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Cincinnati Boychoir teaches more than music, and parents like the sound of that

Choir going to South Africa in June 2018
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Mar 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-15 12:00:23-04

A little over a year from now, in June of 2018, 45 members of the Cincinnati Boychoir will travel to South Africa.

In preparation for that trip, all 300 members of the Cincinnati Boychoir will spend the year learning about African chorale traditions and the country's culture. “Lift Every Voice,” the Boychoir's spring concert on April 8, will explore music that has united people in the face of oppression, from South African apartheid to the ongoing American Civil Rights movement.

“In a way, we'll all be traveling all year without ever leaving,” Boychoir Artistic Director Christopher Eanes said.

Travel has become a cornerstone value for the Boychoir, which began in 1965. As the organization passed its 50th anniversary and began planning for the future, Eanes and other leaders realized the choir provided three key things appreciated by the boys, their parents and instructors: personal growth for the boys, the ability to make an impact in the community, and the chance to travel and broaden the boys' perspectives.

Yes, the Boychoir is teaching music and creating quality performances and musicians, but everything happens through the lens of those three goals, Education and Outreach Director KellyAnn Nelson said.

“It matters to the parents that we are creating these high-quality citizens,” Nelson said.

The youngest boys travel locally to sing at local retirement homes and schools, learning how to shake hands and introduce themselves. As they gain musical knowledge and maturity, they graduate to overnight trips and eventually to the two-week trips of the tour choir, which includes boys from fifth through 12th grade.

“Every single one of our boys travels,” Eanes said. “It's very much based on age and level, but we make sure every boy is getting the benefits of travel.”

On tour, the boys do more than just sing and find the nearest pizza place, Eanes said. They are expected to take care of their own belongings and look out for each other. Whether for a cross-town performance or a long tour, older boys are mentors for younger ones.

“It's going through the steps: learning it, doing it, teaching others,”  Eanes said. 

The boys must represent the Boychoir, their families and Cincinnati in a positive light. At home, they learn about the cultural and historical themes of the music they're learning to perform. On tour, they visit museums and often stay with local families.

“You kind of have to do everything for yourself, and it gives you a sense of maturity,” said 15-year-old Paul Allison, who has sung with the Boychoir since he was 11.

“It's changed my life,” Paul said. “Lots of boys think singing is more of a girls' thing, but I think if you like singing, if you're good at it, the Boychoir is the most amazing experience. I've met tons of new people, seen so many places — it's been the time of my life.”

Two years ago, Paul went with the tour choir to Australia. “I didn't even look at his suitcase,” said his mother, Carol Allison. “(The Boychoir) gave him a list of what he needed, and he just did it.” 

Last summer, Paul and the rest of the tour choir traveled through the South, learning about jazz and gospel and the Civil Rights movement. In Memphis, they stopped at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. They also visited Selma, Ala., and the Pettus Bridge.

“It was really cool being in the spots where things happened,” Paul Allison said.

Boys in the choir speak seven different languages at home, and the membership is socioeconomically diverse. While 60 percent of the boys come from families earning more than $100,000 per year, 30 percent come from families earning less than $30,000 annually.

The choir costs between $278 and $375 per semester, with financial aid available. The program provides $20,000 in tuition assistance to students each year. Touring means additional costs. 

Carol Allison said she often recommends the Boychoir to other parents as a program that teaches kids music and necessary life skills such as independence and decision-making. Paul might not make his life in music, Allison said, but he'll always have music in his life and the program has shown him new places, people and opportunities.

“His worldview has been broadened,” Allison said.