(This article is running currently at VAN.org, the website of New York's Vocal Area Network. In 168 Hours, I talk a lot about my choir, the Young New Yorkers' Chorus. We're now celebrating our 10th anniversary season. I think that making the best use of one's leisure time involves choosing a small number of causes or activities, and going all in. Don't just run, train for races! Don't just sing, build a choir! Here's the story of how YNYC grew).
The Little Choir That Could: The Young New Yorkers' Chorus celebrates its first 10 years
by Laura Vanderkam
In the spring of 2001, Westminster Choir College graduate Nathan Davis spotted a need in the New York music world. College students devoted copious hours to their choirs or a cappella groups. Then they moved to the city after graduation, and had no opportunity to continue singing with their peers. So he founded what became the Young New Yorkers' Chorus, a group for singers in their 20s and 30s. Our choir is now celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, culminating with an appearance at the American Choral Director's Association conference in Chicago in March.
Like any start-up, YNYC faced challenges at the beginning. "We were small, we had no guys, no money, we rehearsed in the dark, cold basement of Notre Dame Church on West 114th," says Raoul Bhavnani, our first president. "Think clanging pipes, hats and scarves."
The group also had trouble keeping members. "After each of the first two concerts," notes Chris Mueller, who has accompanied YNYC since the beginning, "we lost every member of our alto section. It wasn't until January 2002 that we had our first returning alto."
But slowly the group grew more cohesive through post-rehearsal trips to bars, and as we became clear on both our mission of fostering the art of choral singing among young people, and commissioning new music from young composers. One of our first major commissions was a work by Mueller called Wondrous Hope, an 8-part piece based on a text in Lamentations, which YNYC premiered in Merkin Hall in May 2004. Mueller missed the dress rehearsal, however, since his first child was born that day! (Offspring of YNYC members could now form a reasonable children's chorus — and we are hoping for more YNYC babies in the future as many of our members have started to date and marry each other!)
To further this mission of commissioning new music, we decided to launch an annual Competition for Young Composers that fall. Every year, composers under age 35 submit work samples to YNYC, and our judges choose three finalists, who are then commissioned to write new works for the choir to premiere in its May/June concert. Previous finalists have included Joshua Shank, Peter Hilliard, Abbie Betinis, Jenni Brandon, Dominick DiOrio and other rising young stars of the choral composition world. YNYC has now commissioned 18 new works through this program. Though awarding prizes isn't cheap — and since YNYC's members are just starting out in their careers, fundraising hasn't been easy — we have decided that this is one of the most effective things we can do with our limited funds.
In addition to fundraising challenges, in the spring of 2006, YNYC survived what could have been a major organizational obstacle. Nathan Davis, the founding director, stepped down to pursue new opportunities. We interviewed many candidates, and hired Michael Kerschner, the Director of Choral Activities at North Shore High School in Long Island, as our second artistic director. He was actually the first person to send in his resume! He was very excited about the gig. "I was thinking about starting a similar ensemble myself," he says, when he read a previous Vocal Area Network article about us. "While slightly disappointed to learn that I did not invent the concept of a post-collegiate choir, I was happy to know that such a thing existed." He "had a good feeling that this would be a great coupling, and was thrilled and honored to be offered the opportunity to direct the ensemble."
Under Kerschner's leadership, YNYC has taken on new stretch goals. We returned to Merkin in March of 2008, and made our Lincoln Center debut in a joint concert with his high school students. We hired an orchestra to perform Tarik O'Regan's Triptych (with the composer in the audience) and packed 650 young audience members into Old St. Pat's for our December 2009 concert. We started performing world premieres outside the Competition for Young Composers. "I am also continually overwhelmed by our audience and their enthusiastic willingness to go on what ever musical journey we have to offer them," Kerschner says.
The choir has grown to more than 70 members, including so many new tenors this fall that we hardly knew what to do with them (a "problem" choirs love to have). And, at the ripe age of 10, YNYC is starting to have its own traditions. For instance, the "Snaku." We always need volunteers to bring food for snack during rehearsal breaks, and in 2004, our first membership chair began doing the request in haiku form. Our second membership chair, Noah Opitz, shifted to writing limericks when he began running low on haiku material. Once, the "snaku" was even a sonnet in iambic pentameter in honor of Shakespeare's birthday. "I think I've been doing it since 2005," he says. At one a week, "A little math puts me at somewhere between 175-200." Not a bad literary accomplishment for our first decade.
Laura Vanderkam sings with The Young New Yorkers' Chorus and is the author of 168 Hours