Member Spotlight: Joyce Garrett

“Choir is a tool for transforming lives.”

Joyce Garrett knew from a young age that she wanted to work with choirs. What she didn't realize was that this desire would lead her to change the lives of hundreds of high school students along the way. 

You have directed a number of school, church and community choirs around the DC area for many years. What led you into choral music?

I was born in the small town of Kinston, North Carolina.  I was about nine years old when I went to a high school choir concert. I realized then that I wanted to work with choirs. I went to Bennett College, a small women’s college in Greensboro, North Carolina, and got a bachelor of arts in music education. After that I came to Washington DC, and got a masters in music at Catholic University. 

I went to work at a junior high school and thought that would be where I wanted to put my focus. But I realized that the older the children were, the better I liked it, because you could do more with their voices. So I moved to the high school level and taught at Eastern High School in DC for almost 30 years. 

The Eastern High School Choir became quite outstanding and very well known nationally and internationally under your leadership. Tell us about that.

In 1988 the choir was invited to the International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria. We had gotten a lot of publicity mainly doing Gospel music and we were required to do different styles of music, including singing in Latin and in German. I was reluctant to accept the invitation, but went ahead and raised $160,000 so that 54 teenagers from urban Washington could go to the festival. And we came away with a second place trophy. 

When we came back, we were on the front page of the Washington Post. The White House invited us to present a mini-concert for Ronald Reagan. There was a story in People magazine, we were on "CBS Sunday Morning" and on the "Today" show. It went all over the world, because the expectation was that this African-American choir in the middle of Washington couldn’t do anything like this. An inner city school choir had gone to Vienna and sung classical music at the highest level. And it was amazing because these students did not read music. They were just talented. I taught music reading skills during rehearsals, when I could. But there was no music theory class or sight-reading class available during the school day.

After that Vienna trip, you began to get calls from the Kennedy Center inviting your choir to sing back up for special events. That has evolved into an ongoing job for you. Tell us about that.

There are special events in Washington, constantly—Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Patti Labelle, James Taylor—and the producers would call up and ask the Eastern High School Choir to be the back up singers. And then somehow the producers of "Christmas in Washington" heard about the choir and invited us to sing. The first year was 1989, and I’ve been doing it ever since. 

Those same producers also helped produce portions of the Kennedy Center Honors. I started off using my own high school choir as the background singers. Then when I retired in 1999, I did not have a ready source of the choir, so I had to form a choir each year. 

Now I have an e-mail list of some of the most amazing singers in the Washington area who like to be a part of short projects. "Christmas in Washington" is a two-week project—we learn all the music and memorize it. The Kennedy Center Honors is a one-week project. We do simple arrangements that you can learn fast. Last year it was Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” One year it was “Stairway to Heaven” of Led Zeppelin. We did “I Am What I Am” honoring Jerry Herman, and “Proud Mary” for Tina Turner. 

A chorus assembled by Joyce Garrett performed "Stairway to Heaven" with Ann and Nancy Wilson (formerly of the band Heart) at the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Staab)

That sounds like a lot of pressure—but great fun.

It was more pressure when I first started. I didn’t know the ropes and I was in awe of everything and everybody. It is easier now because I have singers who return.  I’m usually asked to put together a big choir—anywhere from 60 singers to 125 singers. And we do it. When you’re working at that level and give them what they want, they come back to you. Every year we are invited back and the singers look forward to it. It’s wonderful, something out of their routine, out of their life experience. 

You are in your eighth year as a member of the board of Chorus America. What have you been working on as a board member? 

One of our goals is to increase the diversity of the membership in Chorus America. There are increasing numbers of choirs with diverse membership, but overall, many of these directors are focusing on finding and retaining skilled singers, setting a standard of excellence in performance, and fund-raising. Because they mostly came to choral music through school teaching or church music, they have not yet connected to our amazing network of singers, board members, and management professionals. These are the people we must recruit to Chorus America in the future.

I am always talking up Chorus America because it puts on one of the most amazing annual conferences where everyone is on an even playing field. That’s what I like about it. You could be a member of a choir with a $10,000 annual budget and go right up to someone who has a $1 million budget and talk to them. It is a very friendly group of people and choral directors love to share. 

I wish I had known more about Chorus America when I was in the classroom. We formed a non-profit while I was at Eastern to raise money to give our singers scholarships when they graduated from high school. At the time I didn’t know about budgets, how to build boards. Once I knew about Chorus America, I kept saying, “Why didn’t I know this information ten years earlier. It has been very helpful to me.” Many people can do the artistic side of choir but they don’t understand the management side. That’s a whole different animal.

What did your nonprofit accomplish?

I wanted more students to learn how to persevere through adversity, how to accept the challenge of difficulty, how to achieve excellence in their academics, how to value teamwork and discipline. So we raised money from foundations and individuals to do values training or to take students on college tours where they could begin to see themselves in a college classroom. At the end of the year, whatever money we made singing we would give back to students in scholarships. By the time I left Eastern, we had given over $1 million in scholarships. 

When we came back from Europe in 1988, there were 26 seniors in the choir, and only 3 went to college. By time I left in 1999, 18 of the 19 seniors were going to college and one was going into the military. That was the biggest achievement in my career, to actually see the rewards of a nonprofit. 

The Eastern High School Choir was about so much more than making music. It was a pathway for these young people.

In the 1980s and 1990s, our school was in middle of a major drug market. We were in a dangerous area, but I never felt afraid. It was like the choir room was home, it was family, it was secure. We tried to provide them everything they needed, and the main thing was support for their dreams and aspirations. And it worked. 

I feel lucky, because I was able to do exactly what I was meant to do. You can take a choir and use it as a tool to transform lives. A choir can actually do that. You can be rich, poor, black, white, it doesn’t matter—all kinds of people come together and make this wonderful music and it breaks down barriers. It brings people together. For my kids, it became their family. If I had to cancel a choir rehearsal, they were upset. They would still stand outside the building for a couple of hours and talk. They would not go home. They liked being together. 

Are you still in touch with the kids you taught at Eastern?

Yes, and from time to time we get together and sing. I send an email and they show up. And the sound of their voices is still amazing.