- Oakland Girls Tour Choir sings Yiddish Lullaby
- A gift from Carnegie Mellon's baroque flutist Stephen Schultz
- Wilkinsburg Outreach: After School with Wilkinsburg Sings!
- Northside Outreach: Start Them Young!
- Learning a new song: Training Choir Style
- Wilkinsburg Outreach: Exploring the fun world of music
- Preparing for Consolidation: Oakland Girls Chamber Choir
- What does singing mean to you? Interviews with Training Choir Members
- Q & A with Kathryn Barnard
Q & A with Kathryn Barnard
By Carmen J. Lee
Endowments Communications Officer
In the seven years since it was established, the Oakland Girls Choir, which today operates under the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, has been dedicated to its mission of offering girls from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds the chance to learn and perform choral music. Artistic and General Director Kathryn Barnard explains how the organization has expanded its outreach efforts to help fulfill its mission, with the goal of providing choral opportunities to even more children and teenagers – and getting boys involved in the experience, too.
Q: What has been your organization’s biggest triumph of the past year?
A: The growth of both the choir and outreach programs. I find in Pittsburgh that it’s very hard to convince people of a new organization. I think our growth was slow at the beginning and all of sudden, it’s gotten some momentum. So, a year ago in our choir program, we had 50 girls and now we have 71. That’s the biggest percentage growth we’ve ever had. And before this fall, the only outreach program was the after-school program in Wilkinsburg. The grant we received from the Endowments enabled us to expand dramatically and to add a North Side component. The outreach program had 18 children last year and now has 85. This is all in the vision of the organization to be a music program that offers music experiences, especially choral vocal experiences, to everyone.
Also, we’re bridging the gap between the outreach program and the choral program. We have three girls from the outreach program at Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg who now come to Oakland for the choral program. The local public television station did a short story about us on the show “Horizons,” which attracted five to seven new girls to Oakland Girls Choir.
Q: What has been the biggest trial?
A: It’s a continuation of the greatest triumph. (Laughs) I think that my greatest trial has been getting the girls from the outreach program in Wilkinsburg to embrace and be embraced by the community of the Training choral groups, which includes Training Choir I for first- to third-graders and Training Choir II for fourth- to sixth-graders.
The goals of the outreach programs are to provide a quality music program for children in underserved neighborhoods, to help our organization start relationships in those communities and to bring girls – and eventually boys because we want to start a boys choir as well – from the outreach program into the main program in Oakland, so that they get the more advanced choral experience. There’s a bit of challenge with the logistics of getting the girls to Oakland because Training Choir I, for example, meets at 4:15 on Wednesdays, and the moms of girls in the Wilkinsburg outreach program work. It also has been a bit difficult getting the girls to let the barriers down and not see themselves as different.
Another major trial has been fundraising. Because we are committed to keeping tuition low and to providing scholarship to all in need, our fundraising needs are great and have been accentuated by a challenging economy.
Q: What issue or event has had the most impact – positive or negative – on your organization in the past year and how have you responded?
A: Receiving the Endowments grant has had the greatest positive effect on our organization, enabling the expansion of the outreach program to Angels Place on the North Side, where I teach 12 toddlers, and to Hosanna House’s Early Childhood Development Center, where I teach 55 preschoolers. However, as a result of this expansion, it has become clear that we need to add another teacher, though it’s not going to be a full-time job.
Q: What new initiatives have been started?
A: First, there is the outreach program expansion, which I mentioned earlier. We’ve also added a week-long music and arts camp for first- through sixth-graders.
In addition, the two Training choirs have evolved into choirs in their own right, and not just as preparatory groups for the Tour Choir, which has been primarily for girls in seventh to12th grade. The Training choirs have expanded their performance schedule. The girls in Training Choir I are getting a very solid training in vocal production and musical literacy and are moving into Training Choir II at an amazing skill level.
In the past, all the choirs gave a concert together at Christmas and in May. Last year, we did a trial to see if the Training choirs could sustain their own concert. It was on Mother’s Day and 40 minutes long. This year it will be a full hour, and they will be doing more music. Training Choir II is being asked to do performances that normally just the Tour Choir would be asked to do. I’ve reached the point where I want to rename the Training choirs because that implies that they are there for the sole purpose of becoming Tour Choir members, but they are their own choirs.
Q: As head of this organization, what goals do you have for it next year?
A: We would like to have our own “permanent” space, probably in the Oakland area but we need to be open-minded. We also want to add a new teacher and begin a teacher mentoring program to lay the foundation for significant expansion of the outreach and in-house programs. In fact, I say we want add another teacher, but I actually want to add lots of other teachers. I used to be a trainer in early childhood music, and I really love teaching teachers. I feel that I have more wisdom than I did 20 years ago, but I also have less energy than I did 20 years ago. I would love to eventually work with teachers more than the children and become a teacher trainer.
Q: So if your organization were a person, what type of personality would you say it had?
A: Determined and passionate about providing musical opportunities for all in a non-competitive nurturing environment. This person would want to enable students to reach their highest musical and artistic potential while creating a community of mutual respect and encouragement.
Q: What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about your organization?
A: There are two major misconceptions. One is that, because of the high artistic level achieved by our Tour and Chamber choirs, we are perceived of as a selective and elite organization. In reality, we believe that any girl, given age-appropriate training in music and healthy vocal production can contribute in a positive way to the choir.
The other major misconception, for those who have not experienced the community of this choir, is that teenage girls must be catty, cliquey, and competitive. Quite the contrary, I was unflinching in my determination to create a safe haven for tweens and teens. In the first two years, the girls embraced this and are now instrumental in maintaining and sustaining this positive community of mutual respect and encouragement. The Training choirs are also being nurtured into seeing every chorister as a gift to the choir musically and socially.
Q: Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact you believe your organization is having on your local community or the region?
A: I believe we have had the greatest impact in Wilkinsburg. Every Wednesday I am greeted with enthusiasm and excitement by each of the four pre-K classes at Hosanna House. When class is over, I am bombarded by hugging children.
I believe this strong connection with young children in Wilkinsburg is laying the foundation for many to join the Training choirs in Oakland with the goal of having them continue into the Tour and Chamber choirs. In these advanced choirs, girls will have the opportunity each summer to tour parts of the U.S. and, every third year, to tour in Europe.
Q: Could you share a short story about an individual’s experience that captures what your organization is meant to be to the community?
A: There is a choir member from Wilkinsburg who has been part of the Oakland Girls Choir since its inception in 2005. An anonymous donor has been responsible for her tuition all seven years. As an art major, she was asked to create a senior project documenting a life-changing experience. She has chosen to produce a documentary about her experiences in Oakland Girls Choir. I had the privilege of being with her on our first tour when she left Pennsylvania for the first time in her life. I was also with her on her first flight, which took us to Amsterdam for our tour of the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. Her determination and commitment have resulted in her becoming part of the Chamber Choir, which consists of girls in our Tour Choir who are the most advanced and dedicated singers. Today, she has mastered advanced women’s choral repertoire from the 17th to 21st centuries, with texts in at least a dozen different languages and dialects.