All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1996

How Walter Turnbull Inspires Self-Help at the Boys Choir of Harlem

Turnbull Teaches Essential Life Skills to Inner-City Youth

Marisa Manley is president of Commercial Tenant Real Estate Representation Ltd., Manhattan. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Inc., and the Wall Street Journal.

The Boys Choir of Harlem helps renew the American dream. The boys are poor. They’re menaced by gangs and tempted by drugs. Three-quarters come from broken homes. Reportedly over 70 percent of neighborhood teenagers drop out of high school, yet 98 percent of Boys Choir of Harlem members graduate from college. The more than 1,000 alumni have gone on to successful careers as entrepreneurs, ministers, teachers, and, naturally, musicians.

This seeming miracle began as the vision of Walter Turnbull, 51, a burly, bespectacled man who founded the Boys Choir of Harlem more than a quarter-century ago and remains its guiding spirit today. “I simply wanted to share the joy of music with African-American children,” he explains. “It has the kind of power to lift people above any particular circumstance and inspire the heart. Music is very magical, able to transform children with no more than lint in their pockets and honey in their throats into grand performers on the world stage.”

Turnbull’s boys delight audiences with a cosmopolitan repertoire ranging from songs by such classical composers as Bach, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart to works of modern classicists like Britten, jazz immortals like Joplin, Gershwin, and Ellington, plus pop tunes and spirituals. The Boys Choir of Harlem gives about 100 concerts every year.

They have performed in concert halls around the world—some 20 countries all together. They appeared on Broadway, in the White House, at London’s Albert Hall, and Tokyo’s Bukodan. They performed on soundtracks for popular movies like Glory (1989), and they heralded the grand opening of the Disney movie Pocahantas (1995). They have performed as background vocalists and featured artists on a variety of albums, including Pavarotti in Central Park and Michael Crawford Performs Andrew Lloyd Webber, among others. Last year, the Boys Choir of Harlem produced their first solo album, A Song of Hope.

As CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes filmed a segment on the Boys Choir of Harlem, correspondent Morley Safer asked Turnbull, “What makes your kids different from the other kids that we read about, the ones that go out and assault people and use drugs?” Turnbull’s reply: “My kids come from the same kinds of families. The difference is that there is somebody willing to do something for them, and they are willing to do something. There is an opportunity.”

Turnbull added later, “We instill in these kids the belief that they can be the best at any thing they choose. Music lifts every voice, not just children who can sing and dance well but also those who are not blessed with natural talent yet still have a dream of becoming somebody.” In 1986, President Ronald Reagan honored the Boys Choir of Harlem with the Presidential Volunteer Action Award.

Turnbull grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, back when blacks were discouraged from making much of themselves. He credits his mother, Lena Green, for spurring him on. He loved music and took piano lessons for 25 cents apiece. He joined the local high school choir which was led by Herticene Jones, a demanding taskmaster. She insisted that everyone show up on time, concentrate, and put in as much practice as needed to achieve perfection. Turnbull remembers that her choirs topped the state competitions for years.

At Tougaloo College, near Jackson, Mississippi, Turnbull joined the choir directed by an elegant man named Ariel Lovelace who inspired students to fulfill their potential. Lovelace had a master’s degree in music and experience as music director at many institutions, so he helped his singers develop polish. He provided instruction in everything required for a good presentation, including table manners. “He taught me how to be a man of substance, a man of character, and yet be a man capable of showing his vulnerabilities,” Turnbull recalls in his recent book, Lift Every Voice.

Turnbull set his sights on becoming an operatic tenor, and after graduation he won a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music. To prepare for opera, he took diction classes in English, French, German, Italian, and Russian. He performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Grand Opera, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. His credits include Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s Die Zauberflote, Puccini’s Turandot, Verdi’s La Traviata, and the Broadway production of Joplin’s Treemonisha.

He earned money from various singing jobs, and at the Southport, Connecticut, Trinity Episcopal Church, he heard the sweet sounds of a boys choir. This got him thinking about the possibility of starting one where he worshiped, Ephesus Seventh- Day Adventist Church in Harlem.

He began recruiting among families at that church and held the first rehearsal one Saturday afternoon in 1968. Gradually the choir expanded and handled more challenging classical music. He researched boys choirs around the world to discover all the possibilities. Meanwhile, he finished his master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music (a doctorate came later) and earned money as a non-union music teacher at Harlem Junior High School 99.

But soon he found he couldn’t continue expanding the choir from talent available at Ephesus, and church members resisted the idea of drawing choir members from elsewhere. Turnbull asked around for advice on how to form a nonprofit organization, and by November 1974 the Boys Choir of Harlem was incorporated. He was off on his own.

A friend let him rehearse at the Garvey Center. “The piano was out of tune, and many of the keys didn’t work,” Turnbull says in Lift Every Voice. “The building was cold, and we often rehearsed bundled in our coats and scarves. Even though we didn’t have much, our ambitions were high. We never canceled a rehearsal.”

A Magnificent Obsession

The Boys Choir of Harlem became a magnificent obsession. Sometimes Turnbull drove a taxicab to pay bills. He did errands in his beat-up Chevy Nova whose front seat was propped up with a two-by-four. His brother Horace helped by leaving groceries in his refrigerator. Turnbull emphasizes he wasn’t a one-man band. “The staff has sometimes gone without a paycheck. The choir exists because many people made sacrifices.”

Somehow Turnbull raised money, recruited members, endlessly rehearsed, and booked performances. Like his unforgettable teachers Herticene Jones and Ariel Lovelace, Turnbull recognized that to succeed he must do far more than cultivate voices. He had to help his singers grow up right.

“The problem is acute in many African-American communities,” he notes, “where the staggering statistics of teenage pregnancies, black-on-black violence, and incarceration rates demonstrate all too clearly the need for children to know the meaning of words such as respect, honesty, integrity, discipline, hard work, and love.”

The first lessons involve punctuality. Turnbull requires that those who don’t show up on time present their excuses to everyone else, which often provokes snickers. “Public humiliation is a great motivator,” he observes, “and nothing is too small to launch into a larger lesson on life. If a child asks to be excused to use the bathroom only ten minutes after rehearsal had begun, I tell the boy and the class about the word `preparation’ and how they have to plan things in their lives.”

Turnbull insists that children be honest. “We are honest with them and expect them to be honest with us,” he says. “If we see them doing something wrong or antisocial, we stop and talk with them about their behavior. It’s more than telling them that they were doing something unacceptable. We tell them why their behavior was wrong and what the consequences would be if they continued with that behavior.”

Turnbull teaches self-discipline. He works hard to increase their attention spans while they stand erect. “Almost immediately,” he explains, “we are socializing the children, helping them eliminate their youthful tendencies to slouch and lean. That’s part of the choir’s magical abilities: it’s as if they’re learning to sing and hold their heads pridefully upright at the same time.”

Turnbull believes that if a child is lagging despite sincere effort, the teacher’s approach must be wrong. “Instead of simply saying our children have short attention spans, our philosophy is to make their attention spans longer. They can’t cope in mainstream society otherwise. By its very nature, music helps ease the work of being disciplined.”

Turnbull shows how to resolve conflicts amicably. “Fighting is not tolerated here,” he says. “It represents a failure to solve conflicts without violence, one of the principal reasons black males are murdered on the streets in phenomenal numbers. Conflict resolution and learning how to deal with disappointment are key elements to socialization.”

Turnbull encourages everyone to develop personal goals. Starting in the fourth grade, he talks about the value of a college education. He has choir alumni—people from Harlem neighborhoods—return and show why it’s better to cultivate their minds rather than hang out with hoodlums.

Encouraging Success

Turnbull covers practical skills like how to dress. “The importance of dress is not to be underestimated,” he says. “I recognize children’s need to be fashionably hip, but I want them to understand they can’t go out and get jobs wearing those types of fashions. The modern-style imitation of inmates is popular on the streets but not here. We don’t allow our students to wear hats inside the building. We require coats and ties. Personal grooming is important. We’re encouraging success.”

At one time or another, it seems Turnbull and his staff have done just about everything to help keep children in the program. They have had to provide family counseling, buy them groceries, new shoes, and winter coats. The Reverend Sherwin Callwood recalled one occasion when “Mr. Turnbull took the boys down to the basement and sat them down with a knife, spoon, and fork and taught how to use these properly.”

Singer Rodney Wiggins added that “When we went to France, Mr. Turnbull told us people wouldn’t look at our singing as much as our behavior. They think all black kids from Harlem are hoodlums.”

Apparently their hard work paid off. For example, the reviewer of Classique Paris raved about their “extraordinary music.”

Turnbull sees again and again how classical music can help change people’s lives. “For many of these children, classical music is new and exciting. Most of the children do not come here with a fear of learning this music, widely considered to be the domain of the elite. They become more interested when they see me and our conductors perform and talk enthusiastically about the great works of Western civilization. It’s not that these children can’t appreciate the music: they have not been exposed to the works of the masters, composers such as Haydn, Schubert, and Bruckner, many of whom were boy choristers themselves. Enthusiasm is infectious.

“Our children gain a certain sophistication as a result of their learning about different languages, different countries, different types of people and cultures,” Turnbull continues. “As the boys get older and master the basic techniques, we spend time explaining the meanings of different works to further prepare them for performances.

“Music is for the soul, nurturing the heart and challenging the brain. We have used it as a vehicle to provide children with a classical education in what is truly important: developing the character. That is not to downplay our primary goal of becoming a world-class performing arts organization. Both work hand-in-hand here, one integral to the other.”

The Choir Academy of Harlem

As for other subjects, Turnbull found that his staff had to spend considerable time tutoring the children, because they weren’t learning at government schools. In 1987, he decided he had to do something. He started the Choir Academy of Harlem. It concentrates on the much-neglected fundamentals of English, science, math, history, literature, and foreign languages. There are now some 3,000 applications every year for 418 places—so much for the notion that inner-city parents don’t care about good education. The Academy, which admits 118 girls as well as 300 boys, occupies a part of a former government school on Madison Avenue at 127th Street. Girls compete for about 100 positions in the girls choir and 35 positions in their performing choir which travels throughout the region. Similarly, boys compete for the roughly 100 positions in the boys choir, of which around 35 are in the famous performing choir.

Making all this happen is tough. “People see the Boys Choir of Harlem on TV all the time, which sort of implies that everything is okay,” says Turnbull. “But in fact, we struggle financially from day to day.”

What do the kids say about their experience? Take Allen Pinkney: “I saw how the staff tried to help us better ourselves. I never really understood why Dr. Turnbull would scream and yell at us. At times I thought he hated us, but as time went on I began to see he cared, because if he didn’t care he wouldn’t stay on us.”

Alex Ortiz: “The choir taught me life is what you make it.”

Keron Nixon: “If it wasn’t for the choir I just might be some little hardheaded kid running the streets. The choir has taught me that in order to be a real man, you have to have discipline, manners.”

Tyree Marcus: “The choir has taught me about honesty and courage, meaning that you stand up for doing the right things instead of the wrong ones.”

Perhaps Jimmie Kimbrough put it best: “Turnbull is always talking about reaching the next level, even when you feel like you can’t get any better.”