The globetrotting Chicago Children’s Choir is back home this weekend for a concert program that celebrates both the season and choir’s mission. WBEZ’s Jason Mark gleefully shared the story on “Eight Forty-Eight.”
In 1956, the Reverend Christopher Moore brought a diverse group of young people together at the Hyde Park First Unitarian Church. Moore believed that kids could learn to understand each other; that through music they could build a better world.
Less than a year after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., Chicago was still one of the country’s most segregated cities. Despite racial tensions, Moore’s idea flourished and now the Chicago Children’s Choir is the largest youth choral education program in the United States.
Now, Chicago native Josephine Lee is in charge of Moore’s musical dream. Lee feels it’s her responsibility to shape the future because she belives that creating a legacy for the organization is a worth while cause.
In 1999, Lee became the youngest person ever to serve as the choir’s artistic director. She says the organization carried her through the death of her parents and birth of her children.
“They are my family. I’m an only child and for me, this is my life,” Lee said.
Seventeen-year-old Terry Henderson also appreciaties the choir and its original mission.
“It’s actually humbled me as a person. I think I have a better appreciation for how connected the world actually is,” Henderson said. “The choir has shaped me, to be a better man in this society; allowed me to grow. I will continue to grow and take the things that I’ve learned here out to my job, my own family, my life, and it’s a great place to start,” he told Marck.
Lee says she upholds the choir’s mission with a heavy dose of two key ingredients: Set high expectations and discipline. Her motto is: Expect the best.
Choir member Jahan DuBose,16, took the idea to heart and found that the best motivation comes from within. DuBose started in the choir when she was seven and recognized that conductors naturally push youngsters when they might not know as much as more seasoned members.
“But at a point, it doesn’t matter whether you’re older or not. You just reach a point where you say:‘This is something I like to do, I’m enthusiastic and I’m going to use that enthusiasm to push myself,’” DuBose observed.
Lee concedes that sometimes the quest for perfection can be mentally, and even physically, draining. Sometimes she must learn to take a step back so that she doesn’t obsess over every note, tone and cutoff.
But the obsession’s payoff, she says, is huge.
“If that chord locks then you can really transcend people’s minds and souls,” Lee explained.
Caroline Kagen, 17, is inspired by her director’s dedication. She told Marck that she and her fellow choir members look up to Lee, knowing that someday they could be in her shoes. And even though Lee drives the choir hard, Kagan says the director tailors both her praise and critiques to each voice in order to get the very best from each member.
Lee began playing the piano and violin at five years old and had her grip on a conductor’s wand by 15; music consumed her. More than any other language, she understands music.
“I just feel sounds. It’s just something that, I’ve innately been born with; it’s very visceral. You know, for instance, when we were rehearsing and we hit this powerful chord,
it just hits me in my gut! And yeah, I do see colors…I see…just…spirits,” she told Marck.
Lee is the mother of two small children, and surprisingly, motherhood feeds her pride for the choir. When she began, she didn’t differentiate between children and adults. Suddenly, as a mother, she awoke to the choir’s immense potential.
“I can’t even get my child to sing ‘A-B-C-D’ with me, without him shutting me up. You know it’s ‘Mommy no; don’t sing!,’ and here I’m working with hundreds of children who are producing unbelievable sonorous air at the drop of a hat,” Lee remarked.
Lee’s amazed at the choir’s ability to blend children from diverse backgrounds. Its allows them to breathe and sing together, which Lee says, is magical.