The American Boychoir

Special President's Note

by John Ellis

 

 

In addition to the memorial concert with the New York Philharmonic, The American Boychoir participated in several other services for September 11th including New Jersey Network's "Remembrance and Reflections: An Observance Honoring New Jersey's Victims and Heroes," at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

 

Why This Place Matters

It was only shortly after nine in the morning when the campus began buzzing about the disaster occurring fifty miles away in New York City. Several staff had heard about it on their car radios as they drove to work. Some of the boys had read about it on the Internet during technology class. Rumors quickly started to amplify events.

At our weekly administrative staff meeting we tabled our agenda and focused on our best response to the events. We reached out by phone to two psychologists who know our boys well, Eric Johnson (father of Luke '96) and Jay Margolis (father of Oren '01, and President of our Parent Association). We decided there was a high value in normalcy, and so we kept the day's regular schedule of classes and rehearsals.

We then gathered the boys together during their morning break at ten so that Head of School Byhema Bagley could share with them what we knew as of that moment, with the calm reassurance that we were safe on our campus.

Four of our boys have parents who work in Manhattan, two in the financial district. We intensively began to reach out to them by phone. Happily, by two in the afternoon we had spoken to all of them (or their spouses) and could tell each of these boys the relieving news.

At noon, as the boys gathered in line outside the dining hall, we again gave them an up-to-date account of events, with Don Edwards, our Vice President for Institutional Advancement, reading from the latest CNN report on the Web. We then answered questions from the boys. Throughout the day, we sent e-mails to our parents across the country. We also encouraged the boys to call home, and many parents called in as well. I salute our parents for their calm and trust.

Talking It Through Together

That evening after dinner, the boys divided up into four groups and visited the homes of our four residential staff members - Eric Niles, Clint Lyle, Walker Robinson and myself, with many other adults in attendance. We watched half an hour of public television coverage and then turned off the TV while we talked about things.

In review the next day it became clear, not surprisingly, that each group's discussion had had its own texture and feeling. For some, concerns of safety were paramount. For others, the focus was on politics. Clearly, the discussions were a way for all of us - not just the boys - to try to make sense of things, and in this way regain a sense of control and order. What so struck me about the boys who came to my home at Hobler House was their engagement. From 5th graders through 8th graders, no one was bashful about asking questions or sharing views! Often, 8th graders were able to answer questions posed by younger students. There was, for example, a very thoughtful colloquy about whether the attack should be viewed as a military matter or a subject for criminal justice, and the implications of America's response.

There has been little doubt in my mind that this fall (my twelfth), the quality of the faculty and staff of The American Boychoir School is the finest it has ever been. This is true throughout the ranks and by whatever measure, whether academic degrees, professional experience or personal commitment and effectiveness. The School is well run and the boys well cared for. We saw that in the swift, wise and caring way in which faculty and staff worked with the boys on September 11th, and since. Likewise, the quality of our boys is as high as it has ever been. We saw this in their ability to express their feelings and intelligently begin to make sense of a world instantly changed.

Healing Music

I know there are many schools all across America with fine faculties and bright students who also responded sensitively to these events. But at The American Boychoir School the story, in a way, only started there.

 

John Ellis

 

That Thursday we got a call from the New York Philharmonic. Maestro Kurt Masur and Executive Director Zubin Mehta had the brilliant idea to (very!) quickly reconfigure the orchestra's season opener the next week into a benefit for the City of New York, and to program Brahms' German Requiem, with Thomas Hampson and Heidi Grant Murphy as soloists and the New York Choral Artists and trebles of The American Boychoir.

A good idea takes on momentum, and so Live from Lincoln Center decided to make this a special PBS broadcast. I hope many of you saw this moving concert. And had you been able to visit our campus during the preparation week, you also would have seen something extraordinary. Of the 41 boys who sang the Requiem, only 12 had performed the work before. And yet, the Choir was superbly prepared after only three days of rehearsals. Vincent Metallo, who has made such a strong beginning as our new Litton-Lodal Music Director, along with Associate Music Director, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, channeled the boys' strong emotions through rehearsals that addressed not merely musical technique but the ways in which a requiem express personal - or national - grief. Likewise, Dean of Academics Nancy Adair and her teaching colleagues accelerated the curricular focus on requeims already planned for the boys' performances of Benjamin Britten's War Requeim in October and next May.

We Reap What We Sow

Our boys were not merely taught about "current events," they experienced them in an extraordinary way. Then, in a wonderful alchemy, they as artists helped millions of Americans watching this concert on TV to come to terms with their own emotions and to foster the beginning of the healing that all of us will need to undertake.

 

It is vitally important that children are a part of this process. Yesterday, I saw in the New York Times a photograph of two five- or six-year-old boys in Pakistan wearing mock military uniforms at an anti-U.S. rally. The look in their eyes was deeply disturbing. In my mind's eye I then saw again our boys singing the words of Isaiah in Brahms's setting: "I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforteth." As people, no less than as a nation, we reap what we sow. Naturally, I think our eighty boys are pretty extraordinary all on their own. Yet I am moved by the way - as The American Boychoir - they contribute such grace to the life of America.

(reprinted from the Winter 2001 issue of "Notes...", the newsletter of the American Boychoir School.)


When Americans needed music . . .

The American Boychoir freely gave the gift of song

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before" ...Leonard Bernstein

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