Music Lessons

A couple of years ago jazz singer Kurt Elling asked, "How many choir boys go out and start shooting people up? If [a choir boy] does it, it's a freak accident, right? ... Look at the kids in the Harlem boys choir. Those kids are going to grow up, and they're going to be totally civilized, man. They're going to be totally civilized because they're going to have a sensitivity in their whole makeup because of their musical skills, because they know what it's like to feel music."

In a community where an estimated 70 percent of teenagers drop out of high school, the Boys Choir of Harlem stands out as an example of inner-city potential. Essentially an artistic and academic preparatory school for fourth- to 12th-graders, with an intense focus on music, the choir has won countless awards and performed before four presidents. And 98 percent of its members have graduated from college. The program's success spawned an offshoot in 1988, the Girls Choir of Harlem.

Walter J. Turnbull, who made his operatic debut with Houston Grand Opera in Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, formed the group in 1968 simply to "share the joy of music with African-American children." The project became something of an obsession for him and his colleagues. When Turnbull's local church wouldn't allow him to use nonmember talent to expand, he turned the choir into a nonprofit organization.

Turnbull and company give the kids Haydn, Schubert, Mozart and Handel, along with a sense of discipline and moral foundation that serves them the rest of their lives. As Turnbull once said, the difference between the kids in the choir and other inner-city youths is "somebody is willing to do something for them, and they are willing to do something."

The results sing for themselves.