Stories from the Field: Boston Children’s Chorus

By     Nov 29, 2012

Frederick Douglas once said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” That quote has resonated with me since the day I discovered it, and I would imagine Hubie Jones had a similar mantra in mind when he founded the Boston Children’s Chorus nine years ago. The potent mental and emotional memory of Boston’s racial past attributes to the city’s current racial tension and siloed communities. By investing in the city’s youth, Boston Children’s Chorus is working to dispel the past, and progress toward an integrated future. By teaching music of various cultures and ethnicities, BCC is breaking down social barriers, addressing differences, highlighting similarities and helping communities realize the beauty in both. The organization’s passion for developing Boston’s youth informs their mission, and their mission influences every aspect of the organization. Though BCC’s goal is specific to developing youth, they are a proficient example of how an arts organization should use its mission to influence every decision, from minute to major.

Recently, I visited Boston and met with David Howse, Executive Director of the Boston Children’s Chorus. Discovering Howse’s passion for the work he leads and the mission of BCC is what provoked me to write this blog post. I was inspired to share the story of BCC because their mission is so connected with my own personal beliefs and professional goals. I firmly believe that the tools and skills taught through arts training are much more noteworthy than many of the other arguments that have been developed to advocate for youth in the arts. The inherent and intrinsic skills that students develop through arts training are critical to life success. I started theatre training at a very young age. I am certain that I would not be as successful today if my acting training had not taught me skills like discipline, perseverance, respect and patience. Even tangibles such as pronunciation, presentation skills and eye contact are tools that I developed in my acting training that are crucial for life’s success. Now, I am confident in applying many of these skills because they were instilled in me at such a young age. These are the same skills that the Boston Children’s Chorus is introducing to their students. They are cultivating prototypical citizens and professionals for the city of Boston, and for the world.

BCC’s programming is guided by this passion, as the organization consciously schedules performances in various Boston neighborhoods. This intention serves a dual purpose: it gives various Boston communities access to high quality art, as well as offering BCC children and families opportunities to travel to these communities. In such a subtle way, BCC uses this programming tactic to dispel some of the fears/stereotypes that may be placed on a particular Boston community.

The BCC model also guides their recruiting process. They realize that scheduling a performance in a particular neighborhood behooves them to showcase residents of that neighborhood. BCC again consciously selects singers from all Boston neighborhoods, to ensure that their choirs reflect the rich diversity that is presented in their music and promoted in their mission.

BCC is very cognizant of creating opportunities to engage with the community they serve, and careful not to impose on them. They are constantly evaluating engagement, and finding as many levels as possible to connect. BCC purposely operates transparently, to instill a level of trust in their students, their families and the larger community. Chorus students are involved in all major planning and decision-making. Students also attend board meetings, participate in focus groups and are in continual communication with the organizational leadership. As Boston’s community is constantly changing, BCC consciously remains a dynamic organization, adapting to the needs of the current community.

Being so transparent and engaging creates an opportunity for BCC to internally reflect the diversity they are promoting. By ensuring diversity is considered when hiring staff and recruiting board members, BCC continues to build trust with their community. However, as Boston continues to change, reflecting the city’s diversity provides an ongoing challenge. They must constantly assess their staff and board to ensure authenticity.

The Boston Children’s Chorus works not only to build social trust within Boston, they must also work to build artistic trust. Most organizations that serve youth must combat the myth that children are incapable of performing at high artistic levels. BCC trains their students with the same artistic integrity as any professional adult chorus. They constantly strive to position their students’ work as “artistically vibrant and relevant.” BCC hopes that anyone who purchases a ticket to see the Boston Symphony would potentially buy a ticket to see the BCC perform.

These various aspects of the BCC model contribute to the organization’s success in remaining relevant, fresh and engaging. All of these parts conclude to an operation that is proving to be effective and is initiating the change in Boston that they set out to achieve. One hundred percent of BCC students attend college, so it’s clear that the organization is achieving their mission of providing Boston youth with the life skills necessary to excel; but as with most arts organizations, BCC must figure out how to collect data that accurately validates the entire story. Graduation statistics are tangible and easy to measure, but it’s the intangibles that are hard to share in a comprehensive way. Realizing this, BCC is currently developing a partnership with Boston University. The university will help them figure out what needs to be measured and the best way to execute a study that will accurately present the story of the Boston Children’s Chorus.

BCC is a fairly new organization, and though they are still trying to figure some things out, many around the world are recognizing their model and contacting them about replicating it. Social and cultural issues are relevant to cities all over the world, and BCC has found a way to “transcend social barriers” while still preserving artistic quality. BCC is humbly working to figure out what can be packaged and shared with other organizations. They realize the relevancy of their work, and are happy to help other cities progress toward social change.

Visiting the Boston Children’s Chorus was a clear reminder of why the arts matter, and the significance of training youth in the arts. Even though the intrinsic benefits of the arts are harder to prove, they are still very much evident. That data is way more important than any tangible fact related to the arts. BCC is successful in accomplishing their objectives because they recognize the importance of mixing a clear and passionate mission with relevancy. Everything that the Boston Children’s Chorus does is driven by the organization’s mission, and their clear understanding of their community. As someone who has a personal passion for working with youth in the arts, it was motivating to learn of a new reference for the work I hope to do, and a new example of how to effectively execute it. The Boston Children’s Chorus is an excellent example of how mission should drive every aspect of the organization, because that is the only way it will truly improve civil society.

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