Dianne Berkun Menaker was once a music teacher at a prestigious school in Brooklyn when she noticed something: children’s choruses were almost entirely white. That didn’t sit right with her. She set about creating a chorus that better represented the community — and in the process, created a Grammy-winning choir that sings alongside musical greats like David Byrne and Barbra Streisand while also helping kids voice the issues that matter to them most. Listen to how Brooklyn Youth Chorus got its start.
SOT: (Brooklyn Youth Chorus singing)
DIANNE: We have students from so many walks of life who are dealing with the immigration crisis, who are dealing with racial tensions and racial issues.
COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: Today, we are speaking with a woman who is a musical disrupter.
DIANNE: My name is Dianne Berkun Menaker. I'm the founder and artistic director of Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
COLLEEN: And we know — you hear the word “chorus” and you think long robes...
SUE: ...maybe the altar of a church.
COLLEEN: I tend to think royal weddings...
SUE: ...or perhaps some Broadway show tunes.
COLLEEN: But the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is not your traditional chorus.
DIANNE: We try to get off the risers. We try to get out of uniforms and allow the stage presentation, whatever it may be, and the costuming to enhance the message of the work itself.
COLLEEN: In today’s podcast episode, we’ll tell you how Dianne is taking New York City kids from diverse enthic and socio-economic backgrounds...
SUE: ...and giving them a voice...
COLLEEN: ...the chance to speak up about the issues that matter to them most.
DIANNE: We really look at what it means to be silenced or marginalized for both genders, for every race and sexual identity. I think the Chorus has in some way touched them personally as well as musically.
COLLEEN: Stick around.
SUE: You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange, featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing. Here’s some audio of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in 2016 singing an original piece called “So Quietly.”
SOT: (Chorus singing) I’ll just sit here...I’ll just sit here...I’ll just sit here...
SUE: It was written for them by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. It’s an unfolding story about individuals who don’t feel empowered to speak up.
SOT: (Chorus singing) I’ll just sit so quietly...I’ll just sit here...
COLLEEN: If you saw the Chorus performing this live, you’d see girls and a few boys, mostly in the dark, wearing regular outfits, with bars of colored light passing over them. This is a really good example of what the Brooklyn Youth Chorus does.
SUE: It’s drama and, of course, talent — mixed with a heavy dose of social awareness.
COLLEEN: This group has become quite popular recently, not just with cutting-edge composers but also with major artists — John Legend, Pharrell, even Beyoncé. Here’s the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, performing with David Byrne from the Talking Heads this past October on Jimmy Kimmell.
SOT: (David Byrne singing) In a small, dark room where I will wait, face to face...
SUE: Not bad, considering its members still go to school every day.
COLLEEN: That’s right — they’re all basically between the ages of 11 and 18.
SUE: And no experience is required to be in the chorus, although a love of singing and an enthusiasm for music definitely is.
DIANNE: If it slips out in the audition, “I don't like to sing” or “My mom made me be here,” they don't get in.
COLLEEN: It was Dianne’s own passion for music that prompted her to create the chorus, back in 1992.
DIANNE: I didn't start Brooklyn Youth Chorus because I wanted a community activity or a social service organization. I wanted to teach music.
COLLEEN: Dianne grew up in the suburbs of New York City, playing piano from an early age.
DIANNE: I was the school chorus accompanist, not a singer. I was a pianist.
SUE (from tape): Did you come from a musical family?
SUE (from tape): Was there a lot of music in your house?
DIANNE: No, not at all.
COLLEEN: Despite that background, Dianne studied music education at New York University and volunteered at a nearby public school.
DIANNE: I contacted P.S. 11 in Chelsea. I said, “I'd come in and do a music program if you're interested.” So they said, “Sure.”
SUE: Much to her surprise, Dianne found that she loved working with the kids.
DIANNE: I remember just coming through the door and my kids running towards me. It was like this, “We're so glad you're here. We're so appreciative.”
COLLEEN: She eventually got a job teaching music at the Brooklyn Friends School.
SUE: That was in the early ’90s.
COLLEEN: Around that time, Dianne started going to professional music conferences...
DIANNE: ...everywhere in the country, if not internationally...
COLLEEN: ...and noticed that all the children’s choirs...
SUE: ...at least, the ones with the good reputations...
COLLEEN: ...sort of looked and sounded the same.
DIANNE: Didn't matter what geography they came out of or where the conference was hosted. These are white choirs. The vocal quality that they demonstrated, pretty the same.
COLLEEN: And that was a shame, she thought, on many levels.
DIANNE: It's a different instrument, when the vocal qualities that make up the group sound are different than when they're homogenous. For me, it's a richer texture.
SOT: (Chorus practicing singing)
SUE: And of course, there was the issue of fairness.
DIANNE: When I started seeing that the representation of a community chorus was not the community, it sat wrong with me.
COLLEEN: We’ll tell you how Dianne started a chorus for all students — from New York City’s poorest neighborhoods to its most elite — after this short break.
SOT: (Chorus singing) Look for the simple things, the simple things, the simple things...Look for the simple things, the simple things, the simple things...
COMMERCIAL: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides
inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. If you like what you’re hearing, check out our podcast episode featuring Dianna Flett, who started Girl Smarts to teach confidence to girls in 4th and 5th grades.
DIANNA: When you can teach a girl how to say “No” and stand up against something that she doesn’t want to experience, then you really have given them an opportunity to take control of who they are.
COMMERCIAL: It’s Ep. 25: Empowering Our Young Girls.
SOT: (Chorus singing)
DIANNE: We never turn away a child who can't afford to pay. That's just the founding value.
COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Dianne Berkun Menaker, who started the Brooklyn Youth Chorus more than 25 years ago.
DIANNE: Basically, the reason I believe I was able to do it was because I had no idea what was involved.
COLLEEN: We hear that a lot on this podcast.
SUE: For someone who didn’t know what she was doing, she’s been quite successful.
DIANNE: There's 600 students who go here now, citywide.
COLLEEN: So we mentioned before that Dianne started out in the early ’90s as a music teacher at the Brooklyn Friends School.
SUE: It’s a prestigious private school with a steep annual tuition.
DIANNE: They had a very rich, whole outlay of arts and electives, and woodshop — they had a lot.
COLLEEN: She started a chorus — but it was just for kids at the school.
DIANNE: I was missing a little bit of that broader service element. When I really decided to start the chorus, I wanted it to be for everybody.
COLLEEN: She asked her school administrator if she could open the chorus to students living throughout Brooklyn.
DIANNE: They gave me permission to start the chorus in my own classroom after school.
SUE: They also gave her a $14,000 budget.
COLLEEN: But it was hard for Dianne to juggle both a full class-load and the chorus.
DIANNE: If I really had to pick the turning point for me, I remember one year I was given my teaching schedule for the year, six classes back to back. At that moment, I realized that as long as I was doing what I was doing in the setting of a school, the needs of my program could never have priority.
COLLEEN: And just like that, she quit teaching and became a start-up entrepreneur.
SUE: The first thing she did was to raise money for the chorus.
COLLEEN: She knew a guy who knew a guy...
DIANNE: ...at Brooklyn Union Gas, which isn't Brooklyn Union Gas anymore.
COLLEEN: It’s now known as National Grid. Anyhow...
SUE: She asked them for a charitable donation...
DIANNE: ...so that I could have an assistant or make the uniform or give the kids snacks. And he said, “I can't give you money. You're not a 501(c)(3).” I said, “Oh, what's that? I never heard about that.”
COLLEEN: 501(c)(3), of course, is the nonprofit tax status that allow donors to write off contributions.
DIANNE: I started doing some research.
COLLEEN: She filled out the paperwork to structure Brooklyn Youth Chorus as a nonprofit.
SUE: There are quite a lot of formalities required. For example, she needed to have a board of directors.
COLLEEN: She puzzled over who to ask — she needed six people.
DIANNE: So I was like, “My mom, a teacher from the school, my mom’s best friend, me, that’s four.” I don’t remember how we got to six.
SUE: Then it was time to find some singers.
SOT: (Chorus singing)
DIANNE: I went to the borough president at the time, Howard Golden, and I said, “I want to do this of and for Brooklyn citywide chorus. There can't be any barriers to who participates. There can't be a financial barrier.”
COLLEEN: And he said...
DIANNE: “I'll host a press conference for you at Borough Hall.”
COLLEEN: And she got lucky.
SUE: The newspaper Newsday...
DIANNE: ...wrote a full feature page article on the starting of the chorus.
COLLEEN: And just like that...
SUE: ...48 kids from 40 different schools signed up.
COLLEEN: More than 25 years later, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus has grown in size.
DIANNE: Our budget hovers around $2.6 million right now.
COLLEEN: And of course, in standing...
DIANNE: It's the go-to chorus for the New York Philharmonic. We’ve performed with some of the greats in popular music, whether it's Elton John or Barbra Streisand.
SUE: And — oh yeah — they’ve won a Grammy.
COLLEEN: Yup — that was in 2002.
DIANNE: That was on the world premiere of John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls.”
COLLEEN: Here’s a clip of that...
SOT: (Chorus performing “On the Transmigration of Souls”)
DIANNE: The piece itself, which was a tribute to 9/11, was such an incredibly moving and powerful piece that I'd say myself and the students that were part of it felt really changed and transformed through our association with that work.
COLLEEN: One of the things that Dianne is proud of is changing the way we — the audience — view the chorus.
DIANNE: Typically, the chorus is the background. They’re the backup singers, they’re the uniblob in the faceless robes in the back of the stage.
COLLEEN: I love the word “uniblob.”
DIANNE: We don't need someone else in front of us or to lead.
SOT: (Chorus singing)
COLLEEN: So this brings us to the piece you heard, at the very beginning of the podcast.
SUE: It’s called “Silent Voices.”
COLLEEN: In 2016, for the 25th anniversary of Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne asked her students what they wanted to sing.
DIANNE: I feel that is such a vulnerable time for girls. The danger for them often is that their self-concept is outside-in. So, “How do the boys see me? Am I in the clique with the other girls?”
SUE: It didn’t surprise her when students brought up issues around race, gender and sexuality.
COLLEEN: But what also came up — and this did surprise her — is the concept that society doesn’t listen to young people’s concerns.
SUE: As a result...
DIANNE: The shows all have spoken word element, and the spoken word is all the students’ own words where they express their views on contemporary issues and what's happening in the world, what matters to them.
COLLEEN: Performances are more theatrical...
SUE: ...and again, there’s no robes or risers.
COLLEEN: The students wear costumes made by Rag & Bone — that’s the hip urban brand — and there are video projections — sometimes of words, sometimes of shadows — behind them.
DIANNE: These kids are sharing personal experiences and they say these things to this room of kids.
SUE: Shows often touch on current news events, from police shootings to the #MeToo movement.
SOT: (Chorus performing) We want to be the ones who can forsee and stop the problems...We want to be more open and more accepting than those before us...Hey now, hey now...Don’t want the things you saw, you baptized in a river of lies...
COLLEEN: This is now an ongoing, multimedia, multi-composer series that’s been performed at a number of venues, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
DIANNE: We've been very fortunate that our artistic profile is really strong. We've gotten great reviews.
DIANNE SOT: Separate, connect, separate. You have to own the material.
SOT: (Chorus singing)
COLLEEN: Dianne says she is most proud of the “nurturing environment” she has developed at Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
DIANNE: We have literally created this family where there's no wrong sound, where mistakes are encouraged, where everybody is welcome, there's no background that's favored.
SOT: (Chorus singing) I want my voice to be heard! You deserve to be here.
SUE: We thank Dianne Berkun Menaker of Brooklyn Youth Chorus for sharing her story.
COLLEEN: And we thank you for listening.
SUE: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would.
COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.