Three days after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 students and six teachers, 30 kids walked onstage at the Carrboro rock club Cat's Cradle. They stood on creaky bleachers, wearing ordinary outfits of jeans and sweaters. Ranging in age from 14 to 18, they'd come from Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro after rehearsing for this moment for months.
When they began their version of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" an attentive hush crept across the crowd. "Is there only pain, hatred and misery?" they sang. "And where is the harmony? Sweet harmony."
The irony was agonizing: Across the country, there were wringing hands, exhausted tears. Here, in a pool of stage lights, kids from disparate backgrounds raised their voices in, as Lowe might have put it, sweet harmony.
The Chorus Project, which took to the Cradle's stage that night in December, is just one of many local organizations that fosters creativity and its corollaries in area students. Organizers and volunteers pour time and resources into programs that develop arts potential while instilling values such as leadership, commitment and self-empowerment. From the spoken word of Sacrificial Poets to the choreography of the N.C. Youth Tap Ensemble, from capoeira at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro to a bevy of summer studio workshops at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, the choices are wide and welcoming.
Similar music programs provide unique opportunities for area children to learn basic and sometimes advanced theory while developing social skills and friendships—something that prohibitively expensive private lessons generally preclude. In particular, The Chorus Project, Girls Rock NC and KidZNotes showcase the range of both opportunities and impacts that such organizations can have.
During his first 100 days in office, North Carolina's new governor, Pat McCrory, suggested that a liberal arts education is a stepping stone from a classroom to a basement bedroom at Mom and Dad's house. His recent budget could weaken already threatened arts funding and prompt deep cuts for cultural resources. Those include N.C. Arts Council grants and aid for public libraries, as well as funds for institutions such the Museum of Art and the N.C. Symphony.
But educators like those involved in The Chorus Project offer a compelling counter-narrative. Their passion for the arts has translated into a dogged entrepreneurial spirit that relies on public funding, private donations and networks of volunteers.
In years to come, that hustle could become much more vital.
"Singing together just breaks down barriers," explains Lauren Bromley Hodge, founder of The Chorus Project. "It creates community."
She should know: She's been active in the music industry since she attended college in London in 1979. Hodge's long career in the record business stretches from managing bands to brokering deals with labels, such as Rough Trade and One Little Indian, and with acts, including The Smiths and Björk.
"The funny thing is that everything I'm doing now, at this age, pulls together everything I know how to do," she says.
Hodge, 52, is the directorial force behind the Community Chorus Project, an arts-based company that makes group-singing its cause. The flagship Chorus Project is a year-round program that brings together the best high school singers in the Triangle and immerses them in ambitious rearrangements of popular songs.
In 2011, The Chorus Project earned an Innovation Fund grant from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Institute for the Arts & Humanities. Terry Rhodes, then the chairwoman of the school's music department, saw The Chorus Project as an opportunity to create a roadmap from the community to the university for prospective students.
The two schemed to build a summer camp, which became a two-weekend musical theater clinic for 75 students. The students worked with vocal instructors, actors and dancers and put on a revue at the end. With the help of a few professional musicians, the high school kids even licensed, arranged and recorded two tunes—"Rolling in the Deep" by Adele and R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts"—at the area's new multimedia bastion, Manifold Studios. R.E.M. posted an endorsement of the version.
"It was a really affirming first step," remembers Hodge.
Chorus director Seamus Kenney was the next step. As an in-demand local musician, longtime rock bandleader and middle school chorus instructor, he had a strangely perfect skill set for The Chorus Project. These days, Kenney likes calling himself the director of a rock 'n' roll chorus, but he bristles at any mention of Glee when explaining the program's identity.
"We have the best schools in the state so we have some of the most talented kids in the state," he says. "What we try to do is offer them something they can't get anywhere else and really that comes down to our recording workshop."
In the workshop, students spend a week working a songbook that has included indie favorites such as The Arcade Fire and Band of Horses and classic cuts from The Jackson 5 and Nick Lowe. Guest arrangers like Ari Picker of Lost in the Trees and Phil Cook of Megafaun join the students to help build the interpretation; meanwhile, they take classes on subjects such as harmony, taught by musicians like The Old Ceremony's Django Haskins. The process puts them within a wide creative community.
"It's very family building," explains Malia Tan, 17, who soloed on last year's Band of Horses track.
Another soloist, Aubrie Phillips, 18, says that the program helped her validate the musical part of her mind. "It was a big confidence boost," she acknowledges. "There were just so many opportunities to perform."
Talking with the students, there's frequent mention of a new "oneness" with music, if still a hesitancy to pursue it. "I'm never going to stop singing," says Wilson Plonk, 14, though he's currently interested in studying psychoneurology when he grows up.
Again, this is where The Chorus Project hopes to come in by empowering kids to recognize their potential and introducing them to professionals who can help them express it.
"It's our mission to change their minds," says Hodge. "Even though this is such an incredibly rich area for the arts, sometimes culturally there's too much emphasis on kids for striving in all areas. There are lots of different roadblocks, so where I can do something with all the different people I'm working with to help young people decide to become musicians or decide to become actors or decide to become studio engineers or decide to become whatever aspect they really attach to, then that for me is a good day's work."
"Golden Horn, magic powers/unicorn of the sea," goes the hook from "Golden Horn," a song written by The Narwhals, a short-lived band that was once part of Girls Rock NC.
Singing about a rare sea creature may seem silly, but Girls Rock NC's creative director, Heather McEntire, hears something else in those lines.
"When you have a young girl who feels empowered enough to write her own lyrics at 9 years old about whatever it is going on emotionally in her mind, which she may not understand," says McEntire, "it's what she's feeling. Giving them the freedom just to explore whatever is going on, I think that's important."
That is the core principle behind Girls Rock NC, a nonprofit that works to empower women and young girls to, quite simply, express themselves. Founded in 2003, Girls Rock NC is the third such program in the world. The original Rock 'n' Roll Camp For Girls began in Portland, Ore., in 2001. Since then, the Girls Rock Camp Alliance has blossomed to 43 such camps in eight countries. All of them hope to build self-esteem through music education and social justice workshops.
"We aren't about music theory," says the local chapter's director of operations, Hannah Shaw. "We're about teaching girls to express themselves however they want, even if that's just getting onstage and making a ton of noise."
Along with three other staff members and a six-member board, Shaw develops a year-round program that includes after-school workshops, summer camps and special retreats for women who want to play music in adulthood. Rock Camp itself is for girls ages 7 to 16. The group conducts separate camps in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, hosting 40 girls for a week of instrument and songwriting instruction, plus various workshops with activists and community leaders.
"We have a self-defense workshop, a body confidence workshop, a workshop about gender, a workshop about DIY zine making," says Shaw. She teaches a gender and pop culture section.
McEntire also leads the alt-country band Mount Moriah, which uses old country templates to deal with issues such as her bisexuality, the proscriptive moralism of religion, and the high contrast between antiquity and progress in the South. It took her decades to write those very intimate songs; for her, Girls Rock NC feels like an extension of her band's ideals.
"We talk about how it's this very clever front for teaching about empowerment and feminism and confidence. A lot of them, they'll probably look back when they're older and be like, 'Oh, I see what they did,'" says McEntire. "I think I never had anything like that growing up."
"Inherent to classical music is size," explains Katie Wyatt, who directs the Durham initiative KidZNotes. "So you need 100 people in order to make an orchestra."
That requirement has helped KidZNotes make a significant impact in several East Durham schools. By providing free instruments and music lessons, the organizers first engage children musically and then work to nurture skills and values that translate back to school.
Wyatt is a classically trained violist. She spent years working as a musician and music educator, most recently as director of community involvement for the North Carolina Symphony. She became enamored with El Sistema, a publicly financed Venezuelan program that puts instruments into the hands of some of the country's poorest children. They fight poverty with music, and it's worked, leading to the development of the world-renowned National Youth Orchestra.
"The whole idea of El Sistema is that the orchestra is a metaphor for a community where each person has very different jobs and very different responsibilities, but everyone's responsible for doing it very well and being prepared and inspiring one another and loving one another," says Wyatt. "For me, music is about changing the way people think and changing the way we all make decisions. I'm more passionate about building great societies than I am about playing the viola."
Wyatt attended a Sistema Fellows program in 2010; upon returning, she started KidZNotes and found a community that was hungry for such a program. In 2011, the organization served 60 kids in three schools. Now, in only its third year, they've upped that number to 200 in five schools.
KidZNotes has taken on a number of partners, but Wyatt says that Durham Public Schools has been especially supportive by helping organizers secure practice space and transportation, even covering the salaries for music educators who stay late to teach in the program. "Durham Public Schools has said, 'This is what we want to invest in. This is one of the programs we believe in,'" explains Jennifer Blank, KidZNotes' marketing manager.
Teachers and students commit to a 10-hour-per-week rehearsal schedule. Kids in kindergarten and first grade attend Mozart sections in their schools, where they learn the basics of violin. Those in and beyond the second grade break out to be trained in other orchestral instruments.
The commitment has apparently rubbed off: Early benchmark data shows that 83 percent of KidZNotes kids are A or B students compared with 34 percent of those not associated. Wyatt reckons those numbers indicate that these programs have a clear reach beyond simply teaching scales and how to write ditties. For that reason, she hopes KidZNotes and its ilk will grow and help more students who need it.
"Ten years from now, I would love to see at least two very healthy organizations in Durham and in Raleigh," she says. "Ten years from now, the kids would be 18, so they would be getting into college on college scholarships. That our kids could be able to go to whatever school they want to on an instrument scholarship, then do whatever they want to do once they get to college: Doing that kind of stuff, that's what I'd love to see."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The major lift."