First Person: O Say, Can We Sing?

By Mary Ford
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 07:04:00 PM

In Spring 2008 as I prepared to produce a fall choral concert benefiting Berkeley High School, I went looking for student singers to feature in the concert, only to painfully realize that hardly anyone knew who to ask. Berkeley High, a school of 3,300 kids, hadn’t had a choral arts program for three years, after having enjoyed as many as five separate choirs through the 1990s and early 2000s. California has been hovering at 48th place in state ranking for money spent per student. Choral arts had taken a big hit at Berkeley High. 

As a BHS parent and a 21-year member of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, I can’t imagine what it might be like not to know in my bones the refuge and inspiration of music. Performing arts engage us physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. Choral arts engenders an even more intimate connection to our physical selves and our relationship to others because of the relaxation and attunement to others inherent in singing “as a body.” There’s even scientific research that now documents how music changes us—our metabolic heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, it even increases our ability to process higher order information, including mathematics. 

When we put the word out about a choir forming, 35 kids responded within a week. On Oct. 4, 2008, a three-week-old BHS chorus of 25 students opened the Oakland Interfaith Gospel benefit concert at BHS’s Schwimley Theatre. Michael Morgan, Oakland East Bay Symphony’s lively, funny and beloved conductor, came to introduce the new choir and offered his comments: “I can understand when public schools don’t have orchestras, because instruments can cost an arm and a leg. But no choirs? ...Let me know how I can help.”  

That same month, our committee of nine pushy women applied for and ultimately received grants from the Berkeley Public Education Foundation and the BHS Development Group to pay for a director and sheet music for a new Berkeley High Chorus Club. Students had organizational meetings to determine what they’d like in a chorus, auditioned four separate director candidates, and voted for their director: Trelawny Rose, a Jazzschool and private voice instructor with a knockout voice of her own. They’ve been happily meeting weekly since November, and have already performed at several school functions (BHS Junior Ian Farnkopf has been ongoing student chorus organizer this year, and is student point person for this concert as part of his Troop 6 Berkeley Eagle Scout project). 

On Monday June 1 at 7 p.m., the Berkeley High Chorus Club will host its first concert, showcasing its work this year and featuring other voices from Berkeley High. There’ll be music from many genres, improvised circle singing, highlights from Abby Simons and Nathan Kersey-Wilson’s original musical Double Digits, plus vocalist/songwriter Sydney Reeves, and others. There is internal and external support—yes, even joy—for this venture. An active and well-supported Choral Club can help pave the way for chorus to again become a regular class offering in the Berkeley High Curriculum in 2010 or 2011. 

I entered into this project with a certain amount of outrage that there had been no choir for several years at a school of our size, then boggled when at first almost no one answered my e-mail and phone overtures. But BHS is a small snapshot of the rest of the world—full of miracles, tremendous vitality, and chock full of hard economics and social conundrums. When I started showing up at the school and waiting until folks could talk to me in between tasks in their ridiculously crammed work load, they saw I wasn’t just complaining or “phoning it in,” and pulled out the stops to help. Teachers and administrators made time they didn’t really have to offer advice, print mailing stickers, write sponsoring letters, draw up posters on the spot when ticketing information changed, and more. They were grateful for a vision. I just had to ask in person, with focus, respect, a rationale and a plan. 

The best way to predict the future is to create it. It’s not always easy or fun to wade into the politics and often bleak landscapes in our current public sector And it all takes time—something at least as valuable as money. But I can assure you that it is profoundly satisfying. So, while you’re thinking over any recipes for addressing the thing in your environment that’s bugging you, come over on Monday night, June 1, and listen to some kids sing their hearts out, and help us get singing back into the official curriculum at Berkeley High.  


Mary Ford is a BHS graduating senior’s mom, a proud wife of a math teacher, as well as a vocalist, psychologist, writer and activist in Berkeley. 



Berkeley High Sings! 

Monday, June 1. $10 general admission, $5 for students and kids. No one turned away for lack of funds. Tickets through brownpapertickets.com or at the door. Schwimley Theater, Allston Way at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.  

Can you help support the Chorus Club through donation or volunteering? Contact mary_ford@sbcglobal.net. Checks to Berkeley Public Education Foundation with BHS Chorus in the subject line, 1835 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94703.