[The Harmonizer] Singing Changes Lives

By Lorin May for The Harmonizer

Music changed the life of Francisco J. Núñez, and now his life’s work is to tangibly change 1,600 young lives through singing every week—and another 120 adult lives for the joy of it.

Francisco J. Núñez and BHS CEO Marty Monson met at the “Choral Ecosystems” conference at Yale University in early 2016. Mr. Núñez will host the upcoming Youth Chorus Festival in January, 2017. This interview introduces Mr. Núñez to our readership, as the collaborative possibilities between his organizations and BHS are ongoing.

You’ve made quite a name in the choral world while directing young singers. When did you form this organization and why?
I founded Young People’s Chorus (YPC) of New York City when I came out of college 29 years ago. Today we’re serving about 1,600 young people, and they come from all walks of life. Choirs in our afterschool program rehearse about 450 hours a year and perform in about 120 concerts a year in the New York City area as well as all over the world.

When I was very young, I noticed a lot of people were very gifted but nobody gave them the opportunity to take advantage of those gifts. Or they shied away from an artistically excellent product. I wanted to create an opportunity for everyone to come together and lift them all. I wanted young people to come together from all walks of life in every part of this city, every neighborhood and give them an opportunity to use music as a means of learning from each other.

Teaching and mentoring young people is your full time job, but I understand you direct a men’s chorus as well?
In 1995, the University Glee Club (UGC) of New York City invited YPC to sing with them. I fell in love with the idea of men’s choral singing and became a member. In 2000 they asked me to become the conductor—
only the fifth since 1894. They believe in bringing music to as many men as possible to sing in the old glee club tradition. Today we have 120 singers, from first-year college graduates to a couple of 50-year members.

A lot of our members stay for decades as well, in part because they can’t imagine not having singing in their lives. Why do you think your adult singers stick around so long?
I believe that singing actually helps them with their health and with the way they feel about themselves. They could be going through so much, but for some reason they leave this space feeling differently. Some
will tell me, “You don’t know what you’ve done for me today.”

I understand that they sing barbershop music as well?
We sing all kinds of music, but they love to sing barbershop music. Twice a year we have a quartet contest and they take it very seriously. They form quartets without telling anybody and practice in secret, then they show up and sing these incredible arrangements. It’s really a lot of a fun to hear. We’ve been doing formal barbershop contests at least since the 1930s. The idea of a cappella singing has been there from the very beginning.

Barbershop chapters often have young men in their teens singing with men in their 80s. Do YPC and UGC ever sing together?
I love when our young people sing with the UGC because there’s a mentoring aspect that goes on. Sometimes we might just rehearse together because we’re singing the same music. For example, last year I had “Darkness on the Delta” with my men’s club and it was so fun I brought it to the YPC. The young people came to the men’s rehearsal and we just sang it together for fun.

In addition to the fun, have you observed other benefits of older and younger voices singing together?
It shows younger people that singing can be part of your entire life. You can become a better doctor, a better businessman or whatever you want to do; singing changes how you approach it. Singing communicates to the rest of society that you are part of a special ensemble, part of a special world that allows you to harmonize and to feel. At the UGC, for the past 30 or 40 years we have had an intergenerational mentoring program. Older men are mentoring younger singers, who are looking for a network—that social capital and learning how to behave in our society. And they also understand what it’s like to be in a group for so long and dedicate themselves to something for such a long time.

Is it important for people to start singing when they are young?
When we sing when we’re very young, it stays with us forever. As we get older, we want to keep those memories of our youth for a very long time. It will influence the way we think. As we get older, and if we join a community choir or a barbershop chorus or quartet, that instilled idea can grow with us.

When I work with community choirs, I see the older members are allowing the younger members to take over. They want this to continue to be here for another 50 years. Young singers are the ones who are going to bring us there. They are letting them speak and lead.

When you and Marty Monson discussed the Youth Chorus Festival, you told him that between your contacts and our resources, we could someday be filling arenas. What were your thoughts behind that?
I’m working with an organization called American Young Voices, and we are filling arenas. We’re inviting young people from entire areas to learn the curriculum and then come and sing together. Right now we have approximately 7,000 to 8,000 young people at a time singing together once a year in four different cities in the United States. We’re hoping to grow this throughout
the states very soon.

What are some of the principles that have helped American Young Voices get such large groups singing together?
I think that it’s very easy to go and just get a group of people and invite them to come sing. I promise
you that they will come. It’s about the music: the choice of songs, how accessible the repertoire is. Give them preparation, give them enough time, and pick a great date. Invite them and they will come. These sing-ins are very popular, and I think we can do a lot more.

If one attends any kind of folk festival, people are just singing out, and they’re singing with their entire spirit. I think we can have more people singing and people want to sing much more.

The American Choral Directors Association calls the lack of community singing in America a “crisis.” What are your thoughts?
Chorus America created a survey two or three years ago that shows that 48 million people in the United States are somehow connected to singing with their church or their synagogue or a community chorus or professional choirs. It’s the largest art-making of all the arts in the United States. Singing is a gift we can give to each other—it’s a part of ourselves, a part of our being. The people who are listening want to sing as well; they just don’t know that they can. We have to give them permission to sing. Just say very simply, “Sing with me.” That’s all it takes.

When you decided to form the Young People’s Chorus, was there
a need you didn’t see being filled?
When I was very young, my mother was a workingclass lady and wanted to bring music into our home. She bought a piano from the Salvation Army and I played it every day. That helped me reach out to meet children who were very different from me. They came from different religions, different socio-economic means, but music became an equal value system. They respected me because I was able to play as well if not better than they did, and I was winning contests. I learned about them and they learned about me.

YPC is taking the entire spectrum of socio-economic society and putting it all together in one room. No one knows who is rich and who is poor. It doesn’t really matter. Do you sing? Can you sing? Do you love to sing? That brings us together. Once they’re off the stage, they learn about each other. Like piano was for me, choral singing is a life-changing experience.

In the Barbershop Harmony Society, we talk a lot about making “A Better World. Singing.” Our CEO, Marty Monson, tells me you are doing this in a very tangible way. Can you talk about that?
With YPC, we are using music as a means of bringing young people together. Adults talk about how society can get past racism, work through poverty, figure out social ills. Our young people don’t think this way. They instead believe that we have a lot in common with everybody else. If we adults allow them to come together and start conversations, that will start erasing a lot of the divisions that we have.

Singing is the medium that we can use to come together and show each other what we can do. Once you are off the stage, that’s when the friendship and bonding starts. Music is a way to start a conversation. We need to allow our young people to talk to each other much more to prepare themselves for the future.

How is music helping them be successful?
The discipline that comes from music and being consistent from year to year is very important. Our choristers are with us approximately 8 to 10 years. They become best friends and influence each other to make better decisions, because through each other they can see many options. Maybe they think of going
to a school they never thought of going to before.

Music also helps them learn about different cultures, different rhythms and languages. If I wanted to sing a Nigerian folk song, I can go to my Nigerian family and say, “How do you say these words?” If we sing a French song or an Irish folk song, I have people here who can teach me how to sing in Gaelic or how to sing in Parisian French. That allows us to understand the world in a much more global way, and we become global citizens.

How does this vision apply to people who do not grow up in major metropolitan areas?
Studies show that about 60% to 70% of the world lives in urban societies. Many will be separated into pockets of identity unless we do something about it. Let’s use music as a way of bringing those young people together. Do it now, so that as they get older, they understand to seek diversity and a way of living together—so that they don’t have these issues that we have today. Music can really be that forum.

I’ve been told that when you use the term “diversity” you’re not necessarily talking about people who look different from one another.
The word “diversity” from my experience is generally seen as a black-and-white race issue. However, here is how I see it: The first problem is those who have education and those who are not getting the same
education and not progressing as much as they can. The second problem is the issue of socio-economic
diversity.

At YPC, we bring a very wide gamut together. Those who come from very wealthy families, those who do not. They start to notice that, sure, the difference between them is another zero to the right of their family income. But they have so much in common that they can help each other realize the American dream. If I work really hard in the way their family worked really hard, I can be part of what they have. They realize, “Just because I don’t have as much as you doesn’t mean that I am less than you. I have a lot to contribute to society as well.”

We do a lot of college bound programming, and children who never thought about higher education are now going to college. So 100% of our young people are going to college—and our studies are showing that nearly 90% of them are graduating in 4 to 5 years.

I noticed from your bio that you are not only encouraging a lot of people to sing but that you are also composing. Can you talk about that?
It’s been difficult to find music that is appropriate for my choir, arranged specifically for young people, and that they can relate to. Singers share a message both through the words and the music. Being in an urban society where these young people come from so many backgrounds, I need to understand the relationship they have to both the music and the text. The text needs to connect with a young person of today—something that’s about their future, that’s about how they feel about themselves.

Any final parting words about how to get more people singing?
If we wait for just the best to come through our doors, we will have much fewer people joining us. We have to invite everyone to come through the door. We’re supposed to teach them how to do it.