By: Giselle General
Humans of New York is a Facebook page I have been following for the past decade, with is compelling and artful way of capturing people’s portraits and their stories of the subjects, usually narrated from their perspective. A series of posts not too long ago talks about a subject that was dear to me, children’s and youth choirs. It was a story of the founder of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.
Music, particularly singing in groups, was a regular part of my own life starting in elementary school. I would say it is my first ongoing experience as a child learning how it’s like to contribute something to a collective whole. Usually the settings are religious, where students from every grade level take turns being the main choir for the monthly Catholic mass at school. I learned then the phrase “singing is twice praying” which I find compelling to this day, even if I don’t regularly go to church. There is something deeper, spiritual, and elemental about music, and even more so for me, when the sounds come from my own body, my own breath, my own vocal chords.
I continued this musical journey through the Catholic Youth Ministry student group in my first two years of high school, still in the village where I grew up. By then, it has been three years since my parents and sister died, and I’m very well set in my ‘parental’ and provider roles for my brother and myself. Home life was not a place of ease and acceptance. Being part of the Youth Ministry choir was great way for me to maintain some sense of age-appropriate exposure and belonging, one of the few ways I felt like an actual teenager.
When I moved to a high school in the nearby city, I was too intimidated to join the Performing Arts Club of my new school in the city, but I did join the Liturgy Club. That involved a lot of singing in the daily church service from 7 PM – 7:30 AM before the morning bell.
“Hear me Jesus, hide me in thy wounds that I may never leave thy side. From all the evil that surrounds me, defend me! And when the call of death arrives, bud me come to thee. That I may praise thee with thy saints, forever!
When I came to Canada at 16 years old, I joined the school choir for Holy Cross high school in St. Catharines Ontario, during my only year in high school here, Grade 12. It seemed like an easy, seamless way to be part of a club. I can already sing in English and despite not being able to read music, I can follow along once the instructor plays the piano and demos the notes. The first song I learned is O Canada which was really cool. It meant I was years ahead in preparing for my citizenship ceremony, haha! On top of religious songs, I also learned how to sing pop songs in a choral setting. I learned how to be the backup melody while our vocalist Danica would sing the main lines. This one I remember well, which is Apologize by Timbaland.
Danica our lead vocalist: “I’m holding on your rope, Got me ten feet off the ground. And I’m hearing what you say, But I just can’t make a sound. You tell me that you need me, Then you go and cut me down, but wait. You tell me that you’re sorry, Didn’t think I’d turn around and say.”
The other students, including me throughout this entire verse: “Ooooh, na na na. Oooh na na na.“
Staying after school on Thursday afternoons, sometimes also Tuesdays, was something I really looked forward to then, because I was not used to the way things were in Canada with school being done at 3 PM. It felt way too early and I’m usually at home alone after school. It opened remarkable experiences and opportunities for me, such as performing in front on a baseball stadium in Toronto and me taking the yellow school bus for the first time. And also, getting a loyalty award at the end of the school year for being involved in the choir. This has significantly helped in my adapting to life in Canada, followed by discovering the Filipino-Canadian Association of Niagara and its cultural youth dance group.
When I moved to Edmonton and stared university, I considered auditioning for the choir, but got intimidated by the fact that the members are likely music majors, so those with superior vocal skills who are planning to make this their career. As I went through the motions of completing my university degree, the show Glee came about. I thought the show was entertaining and fun and cool. While in this case, the choir is more of a show choir and is flashier, I’ve seen glimpses of what reminded me about what high school choirs, and high school clubs in general, can provide to young folks going through one of the most transformative stage of their lives.
I got teary-eyed when I watched one of the performances of this youth choir featured in Humans of New York, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The combination of the vocals of the performers and picking up the distinctive sound of youth, especially for the male students who seem to have just started puberty. Seeing how many of the kids are way shorter than their instructor/ conductor, and seeing how animated they are singing their parts.
My youth choir experience was something I personally cherish in my younger years. It kept me out of trouble and at the same time, helped me reconnect to my actual age and stage in life, that I was an actual kid who is still growing up, not saddled with adult responsibilities such as earning income and being the parent for me and my brother. When they are run well, youth choirs can serve as a bridge between kids of different backgrounds, provide structure, motivation and fun in a balance way for growing minds, and open opportunities for those who lack access in their own homes.
Thank you to all the adults that help manage youth choirs and other music-related programs and make them a success!