March '03 Cover Story
Something to Sing About!
Willie Wright Jr. Gives the Short North Youth Chorus a New Voice
Willie Wright, Jr. surrouned by members of the Short North Youth Chorus. Left to right:
Alaina Avant, Jamar Ramsey, Ebony Allen, Danielle Sjerrillis, Jamal Roberts, and Elisa
By Cindy Bent
Willie Wright Jr. is surrounded by kids. He's a large, fit-looking man whose powerful figure commands the attention of the ten kids sitting around him. He's straddling a chair backward, swinging around to focus his gaze on all in turn. He speaks casually but with a hint of firmness in his voice.
"I want to hear your voice," he says, "really hear it. You were there, bro, that was it."
The young man in front of him shifts uneasily and shakes his head. His voice is barely audible.
"No, I wasn't!"
"Yeah, you were. You're going to be all right. Your voice is fine. Your job is to let me hear you. My job is to make sure I get you all on pitch. We're going to work until you feel comfortable with it. Now, are we all ready?"
The piano in the corner sounds a note. The young man shrugs his shoulders a little, but when the others sing out, he joins in. Wright is coaxing the group to try something they haven't done before: to work together and sing three-part harmony. This is only the second rehearsal of the Short North Youth Chorus under Wright's direction, and the sound is still shy and rough, but like a song off in the distance, the voice of a choir can be heard.
He's got their eyes and ears, and the beginnings of their effort. Now, what he really wants is their hearts and minds. You have the feeling watching him that it won't be long.
The three-year-old Short North Youth Chorus is embarking on a new frontier under Wright's direction.
The chorus is a program of the Short North Performing Arts Association (SNPAA), a non-profit group founded in the early 1980s by local musician Steven Rosenberg to add music to the Short North's growing artistic culture.
In 1991, the SNPAA decided to reach out and extend its mission to provide musical education and activities for at-risk neighborhood young people. Since then, they've created a number of hands-on workshops and programs for kids mostly of African-American and Appalachian background to expose them and their families to music.
Rosenberg says the Godman Guild, a venerable non-profit social service agency with deep ties in the community, was a natural partner to help include inner-city kids in their programming. The SNPAA and the Guild called their program Musical Opportunities Reward Everyone, or M.O.R.E., and started delivering summer music camps and perfor-mances to local elementary kids in 1999.
The Short North Youth Chorus was an outgrowth of those programs and performed for the first time in May of 2001 with the Columbus Symphony. Since then, it's been up and down for the chorus, with funding hits and attrition taking its toll on the size and activities possible for the choir. Rosenberg says they've been searching for a leader who could build the chorus into the kind of program which would teach kids the best music has to offer. The goal is to teach more than just the ability to carry a tune, he says.
"A chorus has a built-in social component," says Rosenberg. "It's not only musical skills we want to impart. There's a lot to be gained socially. It's teamwork, discipline; you develop social skills as well." Rosenberg says the SNPAA believes in Willie Wright. The Chorus has found a mentor who can instill in the choir's kids a sense of focus, cooperation, and accomplishment.
"We're very excited. Willie's really enthusiastic and has a wonderful style. I envision great things for this chorus. From the very beginning he's articulated a clear vision," says Rosenberg.
Chasing a dream, making it into a goal and then an accomplishment is the main lesson the Youth Chorus is meant to impart. Rosenberg believes Wright can act on that mission. The vision is to expand the choir in size and scope. Rosenberg and Wright both have high hopes of establishing not only a local perfor-mance schedule but also taking the chorus on the road, around the state and maybe even some day around the country and the world.
"One thing that impressed us was Willie wanted the children to have a sense of owner-ship and pride. He's decided, for instance, to have them elect officers from the chorus that have responsibilities and sit in on our SNPAA meetings so they really feel this is theirs," says Rosenberg. "He's positive and affirming - all the type of things we were looking for. He really wants to challenge the kids to be their very best."
Wright's track record both in music and working with kids is part of what gives Rosenberg and the SNPAA this faith in his abilities. It's hard to imagine a more perfect fit for an inner-city youth chorus. Music and helping kids, it seems, have been the twin missions in Wright's life.
Wright's full-time job is with Inner City Games, designing programming for everything from after-school activities to the annual Inner City Games competitions for kids. But Wright came to his current career by following a very round-about path.
Wright was the second oldest, and the oldest boy, of a family of eight kids. He grew up in Cleveland; his father, Willie James, was a pastor of the Greater Metropolitan Church. His mother was a social worker and often worked with her husband when she wasn't tending the two boys and six girls. Her name is Willie Mae - and between music and a social service career, Wright finds he takes after both of them in more than name.
"Yes, I was the second oldest, and my brother the second youngest, and there was a sea of women in between," he laughs. He says he and his sisters were always protective of each other - even though it might not have been necessary. "All of them are very assured and assertive women, so there was not a whole lot of protecting I needed to do. They get that from Mom."
Wright says there was always music in the house. The entire family sang in the choir in his father's church, and those who are still in Cleveland still do. In fact the family has performed as a group all around Cleveland. He says they still perform together regularly, most recently giving a concert at the church on New Year's Eve.
"It's not foreign for us to be yukking it up and end up around a piano - I often think that's one thing that knitted us together, that we could come together and sing the way we could."
Wright readily acknowledges that being surrounded by strong women may have had something to do with his choice in careers. In fact, he believes the environment influenced all of them. But while the musical component of his life has always been a constant, Wright did not find himself in terms of a career helping kids for some time.
"All of my sisters are teachers or working in the medical profession, or administratively in schools. We're all doing something that involves the changing of people's lives, the movement of young people's lives."
Wright graduated from high school in the Cleveland area and went on to Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1975. Feeling at the time that he wanted a larger school, he transferred the next year to The Ohio State University and graduated in 1980 with a degree in English.
He also sang with the University Chorus at O.S.U. When big city life beckoned upon his graduation, Wright moved to New York City, found a career with National Car Rental, and sang in men's choruses in New York, as well.
The English degree to Wright had been more of a means than an end. He says he always envisioned himself going to law school and becoming a judge and an advocate for children from the bench. But life took a few unexpected turns for Wright.
In the mid-1980s, his father was beaten and robbed and his whole family feared Willie Sr.'s health would never recover. Wright knew that it was time for him to go home to Cleveland and help as much as he could.
Wright ended up working a variety of professions in business - starting his own calendar business with friends, working for East Ohio Gas, before eventually landing a position first as a bailiff and then as a probation officer for the East Cleveland Municipal Court.
"Really, that's where my career path entrenched itself. I've been working with young people in trouble or kids or teenagers ever since."
Wright married, had a daughter, and moved to Wooster, Ohio with his wife during those years, and after a divorce, landed in Columbus working with the Alvis House, a boot-camp program for young offenders. He's worked since then designing and overseeing programming for young people for such varied groups as the Commission for African American Males, the Church of God's youth leadership programs, and at Strategies Against Violence Everywhere (or S.A.V.E.) before finally moving to the city's Inner City Games program this fall.
Christine DeChicco, one of Wright's S.A.V.E. co-workers, recalls his close relationships with the kids at Linden McKinley High School. She says Wright's devotion is clear.
"He would work for the kids like nobody would. He's a real role model for them in the schools and to the kids in the program. I think he has very high expecta-tions, for himself and the kids," she says.
"What makes him effective is that he just has incredible passion. And he's real. Like the kids would say - there's nothing fake or phony about him."
She points to one of Wright's recent interactions with his Linden McKinley students. One particular student, a class leader who is very close to Wright, came down with cancer. Wright saw the tough time that his student was having both dealing with his health and with other students, who were unsure how to treat the sick young man. But Wright took the extra time to do some research, even bringing in a speaker from Children's Hospital to explain the illness and treatments, and they all talked at length about what the student needed from his friends and how to help him through the crisis. DeChicco says Wright became a real role model in the school.
But Wright speaks of his relationship with that young man in different terms - as though the teenager were the real role model. "To see him walking through this valley with the type of dignity he has - it has nothing to do with me, but it's been a joy to be able to partner with him. I told him, he's my hero."
All glowing recommendations aside, Wright's aptness for his new task is obvious when he's at work with the young chorus.
The group is clearly enjoying the practice, although they are a little shy to sing out in front of strangers. One alto, though, is giving her all and suddenly belts out a broken note, and then exclaims, "Dang it!" The group dissolves into laughter, Wright included. When half of the kids continue poking each other and laughing as Wright tries to continue, he firmly but quietly brings the group to a halt.
"Now, that's OK, but I demand that you look at me when I'm talking. That's why I washed up and shaved and brushed my teeth - so I won't be so hard to look at."
The group chuckles a little but is rapt.
"Because when that piano gives a chord, I need you to look at me for direction." That's all it takes, and the group is on track again.
One of the tools Wright uses when things really get out of hand is to reaffirm his "Holy Dictatorship."
"This is no democracy here!" he says. He explained the concept at the group's first meeting, and all he has to do is invoke the phrase and order reigns again.
"It's not fair for kids to come and give their time for two hours to sit and not take something out of it, because we are dealing with discipline issues," he says later. "There has to be a team leader in a choir. It's a balance. It's not do as I say not as I do - it's do as I say 'cause this is what makes us a team."
Wright often draws parallels to sports, but he believes music has its own lessons to teach.
"Music has a discipline all its own, especially choral music," he says. "It teaches them to think about people other than themselves. You can't be in a choir and not work with the person next to you. It's about pulling together to bring up a product - that voice."
Wright himself obviously has an impressive voice but never lords it over the kids, never hogs the spotlight, and is willing to put himself out and look less than expert to get them to reach. He'll sing out "ooohs" and "laaaahs" clearly out of his range for demonstration in practice, but when he hits the lower notes an extra quiet comes across the room and an extra power is in his voice.
It's at least as much through showing as telling that Wright will reach these kids. On the night of their first practice, he sat the kids down, laid out his hopes and dreams for the chorus, and then let them know that it was through sharing the load that they would reach those dreams together. As he finished speaking, spontaneously, the group rose and applauded.
"He is all about if you have leadership potential, stand up and walk in it. I can't explain it, but he has this power to talk to them," says Anita Avant, a Godman Guild Youth Leadership Advocate and mother of two of the girls in the choir.
Avant says that Wright already has inspired her daughters Amber, 12, and Alaina, 13, who are in the choir as well.
"My younger daughter didn't make it the first time. And then he came in, and said 'you have a lead voice,' and started working with her - it sparked something in her. Now she's around the house singing! They're all excited. He sparked a fire, and that's great."
Wright's challenge will be tough. Beyond training the kids, the SNPAA and Wright hope to increase both the choir's size and budget. Rosenberg, who is the only staff member of the SNPAA, says the all-volunteer board knows they're facing an uphill battle in tough economic times, but that they must search for private and corporate sponsorship.
"There is never a charge for the children. Beyond performance schedules, we'd like to see some standard uniform for the kids, we'd like to be paying our professionals what they deserve - Willie and Cathy Fafrak [the chorus' pianist.]"
There is no performance schedule yet for the chorus, but Wright hopes to begin with two major performances each year around Columbus, in the spring or summer and in the winter, and eventually expand their horizons and tour outside the city.
"It's all a part of the program that you set forth. If you are a part of this choir, you get to do these wonderful things. We see that happen with other performing choirs around the city, and because our kids believe that who they are and where they are that their horizon has to be limited, and I don't believe that," says Wright. "We can be just as involved as any other youth chorus in the city."
As Wright works with his nascent chorus, he has to push hard for them to begin to understand the concept of singing three-part harmonies. He's as animated as a basketball coach, getting his whole body into every "Laaaaa," raising his hands to signal the beginning and palms flat down when he wants them to stop.
They're listening, but most have never tried to sing anything but the melody before; they're also reluctant to sing very loudly in front of their peers. He first turns to the altos, then the sopranos, then finally the three kids he's identified as tenors, getting them to sing just one note as a mini-group, then put all three tones together.
But his tenors are two shy boys and one girl. One of the boys can hardly be heard. Wright swivels around on his chair to face the young man, who gazes at the ground.
"Come on, bro," he says. "I'll sing it too, sing it with me. Come on. I'll never leave you out there hanging."
You get the feeling he means that in every possible sense. As he raises his arms, Wright and the boy sing out together.
The Short North Performing Arts Association can be reached at (614) 291-5854.