As the 48 teens from the Concert Chorus section of the academy train for what will be their first performance at the recently opened venue, Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn, many of them seem unfazed by the pressure to be perfect and to hit every note right.
That's because many of the kids in the program already know what it's like to have collaborated with big names and to undergo intense training of their voices, as well as being trained to understand complex compositions – all prepping them for any future careers they might want to have as a musician.
Headed by Dianne Berkun, who founded the program in 1992, the BYCA is an after school and weekend program offering a full music education curriculum and a voice-based music academy.
“It's about rigorous voice training,” Berkun said. “Students learn how to read music, ear training and other basic musicianship skills.”
The goal is to have students understand that their voice is an instrument, and the complex curriculum enables them to move on to be singers or composers.
They learn with contemporary, classical, pop and indie rock artists, and have performed with notable names such as Elton John and Alicia Keys.
“We enjoy working with artists on both sides and are equally happy doing both,” she said. “There's not a sense that one is more important than the other or that one is more valuable than the other.”
The BYCA takes children from the 2nd to 12th grades, placing them in appropriate levels which begin at the Prep Chorus level and ends at the Concert Chorus or professional-level chorus. There are a total of 365 kids in the program from all parts of the borough.
“They see themselves as musicians because they are musicians, even if they don't play an instrument, they are vocal musicians, they're not just singers,” Berkun said. “The point of the way they are trained here is to maximize their range and their skills and the level of versatility that they have.”
At the end of the day, the broad-based training, Berkun says, helps them decide what kind of artist they want to be if they in fact pursue music.
At the concert chorus level, virtually all students have some baseline appreciation for all genres, she said, noting that by then they are open-minded to the various types of music since it is presented that way to them.
In the last few years, the Grammy-award winning BYCA began taking a more active role in presenting major productions with composers and collaborating artists.
Last year at St. Ann's Warehouse, their three shows were sold out and Berkun says it transformed the way people viewed the chorus.
Berkun loves the new image that the BYCA is creating – one that breaks away from the typical thinking of what a children's chorus is.
“It's normally either the 'P.S. fill in the blank' chorus who sing with great enthusiasm or the boy choir with an angelic choir boy sound,” she said. “We are a versatile multi-stylistic group, not specialized in just one thing.
“Our students can certainly sound like angels but that's one small piece of what they do,” she added, specifically referring to the concert chorus group. “People don't know what to expect from our chorus because it's not anything that they've heard before. They haven't seen that children and teens can sing music of such enormous complexity and sophistication, and when they hear it are blown away by it.”
Berkun noted that the lower-level students all receive training in every genre before they can wow audiences with their range at the Concert Chorus level.
And another goal, she said, is to create an identity for the chorus through the music they sing and to have that music be really reflective of who the singers are.
“We're incredibly diverse, we represent virtually every neighborhood in Brooklyn,” she said.
The BYCA is currently headquartered in Cobble Hill, but launched an annex program out of the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation this year to make it more accessible to families who live further out in Brooklyn.
It is something Berkun hopes will expand slightly next year. She also hopes to add additional locations as they grow. The BYCA also started doing work in nearby public schools, including P.S. 15 in Red Hook.
The most important thing a child needs to have to join the BYCA is a love of singing.
“That's it – a kid who really wants to sing has really good chance that they will get in,” Berkun said.
“When kids come in we don't expect them to have experience or background; some of them have natural ability but it's not really a prerequisite.”
On Saturday, May 19, at 7:30 p.m. the BYCA will perform five works that have been written and arranged especially for them in the last year by prominent indie-classical composers, including three world premieres.
On May 31-June 2, they will perform with the NY Philharmonic as they present Carmina Burana at Avery FisherHall at Lincoln Center. On June 26 the BYCA will perform Paola Prestini’s stirring Oceanic Verses, a series of tableaux, at World Financial Center, Winter Garden.