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NYCHA Youth Chorus led by Larry Matthew gathers around their newly donated piano from Sing for Hope. Photo by Leticia Barboza
NYCHA Youth Chorus Make Their Voices Heard

"Hard work!" exclaimed NYCHA Youth Chorus Director Larry Matthew. "Pays off!" responded the Youth Chorus members.

This moment, captured at a rehearsal of the NYCHA Youth Chorus and repeated a couple more times, exemplifies the dedication the members of the chorus have for their craft.  "For me, this is it," said Ebony Johnson, of Manhattan's King Towers, who at 19-years-old has sung her share of solos for the Chorus. "The commitment is big but it's not a problem for me. It's not a burden if you love it."

Over the years, those outside the walls of the chorus practice room have noticed and rewarded this commitment. Most recently, the Afia Foundation awarded the Chorus a $10,000 grant to assist them in establishing a piano lab at Taft Houses. The grant was secured through the work of NYCHA's Office of Public-Private Partnerships.

The Piano Lab will allow members of the Youth Chorus to learn the basics of music notation, rhythm, melody, harmony, ear training, dictation and sight reading skills. Using computer software, piano books and other materials, they will receive instruction on the basics of piano playing.

In July, the Chorus performed at an event for the nonprofit Sing for Hope in Lincoln Center. The organization's summertime public art project, "Play Me, I'm Yours," featured 60 pianos in public spaces throughout New York City for any member of the public to play. The Chorus received one of these pianos as a donation, which they now use in their rehearsal space.

NYCHA Youth Chorus
The NYCHA Youth Chorus performing at a Staten Island Yankee's game. Photo by Pete Mikoleski

Established in 1997, the NYCHA Youth Chorus provides residents, ages nine to 21 with intensive vocal training and lessons in music history and choreography. In addition to teaching music fundamentals, the Chorus also fosters self-esteem among its young musicians. The blend of personal and professional grooming has turned the chorus into well-regarded representatives for both NYCHA and the surrounding community. And while they practice inside a modest room at Taft Houses, the Youth Chorus has performed at venues such as City Hall and Disney World. The Chorus performs throughout the year all over the City. The Chorus masters musical selections spanning from classical to Latin to pop.

"Sometimes people don't expect much to come from us," says Matthew. "When we show what we've got, it blows them away and it feels good whenever we are recognized for the hard work that gets put in."

Later, Matthew directed the group to give a small sample of their talents by singing "Tonight You Belong to Me," a popular song in the 1950's whose quirky adaptation by Steve Martin in "The Jerk" makes it a NYCHA Youth Chorus favorite. As the chorus sang, it became clear that the selection exemplifies exactly what the chorus represents; a whimsical and lively energy matched only by a judicious attention to detail. As the impromptu quartet belts out the final lyrics, Chorus Coordinator Carmen Roman cannot help but flash a prideful smile. Matthew dutifully nods at the finale, signaling his satisfaction with the presentation and his belief that it will be even better next time.

Anyone interested in auditioning for the Chorus can call 212-427-6648 or 212-427-8603.

By Brent Grier
August 10, 2010