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In the spirit of the holidays, we decided to make the above video profile of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which this week is performing “Home Alone” in concert with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is an entrepreneur behind the Brooklyn Youth Chorus: Dianne Berkun Menaker, a former music teacher who founded the 600-member choir in 1992. The Grammy Award-winning chorus now has 15 employees and a $2.6 million annual budget. Students come from all walks of life, from New York City’s roughest neighborhoods to its most expensive.
Menaker was inspired to start an after-school choral program for kids of all genders, races and social-economic backgrounds because she didn’t like what she was seeing: Most children’s choirs were made almost entirely of privileged white kids — and generally speaking, it was mostly boys. “When I really decided to start the chorus, I wanted it to be for everybody,” she told The Story Exchange recently.
We were impressed that Menaker decided to disrupt an “industry” that’s been around since the Middle Ages — literally. The Vienna Boys Choir was founded in 1498. If you’ve ever watched a British royal wedding, you’ll likely notice the boys’ choir performing, as the Anglican Church is quite fond of them.
But beyond boys’ voices, Menaker also felt there was just a sameness … a homogeneousness of sound that was coming from children’s choirs at that time. She began attending professional conferences to learn which were the good choruses, and what they were singing. “They were pretty much the same,” she says. “It didn’t matter what geography they came out of or where the conference was hosted.” They were white choirs that sounded “pretty uniform in terms of what they thought was good.”
Not exactly a glowing endorsement. Menaker, like all good entrepreneurs, saw an opportunity to mix things up.
She got to work forming a chorus made up of diverse members. She had just moved to Brooklyn — then a much grittier place than it currently is — and thought: “If I do a community chorus, this has to be of Brooklyn — it should be a source of pride.” She approached Howard Golden, then the Brooklyn Borough President, with the idea of a community-wide chorus with “no financial barriers” and he volunteered to host a press conference announcing its formation. She had 48 students the first year.
Menaker began working on making the chorus sound different than most. She experimented with new vocal techniques, inspired by a performance she happened to hear of a Hungarian girls’ chorus. “It was just like, wow, I love that sound,” she says. “It’s not the traditional hooty boy choir sound that you might associate, even though it’s similar in some respects. It’s unlike any adult sound.”
And then she got to work making the Brooklyn Youth Chorus — now filled with girls and non-white members — look really different than most choruses. She got them off the risers and out of traditional uniforms and created performances that combined music with spoken word. She made it clear to audiences that the chorus was the lead artist, not the “uniblob” (her term) in the background.
For a business model, Menaker turned the organization into a 501(c)(3), supported by charitable donations and public grants. She also charges annual tuition, with extensive financial aid for students in need.
In recent years, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus has been commissioning its own non-traditional pieces, working with contemporary composers and rock musicians like Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and The National’s Bryce Dessner. This past fall, the group released its “Silent Voices” album, a project inspired by the students’ experiences with everything from race to gender to sexual identity.
Menaker says she’s proud that the Brooklyn Youth Chorus has become a place where young students can find their voice — literally and figuratively. “It wasn’t the reason the chorus started, but it’s definitely as important,” she says. “They know that they’re getting training here that lets them be their best self. That’s why they come.”
And her story proves you can disrupt any industry — even one that’s been around for centuries.
Read a full profile of Dianne Berkun Menaker on The Story Exchange.
December 21, 2018 at 12:08PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs