Helping Richmond youth find their voice (and so much more)

With all the talent shows on TV today, you would think you’d need to be the next Mariah Carey to have a future in singing. But the City Singers Youth Choirs wants singers of all talent ranges to join them in raising their voices.  After all, the group knows that the of value of singing goes well beyond a record deal.

City Singers Youth Choirs (CSYC) is a nonprofit focused on choral education for K-12 youth. And when we say choral education, we don’t mean do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. No, we’re talking about a deeper cultural, historical and ethnographic understanding of songs and music.

“We highly value choosing music that reflects the diversity of our world,” said Executive Director Leslie Dripps. “We take great care to honor that music by researching with people from that culture or who have an expertise of that culture, and we prioritize honoring the origins of the music.”

Over the last year, CSYC has changed how they perform and teach its singers, but the mission of the organization has remained strong.

People get ready

City Singers Youth Choir started out as a church outreach program about 25 years ago and was formally founded as an independent nonprofit in 2007, right about the time Dripps came on board. In addition to her leadership, CSYC is supported by a staff of part-time musicians, artists and teachers.

Going back to reality TV, there is no panel of judges with large red buttons or quirky catchphrases like, “It’s a no for me, dog.” CSYC has an open-door policy: no auditions required.

“We’re a choir for kids who love to sing,” said Dripps. “We moved away from the audition model a number of years ago. We say we believe that singing is learned, so we needed to act like it.”

Leslie Dripps, executive director

With this model, students are singing alongside varying skills and abilities, which creates a harmony and collaborative environment which makes the CSYC program so special.

“For some choirs, the priority is the quality of music, but we have found when our priority is our singers’ wellbeing, it gives us the highest quality of music education. That’s what matters in the music education world,” she added.

Come together

On any given riser of a City Singers Youth Choirs performance, you may have a person who loves singing in the shower but wouldn’t dare sing solo standing shoulder to shoulder with someone who is on a scholarship to a collegiate choral program. But in COVID-19 times, that means the talent in one Zoom box could be totally different from the one above or below it.

In a typical year, CSYC would be serving the community through weekly choral performances, community music-making events and other free family concerts. But that’s not happening right now.

CSYC pivoted early to move its programming online. While performances and community events have been cancelled, that hasn’t stopped the organization and its singers from collaborating with other Richmond artists (like No BS! Brass Band) to produce a virtual song collection.

“CSYC has made some incredible modifications to its programming to continue engaging kids in collective music-making, even from afar,” said CSYC alumna Kate Gibson.

The organization is finalizing its winter album project, which should be available for its singers this year, and for sale more broadly in time for the next winter season.

Bridge over troubled water

The pandemic was one of the biggest challenges that faced City Singers Youth Choirs, but with everything else that happened last year, Dripps and her team made a conscious effort to make connections between today’s culture and music.

If you’ve ever taken a class in music history or music education, you likely get that music is a mode of storytelling and has incredible cultural significance from one group to the next. From hymns of enslaved individuals to modern day hip-hop, Scottish folk tunes to today’s modern bluegrass, there is a history and evolution of the sung word that tells us about a culture even beyond the lyrics themselves.

This spring, the theme for CSYC is Songs for a Weary World. And it likely isn’t a surprise what has inspired the focus.

“Music history very much parallels culture and sociological history,” said Dripps. “With racial injustice, the music is going to reflect that. On the one hand, it’s challenging to navigate this, but one of our priorities is to make sure we’re choosing music that is ethically sourced and authentically represented. After this year of grief and struggle and reawakening to issues, especially social justice, we really wanted a specific focus this semester on how music and the arts address issues of mercy and justice.”

In addition to its upcoming theme, CSYC has also begun an Equity in Education conversation, bringing together music educators from all around Richmond who are passionate about increasing equity and access in musical education.

A change is gonna come

As the choir continues to adapt, evolve and educate its singers, conversations will continue to unfold to help bring a better understanding to the world, its music and what singers can do to elevate – or vocalize – the conversation.

“Music provides a vehicle for contemplation, processing and envisioning a better world,” said Dripps. “A choir doesn’t sing a solution, but they can sing the moral imagination for what it looks like to be in unity in an environment where every individual voice is valued. Being in a choir is practice for being in a unified community. It requires you to do a little self-sacrifice and correction for the greater good.”

The Songs for a Weary World will focus on the roots of folk music in America, which represents stories passed down over generations through varying styles of music, from blues to gospel to bluegrass. The primary project of the choir will be to record a song written by Dripps that’s built on the latin text dona nobis pacem and incorporates the responses from the singers in relation to issues of mercy and justice.

For students who may be interested in the program, Dripps and her team want the community to know that CSYC is a safe, open environment to encourage all voices to rise up and be heard.

“Learning to sing is like learning the deepest part of you; it’s a very vulnerable thing. It’s hard to do alone, but it’s easier in a group,” said Dripps. “Singing is a musical feast that will feed you for the rest of their life.”

Dripps said even the most reserved, anxious students have found their voices and have gone on to participate, blossom and learn lifelong lessons from the experience.

“I was one of those anxious kids going into this. I was not really a person who felt comfortable sharing themselves,” said Gibson, who also serves on the CSYC board. “But when you function in a choir, you get reassurance, something about the unison helps you share yourself. With that comes more confidence, which carries over into other aspects of your life.”

CSYC is in the process of building out its board and it is actively recruiting new members. If you feel like music is a good thing for Richmond’s youth, reach out to get involved. Can’t commit to board activity but love the cause? Consider a donation here.

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