Dreaming Big: Young Singers in Professional Collaborations

Leaders of children and youth choral organizations share how high-level artistic partnerships benefit young singers and how to ensure a safe and supportive environment for these collaborations.

The socio-emotional benefits young singers gain from being part of a choral ensemble with their peers are well documented. But collaborations that provide them with high-level artistic experiences can have an especially enduring effect and reinforce a sense of accomplishment. Amplifying opportunities for such projects is a key part of the mission of many children and youth choral organizations around the U.S. and beyond. 

The National Children’s Chorus regularly teams up with leading conductors, ensembles, and professional singers. The young artists participated in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2019 recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony under Gustavo Dudamel (winning a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance), while their most recent release, Illumine, is a holiday celebration recorded with the London Symphony. The NCC, which currently operates in eight cities around the U.S., also works closely with such composers as Nico Muhly, Tan Dun, and Meredith Monk.

These high-level commitments involve an ideal combination of artistic and educational goals, according to artistic director, president, and CEO Luke McEndarfer. “What you learn applies to every element of your life. In anything that you want to do, there’s going to be a path to create excellence — the realization of committing to being your very best no matter what the endeavor. That’s where we feel that the real power is.”

The rebound in activity since the pandemic has been particularly impressive. San Francisco Girls Chorus, which works with several of the Bay Area’s major arts organizations and includes a composer residency as part of its choral school program (this season, the Iranian American Sahba Aminkia), starred in March in a production of Vivaldi’s only oratorio, Juditha Triumphans. The Young People’s Chorus of New York City (winner of the Choir of the World Award in 2018) extended its artistic associations to the Metropolitan Opera stage for the first time last fall in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and returns this spring to sing in John Adams’s El Niño.

Uniting Voices Chicago pursues trailblazing collaborations across genres and media, from singing with Karol G at Lollapalooza and on Saturday Night Live to being part of installation artist Theaster Gates’s climate change film The Flood. UVC’s young singers recently took part in a program with jazz bassist, composer, and arranger Christian McBride paying homage to icons of the Civil Rights movement.

These represent some of the nation’s largest youth chorus organizations (and correspondingly biggest budgets). But ensembles of varying sizes pursue similarly ambitious professional partnerships. By virtue of its organization as a resident ensemble of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s Prep program, the Cincinnati Youth Choir has a readily available platform for its advanced level of singers to perform substantial works like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the pre-professional conservatory students and conductors. Additionally, notes founder, artistic director, and conductor Robyn Reeves Lana, opportunities beyond the conservatory include appearances with the Cincinnati Symphony (Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at the 2023 Spring Festival), Cincinnati Opera, and regional collaborations.

The Bach Festival Society of Winter Park in Central Florida established its Youth Choir in 1992, which participates in two to three of the main events of the season. But thanks to the Society’s reputation, explains the Youth Choir’s director Rebecca Hammac, the young singers receive invitations to appear in an array of projects at Orlando’s performing arts hub, the Dr. Phillips Center. This season has been unusually crowded with such “extra” undertakings, from backing Diana Ross with the London Philharmonic to sold-out screenings of The Lord of the Rings films with live performances of Howard Shore’s scores. 

The Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus on the island of Oahu occupies a unique niche. Though the organization was originally founded to provide young voices for Hawaiʻi Opera Theatre, artistic director Nola A. Nāhulu has expanded its activities significantly to encompass a summer season that presents newly commissioned operas by local composers that are inspired by Hawaiian history and legend, as well as a host of other performances across the community, such as concerts at senior centers.


Thriving with Music 

What makes these special artistic collaborations so valuable for the young singers? “They are developing their curiosity, which is about more than training them to be good musicians,” says Valérie Sainte-Agathe, who has served as artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus since 2013. “Juditha Triumphans is a staged production, for example, which requires them to go outside their comfort zone. But I know the impact is strong because it inspires them to develop curiosity and empathy. They draw on qualities they need to make things work in the real world in general. I want them to be fearless, courageous, brave.”

According to Elizabeth Núñez, creative director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, high-profile collaborations are part of a focus “on 21st-century skills.” They “transform a child’s thinking about what they can do. If they’re able to diligently and meticulously work towards perfection for an event like this, they’ll think of ways to apply that same work ethic and passion in other facets of their lives.”

The reinforcement of self-confidence is an invaluable benefit, observes Luke McEndarfer. But he also emphasizes the holistic impact of being involved in music. While only a small percentage of these young artists will go on to become professional musicians or even to major in voice, singing for them goes beyond “a hobby, discipline, or skill. What the pandemic really brought home is how music is a source of mental, emotional, and physical well-being.” This idea prompted the title of the NCC’s current season, “Thrive,” which refers to how the programming reflects “a musical meditation on what students need in order to be their best selves and contribute positively towards society.”

As president and artistic director of Uniting Voices Chicago, Josephine Lee has overseen a revolutionary rebranding of one of the nation’s oldest organizations for young singers (formerly known as Chicago Children’s Choir). She points out that UVC’s genre-crossing artistic partnerships “offer young people a window to the world and the confidence to navigate diverse spaces.” These projects “require singers to open their minds to a new artist or art form, work toward a common goal, and present with excellence.”


Spotlight on Variety in Collaboration 

A thread shared by these organizations is their enthusiastically eclectic approach to repertoire. The choice of which projects to pursue similarly reflect an emphasis on variety. “We want our students to have a full education in all of the classics, as well as to be able to sing music of varying styles from cultures all around the world,” says McEndarfer. “And it’s central to our mission to expand the art form by commissioning new works.”

McEndarfer explains that every commission, collaboration, and programming initiative is vetted by a special committee who ensures that underrepresented voices are heard. “We look specifically at the demographics of the students we serve and work hard to make sure the overall musical experience is a reflection of that in as many ways as possible.” The Illumine album that NCC recently recorded with the LSO reflects this mindfulness about diversity with commissions from composer André J. Thomas (currently an associate artist with the LSO), a Diwali-inspired piece, and new arrangements of Filipino and Nigerian carols alongside more familiar holiday selections.

Partnering with contemporary composers has been found to be exceptionally rewarding. The Young People’s Chorus of New York City enjoys an ongoing association with Julia Wolfe and has collaborated with her and the New York Philharmonic in two major productions over the past five years: her 2019 oratorio Fire in my Mouth (about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire), which called for a girl choir, and, in 2023, her multimedia production unEarth. The latter featured young male voices from YPCNYC and addressed the topic of climate change. “It is so impactful for our singers to be a part of these kinds of partnerships,” says Elizabeth Núñez, “because Julia Wolfe and the director, Anne Kauffman, both have so much respect for the children’s creative process and the voice they bring to the work. In fact, most of the text from UnEarth came from interviews with our singers.”

“There’s so much to get out of newer works,” reports Cincinnati Youth Choir’s Robyn Lana. “And there are opportunities to meet the composers and for staging and other aspects that aren’t as quickly applicable with older music.”

Valérie Sainte-Agathe finds new music a potent way to stimulate curiosity and is convinced it should be a clear priority. “When I arrived 10 years ago, I had a hard time with feedback from parents telling me these are not appropriate sounds for girls’ voices,” she recalls. “I believe in exploration.” Last November, the San Francisco Girls Chorus joined with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble in the inaugural California Festival to sing works centering such contemporary Californian women composers as Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail, and Gabriella Smith. “It’s important for the singers not only to know what new music is at the technical level, but also to know the composer personally and then have an opinion about what they are performing and how they perform it — to show them that they have a voice in the way they perform things.”


Special Connections through Novel Partnerships 

At Uniting Voices Chicago, Josephine Lee has encouraged collaborations that go beyond the traditional repertoire and genres. “Everything from a singer connecting to her Colombian roots after performing with Karol G on SNL to singers who are passionate about immigration and human rights getting to perform at Navy Pier with Little Amal” — all of these experiences show the young artists “that music has significance beyond entertainment and is a reflection of people’s lives and experiences.”

Participating in these high-level partnerships also offers a special opportunity for UVC singers to see diverse cultures highlighted on a large stage. “Through shared experiences that focus on new people and new cultures, and that validate and celebrate peoples’ differences, students gain global leadership qualities and cultural competence,” Lee observes. “This inspires them to actively work toward creating a more connected and accepting society.”

When they’re not singing from the center of the canon as part of the Bach Festival Society’s homage to their namesake, the Florida-based BFS Youth Choir avails itself of opportunities that can even be unpredictable until the last minute. They returned from several years of pandemic-caused hiatus last fall with a request to provide accompaniment to Diana Ross on tour with the London Philharmonic in Orlando. Director Rebecca Hammac recalls an initial sense of hesitation, which was followed by the realization that this was too good a chance to pass up. “But we only had a week's advance notice and ended up doing nine songs, even though we were originally supposed to do two to three songs.”

Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus was founded in 1961 by Eileen Lum and Richard Vine as a pipeline for young singers to appear on the stage of Hawaiʻi Opera Theatre. (Their first performance there was in a production of La Bohème.) The leadership of longtime artistic director Nola Nāhulu has transformed HYOC, growing the membership tenfold and expanding the range of young singers it involves from grades K through 12. In 1993, she launched a youth opera program dubbed “OPERAtunities” intended to showcase operas not just performed by but specifically composed for young people. The first production, Yanomamo, written in 1988 by Peter Rose and Anne Conlon, told the story of an indigenous tribe living in harmony with the ecosystem in the Amazon basin. Although a previously composed work, its setting in the rain forest evoked parallels with the situation of indigenous Hawaiians and suggested the idea of presenting operas that would have a message relating to Hawaiian lore and history, Nāhulu recalls. 

In 1994, HYOC began commissioning brand-new operas for children by local composers to celebrate native culture and heritage. Seven operas have been created to date, beginning with Neil Mckay’s Kahalaopuna, which shows the daughter of the gods of wind and rain teaching reverence for raindrops and the rainbow of Manoa. The roles in these productions are performed entirely by the young singers (ranging from grades 4 to 12). They also participate in creating the sets and take dance and drama classes to prepare for their performances.

“Because many of our kids enjoy what they get to do on the opera stage, they will audition to collaborate with Hawaiʻi Opera Theatre, which is open to singers starting from the junior high level,” says Nāhulu. This June, to mark the 30th anniversary of the first commissioned youth opera, HYOC will premiere a new commission by Tonia Ko, an alumna of the chorus, based on Acaia Awai’s original story Scales about dragons on Maui who can assume the form of humans with special powers.


Keeping the Bar High — and Creating a Supportive Environment

A key challenge for young singers who engage in professional partnerships is learning how to accommodate to personalities and working styles that are new and unfamiliar — whether conductors, directors, composers, or artistic figures outside the classical sphere. 

“We want to ensure that the students are very flexible,” says NCC artistic director Pamela Blackstone. “Oftentimes in our rehearsals we’ll have two conductors to make sure that they understand how to follow different styles, different people, different energies.” Her NCC colleague Allan Laiño, who is principal conductor and director of advanced studies, recalls that when preparing his students who took part in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem with the American Youth Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, “we practiced many variations of tempi and dynamics and even practiced watching the conductor from 50 feet away, rather than the usual 15 to 20. I found it was also important to talk about the experience of being able to adjust to a new setting in an instant, knowing they weren’t going to have much rehearsal time in this space.”

At Uniting Voices Chicago, says Josephine Lee, “we are intentional about introducing young people to the artist, providing background on their life and artistry, how the opportunity came to Uniting Voices, and the benefit of stepping outside their sphere of familiarity. We set parameters for interpersonal interaction and social media use, and instill adaptability, as sometimes these projects can take unexpected paths. Singers know the expectation to demonstrate our core values of education, expression, and excellence at every turn.”

Rebecca Hammac refers to the need to discuss matters that don’t typically come up in rehearsal. For the Bach Festival Society Youth Choir’s Diana Ross and Lord of the Rings gigs this season, “we had to talk to them about why we’re miked and make sure they’re conscious of the microphones. But they also get to learn about the lighting, all the stage technology, which gives them a bigger picture of professional performance.”

“You need to train the singers to understand what’s going to happen, what attention they’re going to receive but also not receive,” observes Cincinnati’s Robyn Lana. “What they see from us as teacher conductors is very different from what they will see from a professional orchestral conductor.”

In addition to training the San Francisco Girls Chorus to be flexible, Sainte-Agathe believes that it is important “to make sure they can instantly change a phrase, an articulation, a dynamic, a tempo — depending on the conductor involved. The training allows them to adapt to that.” She gives the example of having the singers learn a piece by memory and, in rehearsal, “changing the phrasing, the tempo, to make sure they know where the down beats are to be able to match the conductor’s gesture.”

This way of instilling confidence in responding to contingencies is also of great value from the conductor’s perspective. “I don’t want a conductor to be scared thinking that these are children and could be unpredictable. I am training them to support the conductor.” This is part of a larger perspective that refuses to diminish the contributions of the young singers. “I want them to understand and more importantly feel that they are a real part of the creative process: it is a collaboration, it is alive, so everything can change all the time. We really do consider them to be partners with the different artists; they are at the same level.”

“I don’t sugarcoat it for them at all,” says McEndarfer, referring to preparing the NCC singers for the real-life pressures of performing in world-famous venues like the Hollywood Bowl. “I tell them what the stakes are.” He sees these endeavors as integral to the confidence building that results from “making the students feel respected and challenged and excited. I’ve learned not to set the bar low.”

Along with the added dimensions involved in preparing for them, professional collaborations can have a lasting aftereffect on the whole organization. “The children love these opportunities to get into this detailed work and push themselves,” says Núñez. “Even if a child was not involved in a particular event, there is a ripple from the children that goes through the whole chorus.”

According to Blackstone, following any major performance by the National Children’s Chorus, “we’ll have a rundown of how it went at the next rehearsal and talk about their experiences. That’s part of community building, of knowing that we’re part of this family and a team, that we got through this adventure together.” McEndarfer adds: “The clean and beautiful and virtuosic execution: that’s all great, but it does something for these students that is so extremely powerful in building who they are and the people they will be.”

Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work appears in the New York Times, the Seattle TimesGramophone, and many other publications. The English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival, he also writes program notes for the Boulez Saal in Berlin and the Ojai Festival in California.