The kids are learning to do things in music, but the bigger message is, ’”You can be excellent at anything, and here’s how you do it.’”
Pacific Boychoir Teaches Excellence Through Song
Oakland’s Pacific Boychoir is a paradox. Barely a dozen years old, it’s been compared to the Vienna Boys Choir, which has serenaded one monarch or another for half a millennium. While new choirs typically confine themselves to a hymn or two on Sundays, the Pacific Boychoir performs solo concerts for cathedral-sized crowds on both sides of the Bay. And though it usually takes years to develop vocal depth and control, the Boychoir’s ethereal, high-floating sopranos sing with the kind of expressiveness that could make the most hardened skeptic believe in angels.
In its brief life, the Pacific Boychoir has recorded classical and spiritual works, ventured into jazz and performed on every continent except Antarctica. In January, the choir was honored with two Grammy awards for its work on the San Francisco Symphony production of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.
Kevin Fox, the choir’s visionary director, acknowledges the contradiction with suitable humility. “We’re not supposed to sound this good yet,” he concedes.
Yet despite the absence of a century or two of practice, the Pacific Boychoir does sound that good. The question is how?
The answer goes back to the early 1990s, when Fox began talking with three other dedicated Bay Area choralists — music educator Stella Brown, organist Marcia Roy and choir school teacher Pamela Weimer. Though working in separate jobs, they shared a common dream: to capture the ‘brief spring flower’ that is a young boy’s voice.
“The sound of a really good boys choir is amazing,” Fox says. “You hear it in Europe and in Africa, where everybody sings, but people don’t recognize it in America. We knew the sound and knew it could be done, and we wanted to do it.”
They also knew from sad experience that the flower often fades before it’s had a chance to fully bloom. Serious choral training requires daily practice, which an after-school program can’t provide. What they needed was a school with music at its core. Huddled in a Montclair church meeting room in 1998, the four vowed to create it.
“It was a nutty idea,” admits Weimer, who was teaching at Grace Cathedral’s choir school at the time (the school trains boys to sing strictly for its own services). “I had a good-paying, cushy job. To leave that for a huge cut in pay and start out on something that could fail after a year if we didn’t get it right was very scary.”
However, the four stuck with their plan. They found six boys, rehearsed, found a few more and eventually began singing in churches. Within a few years, they had gained modest recognition.
Then in 2004, they recruited nine boys from within their 40-member choir to form a small 5th-to-8th-grade middle school (the after-school program still remains and is an essential adjunct to the choir school). The founders ran into a glitch when the Alameda County Department of Education nixed their plans to open as a public charter school, due to their single-gender status. But the four regrouped and in the fall of 2004, using tuition fees, donated equipment and financial support from music lovers, the Pacific Boychoir Academy, or PBA, officially opened its doors on the third floor of Oakland’s First Presbyterian Church.
So what exactly is a choir school, and how does it cultivate young voices while coaching academics?
In many ways, PBA is a normal school, with math, science, humanities, phys ed and languages (Spanish, Latin and German – for singing Bach) that exceed California standards. Students don’t answer teachers in song, as some glib outsiders suggest. However, they do attend one to two hours of individual, sectional or group voice lessons each day, as well as a once-a-week evening rehearsal.
Yet PBA is not only a choir school; it’s a boys choir school — a niche within a niche, as some call it. Being that rare animal, the pace and content of its curriculum are specially geared to the bubbling energy and quirky curiosity that are pure adolescent male. Weimer, who developed the school’s curriculum and teaches all science classes, searches for lab projects that are active, hands-on and, if possible, slimy. A favorite is the school bacteria count. Weimer, a closet Ms. Frizzle, arms the boys with Petri dishes and swabs and lets them loose. They swab everything from floors to toilet seats.
Because the school is small and flexible, it can also adapt its curriculum to upcoming tours. In preparation for their tour to Italy in 2007, boys studied the Roman Empire (particularly the armor) and learned to say per favore and grazie. Before their 2009 tour to South Africa, they built a three-dimensional papier mâché map of Africa, adding details as the itinerary unfolded.
As a small school, PBA is also especially attentive to boys with extra needs. Last year, parent Jill Nesbitt switched her son Julian to PBA from Oakland’s Redwood Day School. Julian, a musically gifted sixth-grader with mild learning differences, was happily attending Redwood Day and participating twice a week in PBA’s after-school program. Switching Julian to the day school allowed him to benefit from the same academic rigor and individual attention available at his former school while developing his special abilities, Nesbitt explains.
“It’s beautiful what they do,” she says. “It gives Julian a wonderful opportunity to be successful, to have discipline in something and feel good about what he’s doing.”
Alameda mother Tyler Sack, who mentors parents of children with learning difficulties, sent her son Matthew to PBA after they attended an open house at the school.
“It’s really clear that PBA’s purpose is excellence,” Sack says. “The kids are learning to do things in music, but the bigger message is, ‘You can be excellent at anything, and here’s how you do it.’ I don’t know of any school doing that on the scale of PBA.”
On tour, the lessons of the classroom come to life. In South Africa, students hiked to a cave where ancient peoples had documented their lives in beautiful burnt-orange petroglyphs. They also visited and sang with children at a center sponsored by the parents of Amy Biehl, a young American civil rights worker killed in the racial violence of the apartheid era.
Sometimes the cross-cultural exchange goes a little too far, students say; PBA lore includes tales of poppyseed-coated pasta in Hungary and boiled cow brains in Argentina. But it also includes stories of songs, music and laughter shared with people halfway across the world along with the acknowledgement that they are fostering a generation of world citizens.
PBA’s educational formula for middle school boys has gained enthusiastic support from the high schools they subsequently attend. PBA graduates have gone on to College Preparatory School, Head-Royce School, the Athenian School, Bentley School, Berkeley High School and Oakland Technical High School.
“They’re terrific, talented and very well prepared,” CPS Head of School Murray Cohen says of his Pacific Boychoir students. “They’re also very confident in themselves through all their performance training.”
And the school is growing. In the six years since its founding, PBA’s enrollment has increased almost eight-fold (to 46 students for fall 2010). A fourth grade has been added, providing another critical year of early-voice training. Tuition fees have risen, but are still very competitive (currently at $15,100, which includes tour fees; by comparison, Redwood Day School 2010-11 tuition is $21,500 and Head-Royce, $23,100). The school has also found more permanent accommodations, settling into the buildings of the former Oakland Hebrew Day School near Piedmont Avenue this past summer.
PBA has not yet reached full accreditation and still suffers the growing pains of a young, idealistic organization (“too few people doing too many things,” as one parent puts it). Like all schools today, whether public or private, it has to hustle to survive. But Fox and the staff see their future as bright, given the increasing popularity of single-gender schools and the musical sophistication of the Bay Area.
“Knowing what a choir school can do, we’ve always believed that its uniqueness and overwhelmingly positive aspects would find resonance here,” Fox says. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but if we can survive the start-up and the recent economy, it shows a lot of resilience.”
At Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light in April 2010, the Pacific Boychoir displayed all the reasons that this young upstart group has received so much critical acclaim. Before a crowd of 700, it rendered a 75-minute a cappella performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. The piece, sung in Russian, is so vocally complex that it is rarely performed in America.
As the boys began, their voices lifted like a flock of birds, filling the air with a hundred invisible threads of harmony. Throughout the entire performance, not one boy lost his way, not one section dropped a note. They dipped and soared together, so well trained they seemed to sing in response to some inner cue.
Choir directors and musicians mobbed Fox after the concert. “Stunning,” “exquisite,” they exclaimed. “I can’t imagine that I will ever hear these pieces more beautifully performed.”
Yes, a really good boys choir creates an amazing sound, and PBA has brought that excellence here to the East Bay.
The Pacific Boychoir Academy is at 215 Ridgeway Avenue, Oakland. For more information about PBA’s day school or after-school programs, please call (510) 652-4722, and speak with managing director Pamela Weimer. Auditions for the after-school program begin in September.