The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy, under the direction of its founder and PS 8 parent Dianne Berkun-Menaker, started a voluntary lunchtime chorus at PS 8 for third to fifth grade students this year. Learn about the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, PS 8’s program, and how to support children who are interested in advanced vocal training in an interview below with Dianne.
What is the Brooklyn Youth Chorus?
I founded the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy in 1992 with 45 kids rehearsing in a donated space in downtown Brooklyn. We now serve more than 400 students who enjoy a wide range of music courses in a renovated building in Cobble Hill and a Bedford-Stuyvesant Music Annex. Students can participate after school in one of six choral ensembles that are organized by age and experience. Students learn vocal technique, music literacy skills, performance practice techniques for diverse musical styles, and historical context for the music they sing.
What brought the Brooklyn Youth Chorus to PS 8?
Some of it was personal. My daughter started at PS 8 a couple of years ago and I came in to her class a few times with my guitar and started thinking about what I could do on an ongoing basis. I knew I wanted to make a meaningful contribution to my daughter’s school, but as a full-time working parent, my time was limited.
Brooklyn Youth Chorus has begun in-school programs in other schools – like PS 15 down in Red Hook – where we provide both direct instruction to the students and support for the music teacher in the school, offering a form of professional development in how to teach vocal training and musicianship. Sometimes we also come into schools that don’t have a music teacher and help build a program. The goal there is to position the school to hire a permanent music teacher at the end of our residency.
I saw that an in-school music enrichment was something I could do for PS 8 that would benefit not only my own child, but the school community as a whole. I suggested the idea, and the lunchtime chorus was born this past fall.
Does the PS 8 chorus perform with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus?
Not yet, but it’s something we could think about for the future if there’s interest in that.
Do you plan to continue the PS 8 chorus in future years?
I would like to continue it! There are some issues to work with through around rehearsal space and scheduling.
How does the PS 8 chorus build on and enrich the PS 8 music curriculum?
The chorus program allows older elementary school students to focus on more specialized voice training. Vocal training offers significant benefits to kids. Voice is the one instrument all children possess, and it’s the primary vehicle for developing the ear and musicianship. There are also health benefits to kids because serious voice training teaches kids about vocal health, breathing, and posture. Anything that has to do with musical processes supports the development of math concepts as well – subdividing rhythms and working with fractional relationships. Working as part of an ensemble helps kids learn to regulate their behavior and work cooperatively in a group and illustrates how the success of the whole rests on the contributions of each individual. They learn that active listening is as important as active performing to be successful as a musician. They learn the value of constant reflection in action in improving the sounds they make.
What do you hope students in the program at PS 8 get out of their experience?
For me, it’s not just about the experience; I want them to build a real foundation of skills. I want them to understand how their vocal instrument works and to learn the structure and language of music – an understanding that will enhance their enjoyment.
Helping elementary school age kids become part of a chorus can be hard. It requires a lot of focus and discipline. Being still and focused in their bodies at this age can be challenging. Bringing things they already do – like breathing and making sound – into a new, more conscious and focused context is hard. I don’t expect my students to have everything under control at the end of a year! I want them to be able to sing on pitch, in a way that promotes long-term vocal health, and that produces a sound that is pleasant to hear.
How can families support students in youth chorus at PS 8?
It’s important for families to recognize – and to help their kids recognize – that commitment is important in music study. Part of that is recognizing that music study is more than just singing. If families take an active interest in what their kids are learning, and ask about the process of making music as well as about the songs their kids are singing, that reinforces the importance of the broader context of music study and the commitment it requires to progress.
It’s also important for families to recognize that kids’ interest may wax and wane over the course of the year, especially when they’re tempted to go to recess or another classroom activity, and to remind their children of the importance of honoring their commitment. It’s not that this is such an intense activity, but if you want to lay a real foundation for more advanced vocal work, you need to understand what practice is like and develop the habits of good practice. Also, singing is a muscular activity and practice is key to developing muscle strength. Commitment and continued practice is a long term investment if they’re going to develop singing as a skill.
When can we see the PS 8 chorus perform?
We are planning our first public performance at 6:15 on Monday, June 17 in the PS 8 auditorium. The performance will be short — about 25 minutes — with a little reception after. There will be some in-school assemblies that same day, but we’re hoping that families will come in the evening and bring friends and extended family members to celebrate and recognize what the children have learned!
What other community partnerships does the Brooklyn Youth Chorus have?
As I mentioned before, we have a similar weekly program at PS 15 in Red Hook, and a more limited partnership with the New Voices Middle School. We have some other school relationships where we support the school by offering scholarships to any of their students who participate in our after-school ensembles. We also offer training workshops for teachers interested in our particular method, which is very highly regarded and supported by published research. Kids in our highest level ensembles perform as professional musicians collaborating regularly with the New York Philharmonic and other world-class orchestras as well as many famous recording artists – we have extraordinarily high standards!
How can my kids join the Brooklyn Youth Chorus?
Visit our website and click on the “Join” link to learn more about auditions!