"Making It Work: Let Children Sing"
By Alex Ross
New York Times, December 12, 1993
Late one weekday afternoon, Dianne Berkun was standing before a fidgety crowd of schoolchildren in a dusty chamber of the downtown Brooklyn Y.W.C.A. She was trying to get them to sing Vivaldi's "Laudamus Te," music from the Baroque era that has no immediately apparent connection to their lives.
"Do you remember what the main quality of Baroque music is?" she patiently asked.
"Dancing," several children replied.
"Yes, this music must be dancelike. I want it to be very lively, but I don't want it to sound like it's getting away from you." In the end, miraculously, the Vivaldi had the proper nimble lilt.
Ms. Berkun, a 27-year-old music teacher at the Brooklyn Friends School, set herself a fairly epic challenge two years ago. She made plans to form a children's chorus not quite like any other in Brooklyn. Its members, aged 8 to 16, would be drawn from schools all over the borough, yet it would remain independent of any one institution. Its repertory would address a wide array of traditions, yet it would concentrate on essential skills of musicianship.
Starting only with a donation of stationery supplies from Brooklyn Union Gas, Ms. Berkun's 50-voice Brooklyn Youth Chorus is doing pretty well. Earlier this month, the group traveled to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., as one of nine choirs from around the country invited to participate in the first Children's Holiday Choral Festival. Beginning on Tuesday, through Dec. 23, the chorus will perform "The Waltz of the Snowflakes" in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's production of "The Hard Nut," Mark Morris's topsy-turvy version of "The Nutcracker." The chorus landed this last engagement after appearing at the academy's commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day last January.
"We all just sat up and said, 'That's the children's chorus for next season,' " said Lynn Moffat, associate general manager of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
How has Ms. Berkun done it? The story, oddly enough, begins in Hungary. Studying music education at New York University and the University of Calgary, Ms. Berkun specialized in a teaching method devised early this century by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly that has proved particularly successful among children. Vocal training at an early age was the best way for children to learn music, Kodaly always insisted. His paragon was the 600-year-old choral tradition in the British Isles, to this day the foundation of Britain's exceptionally active musical culture.
In this country, by contrast, musical training of any sophistication is increasingly scarce. Classical music, one of many kinds of music that Ms. Berkun teaches to the children, has to cross an enormous cultural gap. There are also the social gaps among the children themselves. White, black, Asian, Hispanic, rich and poor, attending 40 different Brooklyn schools, they are a model of the teeming diversity that has made musical education such a challenge.
Auditions are not demanding; Ms. Berkun screens out only the hopelessly tone-deaf. This is in accordance with Kodaly's stricture that a children's chorus does not require abundant or innate musical ability. At the same time, however, Kodaly insisted that musical standards be maintained. And in a recent two-hour rehearsal at the Y.W.C.A., the group's current home, Ms. Berkun gave a performance of which Kodaly would undoubtedly have approved. She was patient, but also musically demanding.
Most noticeably, she does not talk down to the children. Rehearsing the Vivaldi piece, she makes free use of technical terms: "How many times have I told you we need a long crescendo here?" On the next try, a smooth crescendo magically appears. Detours on matters like Baroque style are an important part of the program; Ms. Berkun regularly throws in morsels of music history, along with instruction on basic music theory and notation. Her equally patient accompanist, Alfred Ayres, gives piano lessons to many of the students on the side.
The program being rehearsed on this day balanced classical pieces with multicultural selections, including spirituals and gospel hymns, along with Christmas favorites. Even in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," however, Ms. Berkun kept up musical demands. Noticing a lack of enthusiasm, she asked, "Is Christmas a depressing holiday for you?" Unexpectedly, there were a few subversive murmurs of assent. From this she drew an important lesson of public performance: "Well, even if you don't feel happy, you have to sound happy in this song, because that's what the song is communicating."
Afterward, as the children raced around having their permission forms completed for the Disney World trip, Ms. Berkun talked not only about the musical challenges of teaching the group but also the logistical challenges of holding it together.
"It's a feat in itself to have these kids together in one space," she said. "If there are problems, if one child doesn't want to sit next to another, then I just have them talk it out. For the most part, the issues they deal with out there are never issues here. The children become friends, and so have some of the parents when they car-pool together."
Elaine Unkeless of Park Slope, whose 12-year-old daughter, Vanessa, has been in the group since it started, singles out Ms. Berkun's intense devotion as a teacher.
"She's got a real desire to help the kids learn and perform in a professional manner," she said. "My daughter sings all the time now; she sometimes sings herself to sleep. It is a real commitment, that's the one problem: it takes a lot of time and energy. It can be tough when they come home tired and still have homework to do."
As Ms. Berkun sees it, the children have found in the choir "something new and challenging that they love."
"The most important gift you can give a child is self-esteem," she said. "I leave a lot of responsibility to them. They have to tell me if they can't come to a rehearsal and give me a good excuse. No child is afraid to come up to me. They're always calling me at home. I can't expect maturity and self-discipline, but I love this job more than anything else I've done in my life."
The job is not an easy one. Ms. Berkun has yet to draw a salary for any of the work she has done over the last year and a half, and resources are at a minimum. She charges $80 to cover some expenses, although she has arranged scholarships with Brooklyn sponsors like the Independence Savings Bank. She spends more time than she would like raising money for such necessities as uniforms and chorus risers.
But Ms. Berkun sees limitless possibilities for her fledgling enterprise. She has been able to start a preparatory division for younger children, and her hope is to eventually start an independent choir school.
A comment from one student seems to sum up the group's promise: "If I wasn't in this chorus, I could be watching TV, but I'd rather be singing."