First Impressions

On this Friday in February, I walk outside with Nikita and Mary as we make our way from the administrative offices to the rehearsal spaces. HBV operates in the basements of two apartment buildings, which are connected by a fenced outdoor alleyway. (Visit the Map for a visualization.) The buildings are managed and operated by the Highbridge Community Development Corporation (HCDC). Established in 1984, the HCDC provides low-income housing and community development throughout the Bronx. One of their community initiatives is supporting HBV by donating rehearsal and office spaces (Highbridge Community Development, 2018). In 1998, HBV began by holding its first rehearsal in what is still their current space. Originally founded as an initiative under the umbrella of HCDC, HBV became an independent non-profit organization in 2001. Still supported by HCDC, HBV is also supported by various foundations, corporations, organizations, government grants, and private donations. The original visionary behind the project, Monsignor Donald Sakano still serves as the President and Chair of the HCDC, and is the President of the Board of Trustees for HBV (Highbridge Voices, 2018).

My brief tour of the facility reveals classrooms with stencils of quotes on the walls and neat rows of desks, practice rooms with music stands and mirrors to view posture while singing, and rehearsal spaces featuring beautiful pianos surrounded by lines of chairs and brightly painted accent walls. In the main rehearsal space, Rehearsal Hall 1, I am struck by the lack of clutter and what can only be described as stark cleanliness. 

In the front of the room, there’s a whiteboard with a note in the corner written in blue marker that reads: “Happy Lunar New Year!” Along the right side of the whiteboard is a poster hanging on the wall offering “5 Keys to Rehearsal Bliss.” Just next to the rehearsal poster is a large poster-board displaying 12 cupcakes, each labeled with a month of the year. Artfully arranged inside of each cupcake are the names of students who share the same birthday month. The right side of the room holds racks of extra chairs and risers, as well as a TV hooked up to a PlayStation. The TV and video games are on a cart, so I figure it gets hauled out of the room once rehearsal begins. The left side of the room hosts a bookcase filled with books for all reading levels—well-used and well-organized. On the back wall there are shelves containing binders neatly arranged for each student. Above the shelves are the announcement boards: bulletin boards holding pinned notices for upcoming singing tests, the attendance list, and who needs to turn in permission slips before the next field trip. On the top shelf I see the games, and just as I’m peeking at the various boxes to see what they have, the bell rings.

It’s now 2:57 and the first students are coming in. On my way to the main door to introduce myself, I pass the “Wall of Superstars” lining the hallway: a glass case with photos of students (a student-of-the-month honor), and as I’m peering at the names featured during this school year, I realize that the quiet and emptiness of the last 27 minutes are gone. The students’ voices quickly fill the silence, their bodies crowd the space, and I now understand why the walls are kept clutter-free and nearly bare. HBV serves 120 children, and the space they have must be used efficiently. If not kept constantly neat, the feeling of chaos would be overwhelming. In the front of the room, the whiteboard now serves as a movie screen for kids watching Moana; on the right side of the room with the TV and PlayStation, there’s a highly competitive game of virtual basketball being played between two equally passionate teams; off to the left side near the bookcase, kids are sprawled out on chairs and the floor playing UNO and Jenga, drawing on an additional whiteboard only to instantly erase it, and taking pictures and watching videos on their phones; and in the hallway by the “Wall of Superstars,” there are kids sitting in a row of chairs: chatting, finishing their homework, eating snacks, and waiting for their friends to arrive. It’s a cold and rainy day, meaning there are more kids than usual indoors, since no one is playing outside in the alleyway. On subsequent visits, I witness the long outdoor space host a variety of intense games of dodgeball and basketball, serve as a stage for vigorous dance moves, and play host to squeals and giggles between different groups of kids screaming about who “likes” whom. Free time is designed to give them space to be kids and play. It also offers time between the school day and HBV programming for the kids to eat their daily nutritious snack. This time is loosely structured to help encourage a well-rounded and healthy lifestyle, allow the kids a chance to unwind during their day, and provide time and space for developing positive and strong relationships with the staff and each other (Making a Difference, 2018).

The children arrive in waves, each group signing the attendance binder after they’ve been buzzed in, where they write their initials next to their names on the sign in sheet. Again, this keeps track of everyone that’s in the building, but it also serves the purpose of recording students’ attendance. Each year, rising 4th and 5th graders are invited to apply to HBV. It’s a full-scholarship program, and all of the tutoring given, lessons provided, snacks eaten, and trips taken, are completely free for participants. In exchange, students need to maintain a 70% attendance rate across all activities, sign a contract with their parents and HBV promising positive behavior, and need to demonstrate a desire to do well in school. The bell rings over and over, a constant reminder that more children are waiting to come through the door. The ringing blends with greetings, laughter, and shouting as the sounds and bodies continue to fill the space.

Walking back through the main rehearsal room, past the PlayStation basketball, I follow a skinny little girl with glasses skipping down the hallway carrying her snack (today it’s yogurt and a bottle of water) as she heads off to the second rehearsal space. now see the purpose this hallway serves in addition to connecting spaces, for every inch of wall is covered by backpacks and jackets hanging from white hooks that had previously blended into the equally white brick wall. The long narrow entry into the second rehearsal space has a built-in counter along one side, which I had assumed served as a shelf for water bottles or cell phones, but is being used by kids that have brought chairs over so they have space to do their homework. At HBV, the kids have access to computers, printers, tutors, and mentors, so while it’s a Friday, for some, this is the best time to get started on the work they need to turn in on Monday.

There are three choirs at HBV: Concert Choir, Chamber Choir, and Singers; and each ensemble rehearses for 90 minutes, three times a week. Outside of recreation and rehearsal time, students have extra classes in creative writing, math, SAT prep, and music; as well as private singing and instrument lessons, and tutoring sessions. Each week, students receive over 6 hours of music enrichment, and over 7 hours of academic enrichment. Each day, the kids take advantage of the first free 40 minutes of their afternoon before they hear the five minute warning from the conductor. The noise, the fun, the games, and above all—the ever-present doorbell (a classic “ding, dong” sound, a major third dropping from an E to a C, which Mary joked to me during a subsequent visit: “They’ll probably play that doorbell at my funeral!”), start to slow around 3:40, just five minutes before the first rehearsal is set to begin.

The warning is gentle, not much louder than the volume of a normal conversation, and yet all of the kids hear it and respond to it. The games are collected and put away, the chairs are organized into neatly curved rows, and the older kids leave the room—wheeling the TV and PlayStation cart out on a ramp that they efficiently set up and take down. The younger kids rehearse first today, so they scamper off for one last drink of water, grab their proper binders and a pencil, and get settled into their seats. As quickly as the room transformed from silence to energetic noise, it has just as rapidly, if not more so, transformed from enthusiastic sound to order and attention.

The Concert Choir is made up of the youngest children in the program, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. The older two choirs are both made up of 7th – 12th graders, with the Chamber Choir being the intermediate group, and the Singers being the advanced group. On this particular Friday, I observed the Concert and Chamber Choirs, getting a chance to observe the Singers on other occasions. Concert Choir is split into two parts: sopranos and altos (regardless of gender), who are sitting eagerly looking to their conductor as she makes announcements. Spirit Week is coming up and the kids squirm in their seats as they start making plans for Wacky Wednesday and Pajama Friday outfits. Earlier that afternoon, when I was chatting with the conductor as we watched the kids goof around during free time, she shrugged and simply stated: “they really like it here.” Now, hearing the kids whisper about who they’ll be for Superhero Thursday, the joy is palpable.

Concert Choir’s rehearsal begins with a set of warm-ups and then quickly transitions to the first piece of their rehearsal, “Sing to Me,” by Andrea Ramsay. The piece is gorgeous, and with one eye on the conductor and the other on the music, the kids sing pure melodic unisons balanced with suspensions created by their two parts. Though I’m biased because of my love for a good suspension, the purity and innocence of their young voices perfectly carries the piece’s message of flowers in spring. The rehearsal moves quickly from measure to measure, line to line, and song to song. Efficiently and professionally run, disruptions are minimal. When kids need to use the bathroom or get a drink of water, they raise their hands and with a simple nod from the conductor take turns leaving the room. There are collective groans when the conductor reminds them of their upcoming singing test (to make sure that they feel confident on a particular song) and equally loud sighs of relief when she reassures them they can use their music. The kids dance in their seats and begin drumming the air when they listen to a recording of a South African song they’ll be starting next, and sing a relatively new song on solfege syllables before she has them transition to lyrics. Throughout the rehearsal there is a constant focus on intonation, steady breathing, and grounded singing. There is good-humored dialogue between the conductor and the students, as well as between the students themselves, that seems to be based in mutual respect and enjoyment. I cannot get over the dedication and focus that I witness for the next 90 minutes. (The one time I saw the kids take a moment too long to give their focus to the conductor—at about minute 82—she was all too happy to raise her eyebrows, put her finger to her lips with one hand, and point to my microphone with the other. The kids’ eyes grew wide, they snapped to attention, and instantly sat up straight. She gave me a wink as I chuckled at their quick response.)

Since this is a Friday rehearsal (and therefore Report Card Day), as it’s wrapping up, the kids hear the beginning baseline of, “For the Love of Money” by The O’Jays, and squeal from their seats. Nikita comes sauntering into the room in a lime green silk shirt, green bandana, and green mardi gras beads waving a fist-full of dollar bills. As the opening line of the song starts, “money, money, money, muhnay…MUHNAY,” someone flashes the lights, and the kids scream with delight.

Bringing in report cards has become a weekly highlight for the students because their reward is a crisp, clean one dollar bill, and the “money song” is the signal that their reward has arrived. Kids are called up one at a time to the front of the room where they’re applauded for bringing in their report cards, and handed their dollar bill. I see one of the sopranos, the same skinny little girl with glasses that I saw skipping down the hallway earlier, trying to “make it rain” with her dollar. She uses her right hand to send her dollar bill soaring into the air from her left, lets it land on the floor, sprints over, and repeats the action again and again. The kids get a few seconds to giggle and collect themselves before they’re dismissed by grade, walk to put away their binders, and are led out by a teacher to work on homework, begin a tutoring session, or attend other classes and activities depending on their Friday schedule. As the Concert Choir leaves Rehearsal Hall 1, the students in Chamber Choir filter in to begin setting up their chair formation, and 15 minutes later they’re set to begin.

The Chamber Choir rehearsal is run and structured in much the same way as the Concert Choir. Focus, engagement, exchange, skill, and structure—the standards are high, and consistently met. The kids are preparing for an upcoming performance (which I attended, and discuss in Appendix A: Audience Perception), and because of an ill-timed falling pane of glass  from 17 stories high (as opposed to well-timed?) resulting in an injury to Mary’s shoulder and back, the Chamber Choir conductor is filling in for Mary. Watching the kids interact with their former conductor is fascinating. She had been their conductor when they were younger, so there is familiarity and trust between them. Throughout the rehearsal they are focused, maintain a beautiful posture, and keep eye contact. There is a particular moment, as they’re rehearsing, “Hope for Resolution,” by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory (much to my delight, as this piece was performed, recorded, and released by the St. Olaf Choir in 1999, the choir that Mary and I studied and toured with from 2003-2004), and in this moment I see the kids let go. They are off score, singing by heart, and during the end section of the piece where there is a blend of the English words from the chant, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” and the Zulu words from the song, “Thula Sizwe” (Nation, Do Not Cry), I see a few students begin to sway unconsciously. When the conductor as well as the other students, realize they’re all moving together—as one choral organism—they begin to smile and wink at each other, enjoying the moment of music making they’ve created. The rehearsal ends, but before being dismissed, the choir listens for announcements. I am surprised when the conductor turns over the floor to student officers. The student officers make announcements about permission slips, shoes, and uniforms for the upcoming performance, and I’m impressed with their confidence as they speak in front of the group with authority.

Next section: Familiarity and Standards