Thanks to This Musical Disrupter, the Chorus Is No Longer a ‘Uniblob’

Dianne Berkun Menaker’s Brooklyn Youth Chorus is tackling everything from race and identity to gender and sexuality -- and making students’ voices heard.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling women entrepreneurs who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways. Video by Sue Williams.

The trouble with choral music, Dianne Berkun Menaker thinks, is it’s a tad standoffish, what with all the formal robes and ecclesiastical vibes. For some people, “it becomes an academic thing — not something they can identify with,” she says.

Good thing Menaker happens to be a choral director. She is the founder of the prestigious Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a diverse Grammy-award winning choir made up of 600 students who hail from New York City’s roughest neighborhoods to its most elite. The group regularly performs a mix of contemporary classics and pop-music-inspired pieces at celebrated venues like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center.

Two years ago, as the chorus was approaching its 25th year, Menaker decided to ask her young students what they wanted to sing. “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,” she says. “Why are we performing music [they] wouldn’t even listen to?”

It turns out, her students had a lot they wanted to say. They came up with “Silent Voices,” an original piece of music that explores race and identity, gender and sexuality, inequity and social disparity. Her concert ensemble a group of advanced choristers, mostly girls, since boys’ voices change before they reach that level debuted “Silent Voices” at Brooklyn Academy of Music in May 2017.

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The music world took note. “The music expresses at the most cellular level a process of voice-finding and courage-building,” wrote the New York Times’ Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. “For these singers in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, finding value in their own voices is something priceless,” NPR said. Other reviewers called the performance “emotionally charged” and “transformative.”

As a result of the success, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus this past November released the studio album “Silent Voices.” In 2019, the concert ensemble will continue to perform the piece at a number of concert halls, including the Kennedy Center in April.

How She Started

As a music teacher at Brooklyn Friends School in the early 1990s, Menaker had noticed that children’s choirs were made up almost exclusively of privileged white boys. She asked the school if she could start an after-school choral program that would be diverse in terms of race, gender and socio-economic backgrounds. She got approval and a $14,000 budget.

“The reason I believe I was able to do it was because I had no idea what was involved,” Menaker says. The first year, she paid for snacks and costumes out of her own pocket. The second year, she asked to reduce her teaching time so she could focus on the chorus. The third year, she decided to quit teaching and commit full-time to growing the chorus.

With no background in starting a business, “everything was just a research project,” Menaker says, and she quickly learned to ask for help. To get publicity, she went to then-Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden and told him about the community-based choral program. “He said, “Well, I’ll host a press conference for you,” she says, which led to New York Newsday running a big feature. Thank to the early press, she had 48 students the first year.

After that, Menaker needed to raise funds. She asked a contact at Brooklyn Union Gas, the local utility now known as National Grid, for a charitable donation. “He said, ‘I can’t give you money. You’re not a 501(c)(3).’ I said, “Oh, what’s that?’” she says. Again, it was time to research — and Menaker learned that the 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status would allow donors to write off contributions. She filled out the paperwork to structure Brooklyn Youth Chorus as a nonprofit, puzzling over who she could even ask to be on her 6-person board of directors (a legal requirement). “It was like my mom, a teacher from the school, my mom’s best friend, me, that’s four,” she says. “I don’t remember how we got to six.”

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Where It Is Now

Today, Brooklyn Youth Chorus has a $2.6 million annual budget and a full-time staff of 15. The group is supported by numerous individuals, corporations and philanthropic institutions. It receives public funds from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.

The chorus has grown in size and standing throughout the years. A big milestone came in 2002, when “after 10 years of reaching out, we got to make our debut with the New York Philharmonic,” Menaker says. The group performed American composer John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, later winning a Grammy for live performance. It was “incredibly moving and powerful … one of the most complicated pieces of music I’d ever laid eyes on,” Menaker says.

As a group, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus has always done things a little differently. For starters, Menaker makes it clear to audiences that the chorus is the lead artist, front and center for any performance. “Typically, the chorus is the background,” Menaker says. “They are the backup singers, they are the uniblob in the faceless robes in the back of the stage.”

To avoid looking like a traditional choir, “we try to get off the risers,” she says, referring to multi-tiered platforms that choristers generally stand on. “We try to get out of uniforms.” The chorus collaborates with a mix of contemporary artists, including rockers that students might relate to, like Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and The National’s Bryce Dessner. Spoken word is often used in performances, and choristers get “to move about a stage and be in the theatrical side of music,” she says.

In recent years, “our projects allow the choruses themselves … to contribute to what the work is,” she says. Last year, the chorus released its first album, Black Mountain Songs, inspired by a legendary arts college in North Carolina. “A transcendently breathtaking sonic experience,” raved Bandcamp, a publishing platform for musicians.

Silent Voices, Now Heard

Which brings us to “Silent Voices.” To find out what issues mattered most to her students, Menaker hired a consultant to run an exploratory session. While she expected issues like race and gender and sexual identity to come up (and they did), what emerged from the workshop was the concept that society doesn’t listen to young people’s concerns.

The title “Silent Voices” refers to the fact that choristers are minors, not yet old enough to vote. “They’re all on the margin — they’re all outside the power and privilege zone,” Benaker says. “Nobody values their opinion.” The performances touch on current news events, such as the police shooting of Alton Sterling and #MeToo movement. It’s about “giving voice to those who have been silenced and marginalized,” she says.

One of her students, Sarah Maria Sotomayor, told NPR that the experience has inspired her to compose music. “I can go on and on about growing up as as a mixed Latina woman,” Sotomayor says. “The composers I heard of were Mozart and Bach and Beethoven.” Through “Silent Voices,” she got to interact with female composers Shara Nova and Caroline Shaw. “It was a lot for someone like me — who didn’t have anyone in their life who did music — to be told by someone who is successful in music, ‘You can do this, too.'”

Menaker says she’s most proud of the “nurturing environment” she has developed at Brooklyn Youth Chorus. “We have literally created this family … where there’s no wrong sound, where mistakes are encouraged, where everybody is welcome.” And where there’s no uniblob, but a collection of strong, individual voices, getting ready to lead the way.

Read Full Transcript

SOT: One, two, three! (Children’s chorus singing)

Dianne: It all begins with a love of singing. The kid has to want to be there, because a lot’s going to be asked of them.

TEXT: Dianne Berkun Menaker – Founder + Artistic Director – Brooklyn Youth Chorus – Brooklyn, New York

Dianne: Brooklyn Youth Chorus is a citywide community-based music program that is both an educational training school and a professional-level performing ensemble.

TEXT: Dianne grew up close to New York City in a family with little interest in music.

Dianne: Everything I have done with music has been pretty much entirely self-motivated. So I played because I wanted to play, practiced because I wanted to practice. From seventh grade on up, I was the school chorus accompanist.

TEXT: Dianne studied music education at New York University.

TEXT: At the same time, she ran a music program at a nearby public school.

Dianne: I had no idea what I was doing as a teacher. I just tried to do what I had learned from being in the room as a pianist. I found that working with kids was actually something really fulfilling.

TEXT: After graduating in 1988, Dianne moved to Brooklyn and began teaching music at a local private school.

Dianne: I came across a performance of the Hungarian girls chorus. And it was just a sound that…It was my thing. It was just like, “Wow, I love that sound. How did that happen? I have to work with that sound.”

TEXT: Inspired by the Hungarian choir, Dianne decided to start an independent co-ed chorus.

Dianne: I went to the borough president and I said, "I want to do this of and for Brooklyn. There can't be a financial barrier." We never turn away a child who can't afford to pay. That's just a founding value.

TEXT: Dianne started Brooklyn Youth Chorus in 1992.

Dianne: Basically, the reason I believe I was able to do it was because I had no idea what was involved. Everything was just a research project. What’s a nonprofit? What does it mean to incorporate? What's a board? You need six people. So I was like, my mom, a teacher from the school, my mom's best friend, me, that's four.

TEXT: Nearly 300 children from grades 2-12 come to audition every year.

TEXT: About 200 are accepted.

TEXT: The students are grouped by age, skill and experience.

Dianne: We have literally created this family, this house here that is the most nurturing environment for these kids. We have students who are dealing with racial tensions and sexual identity. This is their safe space.

SOT: Separate, connect, separate. You have to own the material.

SOT: (Brooklyn Youth Chorus performing)

Dianne: My biggest job here really is quality control, maintaining the standards that I take in the artistic side, which I believe is why we're so successful and why people ask us back, because they know I will deliver that artistic product.

TEXT: The annual budget is around $2.6million. There are 15 full-time staff members.

TEXT: It trains about 600 students a year who now come from all over New York City.

TEXT: And they sing a broader repertoire.

Dianne: Boys, they go through a voice change, so we created the men’s ensemble so we could keep them, having the same experience, but on a repertoire they can sing. The issues for girls are very different. Adolescence is such a vulnerable time for girls. They're so afraid to put their voice out there. They're afraid to be loud. All of a sudden, this voice comes out, and they catch themselves by surprise. They’re like, “Ah, that was me. I did that. That was my sound!”

SOT: (Girls chorus singing)

Dianne: You can't take that away from them. It's them. It's theirs. They own it. And it's like, that's the everything.

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Posted: December 20, 2018

Colleen DeBaiseThanks to This Musical Disrupter, the Chorus Is No Longer a ‘Uniblob’