Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
New York, NY –
There’s a program in the Highbridge Section of the Bronx where kids spend hours after school learning to perform in a classical music choir – and get help with school work. High Bridge Voices is largely regarded as a success but that hasn’t spared it from an uncertain financial future, given a steep drop in donations. WNYC’s Cindy Rodriguez has this report:
REPORTER: On a recent Friday afternoon, the kids of High Bridge Voices were eating pizza at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park :
REPORTER: Bruno Casolari is the founder of High Bridge Voices.
REPORTER: He often takes the choir on field trips while school is out. The 42 year old is earnest, attentive and most of all serious about the choir:
CASOLARI: All of the vocal teachers on staff are graduates of Juilliard, Manhattan School. The sound, the quality of sound which we are trying to create is very much based on St. Thomas Boy’s Choir, the Vienna Boy’s Choir kind of sound. Even though we are a boys and girls choir.
REPORTER: 67 kids between the ages of 9 and 17 sing in the choir. About 20 more younger kids are part of a choir in training. According to Casolari, all of them qualify for free or reduced lunch -- another way of saying their families live in poverty, or near poverty. The choir director says the program has been able to help the students who have the basics and just need extra help:
CASOLARI: Our capacity is going from that two range to the three and the four. That’s where we are successful.
REPORTER: A score of three or four means a student is meeting or exceeding state standards. Casolari says the ultimate goal is to see kids off to college. Between 2006 and 2009 he says 19 out of 25 choir members enrolled in college.
REPORTER: While academics are important so is the singing. Casolari says the kids sing a steady diet of Shubert and Italian classics, but they also sing songs from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. And there’s also an occasional R&B hit such as R Kelly’s "I Believe I Can Fly". Pablo Quezada demonsrates:
QUEZADA: “I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky.”
REPORTER: This soft voiced 12-year-old with straight black hair that hangs in his face says he never gets nervous and enjoys an audience. There are no solos in the choir. The kids say Casolari often tells them they are a we group, not a me group. 15-year-old Robert Cortijo explains:
CORTIJO: It’s all about all of us we all work together. The tenor section works together, the soprano section works together, the alto section works together.
REPORTER: Cortijo has been part of the choir since he was 5 years old. And while some kids favor more modern songs, he favors operas and says a recent performance by his voice coach made him want to sing opera himself:
CORTIJO; She was singing a solo in the Magic Flute and I just heard that last note that was like it was the gym so that the echo itself was like amazing. The whole room was like quiet and you just heard that one voice and it was like, I can’t even explain I just love it.
REPORTER: The choir program is demanding. The kids go there directly after school and stay until 6:30 five days a week. 10-year-old Roslyn Lopez is an alto in the group.
LOPEZ: We rehearse on Wednesdays and Fridays and on Saturdays chamber choir rehearses and on Tuesday and Thursday we learn about theory classes, music history and we do homework sessions.
REPORTER: But these days the homework help is less intensive. Bruno Casolari says he’s had to lay off eight people since October. Funding has dropped over the last few years and when the recession hit things got much worse. Casolari says foundation funding plummeted 60 percent.
BELL: We have not been able to help him due to the 30 percent drop in our assets.
REPORTER: Chris Bell is from the Pinkerton Foundation, a regular Highbridge Voices funder since 1998. Bell says the choir isn’t actually up for funding until 2010 but Casolari came to him early and so have many other non-profits:
BELL: A lot of the,m or most of them, have called in just to see if we are able to help them. So there are a lot of High Bridge Voices and Bruno Casolari’s out there.
REPORTER: And there are also a lot of Pinkertons out there. According to a survey of 1200 mid to large foundations by the Foundation Center, giving was down between 8 to 13 percent so far this year. Research Director Steven Lawrence says that’s not bad considering their assets were down about 22 percent. But things don’t look much better going forward.
LAWRENCE: Well what we expect is there is going to be a continued decline in 2010 at this point we really couldn’t say by how much.
REPORTER: At its most recent fundraiser, High Bridge Voices raised more money than usual from individual donors and that will allow them to remain open through the first half of the year. Casolari says the spring semester and beyond are still up in the air.
CASOLARI: I don’t doubt that we will exist. I question the quantity and quality of services that we can offer.
REPORTER: For now though, the kids of high bridge voices continue to sing.
For WNYC, I’m Cindy Rodriguez