Children truly represent the best in all of us. They have a zest for life. They find beauty in the details. They see the good in everyone. And, they have a bright futures ahead of them. That is why I was enthused to learn that a group of young performers from the Chicago Children's Choir recently travelled to India to showcase their vast repertoire of music and serve as global ambassadors of Chicago.
The Chicago Children's Choir was founded in 1956 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Its original mission was to use music education to bring diverse children together - and it still holds true today. At the end of January, 45 singers from its internationally acclaimed Concert Choir, also known as the Voice of Chicago, traveled to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Chennai and Bangalore during a 10-day tour of India.
The trip, presented by the Jaipur Literature Festival and U.S. Embassy, was done with the goal of showcasing everything Chicago has to offer the world. And, that it did - and more.
Sharing Multicultural Choral Music Through Concerts and Workshops
During their tour, the Concert Choir, whose members range in age from 12 to 18 years old and represent a diverse mix of Chicago youth, performed concerts at the India Islamic Cultural Center in Delhi, during the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, at the Sir Mutha Venkata Subba Rao Concert Hall in Chennai, and at the Bishop Cotton Boys School in Bangalore.
The group's performances included selections from its diverse repertoire spanning classical, world, gospel and popular music. The group also performed music from "Sita Ram," the world musical based on the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, which my son and I enjoyed seeing during its brief three-show run in Chicago this past December.
The Concert Choir also conducted music education workshops with children from The Salaam Baalak Trust, Rhapsody - Education through Music, and the Bangalore School of Music. During each workshop, the group taught the young participants how to sing either "We Shall Overcome," a protest song that became a key anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, or the gospel song, "I Need You to Survive." At the end of each one, the Concert Choir gave a performance and then invited the workshop participants to join them at the end of the concert to sing one of the two songs.
The reaction of Indian audiences to the performances and workshops was remarkable and unforgettable. And, the feeling was mutual.
Uniting Audiences Across India Through Music
After their arrival in India, the Concert Choir took a break from rehearsals in a local park. The young performers had been told about beggars in India and how to not engage them. However, it became hard to resist the words of children, many who were younger than them, who ask for the Concert Choir members' snack bags. And, as soon as one offered their snack to a young beggar, others demanded one too.
But, these young performers reacted in an amazing way. According to Crystal Bowyer, director of advance for the Chicago Children's Choir who accompanied the group to India, instead of just being overwhelmed by the situation at hand, the group broke into song, giving an impromptu performance in the park. Their music served to diffuse the situation, unite the children, and bring smiles to their young eyes.
Afterwards, a Concert Choir member remarked to Ms. Bowyer that they were grateful to have given them a moment of joy right there in the park. And, in essence, they really did feed the souls of the young beggars - with music.
Sending a Powerful Message of Peace and Tolerance through Music
This initial reaction was just one of many amazing, deeply moving experiences the young group of performers had in India. And, it continued as they traveled to each of the five cities during their 10-day stay in the country.
In New Delhi, the Concert Choir lead a music education workshop for young boys living at The Salaam Baalak Trust, a nonprofit that provides support for street and working children in the inner cities of New Delhi and Mumbai. At the end of the workshop, the group performed for the boys, who were visually overtaken and overwhelmed by the music. The boys, who typically just showed a will to survive versus to also thrive, were truly inspired - for the first time.
According to Ms. Bowyer, the reaction of the boys was likely due to the sheer power of the music, coupled with hearing it performed by the diverse group of children. She noted that the music most likely helped to symbolize hope for these children and sent a powerful message of peace. This was especially the case as they listened to the music from "Sita Ram," which stems from a tale familiar to these young children.
At the Jaipur Literative Festival, the audience had a different, yet equally moving reaction to hearing the music from "Sita Ram." With the first note, the crowd rushed the stage to be as close to the Concert Choir performers as possible. Ms. Bowyer equated it to being at a Beatles concert, something that was so significant and overwhelming for the young performers.
Reflecting on their Experience in India
At the end of each day, Concert Choir members participated in reflection sessions to share their experiences and emotions together as a group. They also took time to chronicle their experience in their journals, trying to put all of their emotions into words to remember.
Through their conversations and their writing, it was easy for the Chicago Children's Choir staff members to see just how much this experience impacted the young performers, and how it would positively impact their lives - forever.
Being Selected as a Chicago's Global Ambassadors to India
The Concert Choir has traveled internationally since 1976. This was the group's first visit to India. Last year, it traveled to Italy, bringing its power musical messages of tolerance and inclusion to audiences across that country.
Concert Choir members are selected from thousands in Chicago Children's Choir singers and others who auditioned for the chance to be a part of the Voice of Chicago. Typically, 90 percent of Concert Choir members come from Chicago Children's Choir programs.
Hearing the "Voice of Chicago" for Yourself Right Here in Chicago
Having seen "Sita Ram," I can only imagine how the music helped unite people across India with its message of intolerance - like it did here in Chicago at the Harris Theater. Personally, I am proud that the Concert Choir represented me and my fellow Chicagoans during their time in India. I am sure the experience will have a beneficial impact on everyone they touched with the magic of their song for many years to come.
If you'd like to hear the "Voice of Chicago" for yourself, you can attend the Chicago Children Choir's first annual World Music Festival at the Copernicus Center (5216 W. Lawrence) on Sunday, March 3. The free event, which starts at 4:30 p.m., will feature the Concert Choir and all eight of the group's neighborhood choirs performing music from around the world.
In May, you also can enjoy a performance of the full Chicago Children's Choir at Paint the Town Red, a concert done in celebration of Arts Education Day. The daytime, outdoor concert will take place at the Pritzker Pavilion (201 E. Randolph Dr.) in Millennium Park.
Have you seen a Chicago Children's Choir performance? If so, which one was it? What important messages do you think the Chicago Children's Choir's music can offer to people here in Chicago and around the world? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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