The Boys' Choir of Tallahassee
The Fine Art of Youth Programs
Award-winners take neophytes to new heights
By Jonathan O’Connell
When Earle Lee arrived in Tallahassee in August 1995 and began a choir for boys from local schools, people in the community didn’t know what to think. Lee was a professor in the Florida State University School of Social Work – hardly a music school. And he had held no auditions: His choir was filled with kids who had never sung in public.
Five months later, the Tallahassee boys’ choir performed at halftime of the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day 1996 – and the community raised its collective eyebrows.
That May the choir traveled to the Bahamas to compete against 165 ensembles from across the world in the International Music Festivals Competition. It returned with four gold medals, including the top prize, the Grande Sweepstakes Award, having received a score of 98.5 (out of 100).
What is probably most impressive about the Tallahassee Boys Choir, and most beneficial to the Tallahassee community, is not the music, but the commitment to academic success it has fostered among youth. In a public school district in which 67 percent of 2001 high school seniors graduated, every senior member of the Boys Choir not only graduated, but was granted a scholarship to a major college or university.
The choir now has 125 members (age 8 to 18), up from 28 in its first year. Youth attend group sessions on four topics: self-esteem and creation of a positive mental attitude; reading comprehension and literature; juvenile justice and the impact of crime, which is taught with a local police officer; and social skills and etiquette in peer and dating relationships. Members must also attend study hall three times a week and volunteer at a senior citizens’ center twice a month.
Lee said the absence of auditions and a positive, supportive atmosphere drew children who had little reason to believe in themselves. Eighty-five percent of Boys’ Choir members have come from single-parent families, and most were “hanging around, doing nothing” before they joined the choir, Lee said.
“The word ‘audition’ is frightening to children with no self-esteem,” he said. “If we had auditions, the only kids that would try out would be the ones who already knew how to sing, or who already had confidence, and those aren’t the kids that we’re trying to reach.”
The Jessie Ball duPont Fund, centered in Jacksonville, awarded the Boys’ Choir $209,000 in grants in the summer of 2000. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice kicked in a $300,000 grant (aimed at delinquency prevention and reduction). Additional funding has come from the city of Tallahassee, Leon County, the United Way of Big Bend and donations from schools, companies and individuals for whom the choir has performed.
Support for the program has prospered in part because of the media resources available to the choir – thanks to its connection to FSU’s news and information services, which disperses information about the choir’s activities. There has been a lot to disperse: The Boys’ Choir has performed at the halftime of a Dallas Cowboys game, at Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) inauguration, and for Pope John Paul II at his millennium celebration in Italy.