with vibrating air. It’s amplified when singers group into a chorus with the tool of harmony. And when that chorus is children, teenagers and younger, and they sing together with a technical polish, aesthetic luminosity, and expressive depth that exceeds most adult ensembles, there’s a frisson of poignancy and awe. Its unique effect can take the breath away.

The B.Y.C. is as fine as it gets, in demand with the greatest orchestras and the most important composers. They have recorded and performed for John Adams, appeared on William Brittelle’s prog-rock masterpiece Television Landscape, and sung traditional shape-note music with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. At BAM’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival in early May they gave a concert of entirely new music from Sarah Kirkland Snider, Shara Worden, Missy Mazzoli, Bryce Dessner, and John King, the last an eerie, experimental piece in non-standard notation.

All of this is due to the dedication and handiwork of B.Y.C. founder and director Dianne Berkun. For part of her career she took a standard path to music education, but an unusual twist turned her into arguably the most innovative and accomplished conductor of young voices in the country. She’s had professional training in education and piano at N.Y.U. and in conducting and theory at Mannes. She’s certified in choral conducting and the Kodály method, an important and powerful way to teach children how to make music. But the twist is the thing that makes the B.Y.C. what it is: Berkun decided to learn to sing.

That’s not as simple it seems. Classical singers start with an advantage—the gift of an extraordinary voice—and train that instrument. Berkun, relatively late in life and from the ground up, trained herself in the techniques of using the voice. She now teaches the physical development of the voice at each level of singing. There are three levels at the B.Y.C.: Training, Senior, and Concert. The Training group gives a few performances but is mainly for development; the Senior singers give about 15 performances a year; and the Concert choristers are on stage 30 or more times.

Berkun calls her method, which she has trademarked, Cross-Choral Training. Any child can audition; all she seeks is the ability to discriminate pitch. Berkun does the rest, teaching the children about musicality and training them in how to read music. Seeing her methods in action reveals how simple and effective they are. As the children sing, she works with details of pure sound and focus, changing color and moving the voice around different parts of the body, setting the physical foundation of the music. When teaching her students the fundamentals, Berkun’s view is that “it’s important for me not to project a judgement to them, that this [piece of] music is more beautiful than that [one].” And the broader the range, the greater the musicality, and the easier it is not only to sing but to work professionally with a variety of great conductors.

There’s a social argument to be made for the B.Y.C.’s 20-year existence: In a public-funding landscape that increasingly sees children as future cogs in economic society who need to be drilled with mindless “skills,” making music is not only an extracurricular activity but also educationally necessary. Berkun’s process is like school in that it shapes and trains young minds through the years, and it does what education should never have stopped doing: have children listen to themselves and others, discipline their minds and bodies to produce a real result, and get them to work together to create something abstract, complex, and difficult. But ultimately, the thing that proves the truth and power of the argument is how beautifully they sing.

Contributor

George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is a composer, musicologist, and independent scholar. He writes about music for the Rail and ClassicalTV.com, and publishes the Big City blog.

winter-2014
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