EAST NEW YORK — Valerie Palencia, a third grader at Salve Regina Catholic Academy in East New York, usually sings in the privacy of her home. That will change next spring when she will get the chance to perform before a live audience at one of the city’s most famous cultural institutions: Lincoln Center.
Valerie is one of 50 students at Salve Regina who auditioned for and was accepted into a music education program sponsored by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (YPC) in which the nonprofit arts organization offers singing lessons to students with an eye toward helping their schools create choruses.
The program has been up and running at Salve Regina for only three weeks, but already the children, who range from third grade to eighth grade, are making significant progress in learning to read music and are becoming adept at practicing their scales.
The singing lessons take place every Wednesday after school in Salve Regina’s music room.
On Nov. 15, associate conductor Ahra Cho guided the children through their paces, leading them through warm-up vocal exercises and reviewing what they had learned about reading musical notes. Cho made it a fun afternoon, even playing a game called “Salami,” in which the youngsters sing the notes “Sol-La-Mi” using hand signals.
Valerie was having a great time. “I love the beats and the rhythms,” she said. She asked to audition as soon as she heard that YPC was coming to Salve Regina. “I was happy because I knew this was going to help me,” she said.
Fourth grader Taylor Beasley was also eager to audition for the program and was delighted when she was accepted. “I was happy and felt like I could sing all day long,” she said.
The program is extremely selective. Approximately 150 Salve Regina students auditioned in front of YCP representatives and only 50 were selected.
Salve Regina is one of 20 schools around the city that the YPC is currently working with this school year. The program will culminate at the end of the school year in June, when students from all 20 schools gather to perform at a special concert at Lincoln Center.
Many of the schools YPC is currently working with have no music programs to speak of, said Caitlin Hemmings, director of YPC’s schools program.
“For some of the schools that we work with, we are the music program within the school. We’re really looking to bring that music education experience that we feel is so important to the children. They’re really able to learn a lot through music — express themselves through music and make friends that they might not have made otherwise,” she explained.
Salve Regina came to YPC’s attention because of Iris Bodre, the school’s recruitment and mission development director, who worked with YPC years ago.
In 2021, when Bodre arrived at Salve Regina, Father Brendan Buckley, the pastor of St. Michael-St. Malachy Parish at the time, expressed an interest in bringing more arts education to the school. Salve Regina is associated with St. Michael-St. Malachy Parish.
Bodre put him in touch with YPC representatives and things began from there. Father Buckley has since moved on from St. Michael-St. Malachy Parish.
The chorus program is about more than just learning how to carry a tune, Bodre said. “I am aware that students who perform a music program do better in their other subjects as well,” she explained.
For example, students improve their literacy skills by reading lyric sheets and learning how to correctly pronounce the words. They learn basic math skills by counting the measures in a musical score.
Josiah Campbell, a sixth grader, thinks the program is cool. “I like being able to express myself through music,” he said.
Ursuline Leon, who is in the third grade, said she has always enjoyed singing but feels she can learn more. “I used to [sing] always. But I want to learn new songs,” she explained.
For Bodre, the program is important because it is offering a cultural lifeline to children in East New York, a low-income community. According to the Furman Center at New York University, 19.2% of East New York residents were living below the poverty line in 2021.
“Being able to offer something like this in East New York is not just beneficial for the school and our students. I think it’s beneficial for the whole community,” she said. “It brings awareness to organizations like YPC that we’re here and we’re in need of programming like this to keep kids safe and happy.”