YPC Founder and Artistic Director Francisco J. Núñez’s Story
As told to Brandon Stanton for Humans of New York
Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants. These portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog. HONY now has over twenty million followers on social media, and provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City.
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On the morning of my ninth birthday, my mom told me I could have a party. She said: ‘Invite all your friends.’ But there weren’t any friends.
I went around the block, looking for kids to invite. It’s like: ‘How do I get these kids to like me?’ I didn’t look like anyone else in my neighborhood. I didn’t even look like my own family. My father was black Haitian. My mother was mixed Dominican. But I looked white—like my grandmother.
I’d get beaten up at school. Sometimes I’d get beaten up when I walked out my front door. Both my parents worked in factories, and all day long I’d sit in the apartment alone. I’d stare out the window at the other kids skateboarding. Every kid on my block had a skateboard. I thought maybe, if I could just get a skateboard, I’d be accepted. Then one day my mother finally got me a skateboard. It was this cheap, plastic thing. The wheels were too slow. They’d make this loud whirring noise, and the board would shake, and my legs would feel numb. All the other kids would laugh at me. It’s like: ‘What the f**k?’ Can’t we just hang out?’ No, we can’t. Because I didn’t have the right skateboard.
My entire life felt like that stupid skateboard. I was always behind: with English, with friends, with grades, with clothes– everything. Until one day my mom brought home a second-hand piano from the Salvation Army.
She viewed the piano as a pathway to being a certain type of person. She’d grown up in a colonized country. As a little girl she’d watch the wealthy people get dressed, and go to parties, and sing, and dance. That was the fairy tale for her. On the side she cleaned houses, but only artists’ homes.
She’d tell them: ‘Don’t pay me. Give my son lessons.’ So they did. I was getting piano lessons from people who went to Juilliard. And I was good at it. On weekends I’d practice so much that I’d forget to eat. It’s all I wanted to do. Keep your math, keep your English, keep your skateboard. I have this new thing now. And it’s better than all those other things. Something happens to me when I sit down at a piano. I can hear things. I know exactly what I want. And if I can’t get it, I go crazy. I can’t stop. I won’t stop until it’s perfect.
In my early teens I’d search through the newspaper for local piano competitions. I’d go to them alone.
At the registration table I would lie and say my parents were waiting outside. Then I’d get up on stage in my cheap polyester suit, and I’d begin to play. The audiences in my neighborhood were Latino. So I’d start with a classical piece like Moonlight Sonata, but then in the middle I’d switch into a famous Spanish love song: Por Amor. The crowd would go crazy. Then I’d switch back to the classical, without missing a beat. Everyone would say: ‘Holy Cow!’ They’d never seen a kid like me. Maybe there were kids like me in Russia. Or China. But not in my neighborhood. I’d almost always win. Most of the time it was just $15 or $20, but the prize didn’t matter. I was being recognized. My entire life I’d been behind, but now I was ahead at something.
At the age of fourteen I became an accompanist for the Ballet Hispanico. That same year I became the youngest church music director in the entire Archdiocese. The bishop gave me a medal for that. My grades were still terrible. When I got rejected from NYU, a friend suggested that I just show up at the music department and play piano for them. It was one of those freak, negative seven days in January. During the whole subway ride I was sitting on my hands to keep them warm. When I arrived at the school, I walked straight into the music building and said: ‘I’m here to audition.’ The secretary looked at me like I was crazy. She said: ‘No, no, no. That’s not how it works.’ But right then a door opened, and out came the Director of Music. She said: ‘What’s going on here?’ And I told her: ‘You have to hear me play piano.’ She led me into an empty ensemble room– Room 777. All kinds of orchestra instruments were lined against the wall, and in the middle was a single grand piano. I sat down at the bench and began to play. I played some Beethoven. Then some Bach. Then some Spanish. Then some Spanish pop. The director listened quietly for thirty minutes, then she asked: ‘Is there anything you can’t play?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ I told her. ‘Maybe you can teach me.’ She gave me a full scholarship on the spot.
NYU changed my life. I was surrounded by all these different types of people.
I was a performance major, but I’d sneak into other classes: economics, business, literature. I wanted to know the same stuff that everyone else knew. My whole world opened up.
After graduation I took a job running an after-school program at the Children’s Aid Society. I was just supposed to keep the kids busy until 6 pm: play chess, help them with their homework, stuff like that. But a lot of these kids came from unstable homes. And I knew how much music had changed my life, so I got permission to form a choir. I hung up flyers everywhere. I promised every kid who joined would get a free T-shirt and sneakers. Forty kids showed up to the first rehearsal. It was chaos. Most of them just wanted the sneakers. Kids were tripping each other. There were a couple of fistfights. And when it came time for the second rehearsal—only nine kids came back. They were a bunch of ragamuffins. Different ages. Different heights. When I lined them up they looked like the New York skyline. We were terrible at first, terrible. But we finally had a choir. And I could tell there was talent there. When I stand in front of a choir, something happens. I hear things. I know exactly what I want. And I won’t stop until we get it right.
At our first rehearsal the pianist was really clanking on the keys. I said: ‘Please, play a bit more gently. Because the kids will imitate you.’ He smirked at me. He said: ‘These kids are too young to be musical.’ I fired him on the spot. I knew what children could do. I’d been studying the records and tapes of other children’s choirs: The Vienna Boys Choir, The American Boy Choir. I knew what the best sounded like. But those choirs had rounds and rounds of auditions. They were only taking the most talented kids. And I was taking everyone. A lot of my kids were homeless, or from the foster care system. But we had one big advantage. We were diverse. A group of violins will all sound the same. But throw in a tuba, throw in a trumpet– you’re going to get a new sound. I knew that if we could be excellent, we would create an entirely new sound.
There wasn’t much of a crowd at our first few concerts. People would come once– to feel good about themselves.
To see a choir of underprivileged children. But then they wouldn’t come back. I didn’t want that. I wasn’t trying to be a good story. I wanted to be a great choir. At the end of our first year I got a call from the Today Show. They said they were looking for a children’s choir to sing Christmas carols. This felt like our chance to earn some real respect. But we only had three weeks to prepare– and we didn’t know any Christmas carols. On the morning of the taping we had to arrive at 6 AM. A lot of these kids had never woken up that early before. I was terrified they wouldn’t show up. But they all showed up. It was freezing cold that morning. My pianist is telling me it’s too cold to play. The kids don’t want to sing because their lips hurt. I’ve got them doing jumping jacks, running in place. Then Al Roker comes out, and says: ‘Boy do we have a cold one today!’ And he hands it off to me.
I’m 23 years old, on TV for the first time. My hands are trembling. But we got through it. We weren’t perfectly on key, but we did it. We made it through Jingle Bells. And after that things began to happen for us. We got invited to sing at the Christmas tree lighting. There were newspaper articles. And all sorts of kids began to sign up for the choir—even rich kids. We had kids whose parents showed up in mink coats. And kids who needed subway tokens for the ride home. That’s how mixed we were. I got a lot of pushback on that. People thought it would be a better story– if privileged children weren’t allowed. It would help with fundraising. But I kept saying: ‘No, no. It’s not about that.’ I want everyone together. People love to talk about diversity, but someone always gets left out. And I was that kid. My entire life I was that kid. I wasn’t black enough. Or brown enough. Or white enough. I was never enough. Until I discovered music. I finally found this new land where I was enough, and it had nothing to do with color. It was about sound. I didn’t want my chorus to be the right color. I wanted it to be the right sound. The children are a sound of their own.
Thirty years ago I started The Young People’s Chorus of New York City with nine kids. Now we serve over two thousand.
We hold 100 performances every year. There have been so many tournaments, so many first-place prizes. This year we became the first North American choir in history to win the ‘Choir of the World’ competition. My wife Elizabeth was conducting. All of our conductors are highly trained. We know exactly what we want. And we don’t stop until we get it.
We don’t tell the children how great they are all the time. We tell them the truth. If it’s not perfect, we tell them. We work them hard. Our rehearsals rarely end on time. People say: ‘It’s too much, Francisco.’ I’ve been hearing that my entire career: ‘Too much tough love.’ They’re right. It’s tough. But the word love is in there too. It’s never been about money. I could have made much more teaching public school. And I give the children everything they need: food, uniforms, transportation. No child has been turned away because they can’t afford to pay. I only ask one thing. Just one thing. I ask the children to commit to being great. During the first few years I was able to accept every kid who applied. But I never told the kids that. I made them audition. They had to put on their nicest clothes, and ride the subway to my office. I made them sing a song for me. It could be a pop song, or even Happy Birthday. But I made them sing a song. At the end I’d look them in the eye, and say: ‘We can’t accept everybody. So I need to know– if you’re accepted, will you be ready? It’s not going to be easy. So are you ready to commit?’ After they told me ‘yes,’ I’d say: ‘We’ll let you know once we’ve made a decision.’ Then we’d make them wait a few days. We’d mail them a letter, just like college. One afternoon they’d go down to their mailbox, and they’d find the envelope, and they’d open it up. And that’s where it all begins. They just earned something. It wasn’t a handout. They earned it. It didn’t matter what color they were. Or how many friends they had. Their grades didn’t matter, their clothes didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered is how they sounded. What mattered is the music.