In 1968, twenty boys came to the basement of a Harlem church for their first choir rehearsal. Under the mastery and guidance of musical director Walter Turnbull, the choir grew in size and artistry. Today that modest ensemble is 250 members strong and has achieved international acclaim, performing its eclectic repertoire of classical music, gospel and spirituals, show tunes, jazz and pop. The Boys Choir of Harlem has performed in major concert halls in the United States, at the White House, at a papal mass, and on two Grammy Award-winning albums as well as in Europe, Israel and Japan.
The choir is a success story without parallel because many of the young singers (grades 4 through 12) hail from some of the roughest and poorest sections of Harlem. Seventy percent of the boys come from single-parent households headed by women; 55 percent live below the poverty level.
The key to the success of the choir is its emphasis on discipline, hard work and responsibility in addition to musical mastery. "A choir is a good starting point for building character," says Turnbull, a stern and demanding but loving taskmaster. "Since the 14th century, choirs have been used to educate boys. What I'm doing is adapting that concept to a 20th-century inner-city model."
Under the New York school system, the choir has established its own academy, which offers a rigorous education combined with conservatory-quality artistic instruction.
Turnbull's tough-love philosophy has paid off: 98 percent of the choir graduates go on to college. Their lives expand far beyond the threshold of their old neighborhoods.