In 1993, vocal music instructor Eleanor Stewart assembled a choir for elementary school boys. What started as a love for music and a subtle attempt to keep young men of color positively engaged blossomed decades later into one of the premier youth choirs in the nation.
This month, Stewart and the choir will be performing at the American Celebration of Music in South Africa, adding to the long list of places the choir has blessed with its musical charm, including China, England, Austria and Italy.
For some participants, it will be their first time traveling out of the country.
“I’m super-excited about South Africa because I’ve never been there before,” choir member Christopher Nash told The Informer. “I can’t wait to see the culture, what they do there, what they eat and what kinds of music they listen to.”
Joining the D.C. public schools system in 1967, Stewart was instantly infatuated with teaching the children how to read, consume and perform music. Starting with 25 boys, she proudly named them the D.C. Boys Choir.
“Many of them say to me, ‘You’re like my mother,” Stewart said matter-of-factly. “Besides teaching them music, I try to teach them what it means to succeed, have manners and stay out of trouble.”
Stewart teaches her choir members how to dissect music and is enthusiastic about all the different voices they bring to the table, ranging from soprano to bass.
The choir has received countless awards and recognition over the years, including the 1993 Mayor’s Youth Initiative Grant, 2005-2006 Grant from Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Justice Department, the Martin Luther King Jr. Living the Dream Award and the Foundation for the Advancement of Music and Education Award.
Stewart’s effort goes far beyond their polished rehearsal space at St. Paul’s Center. Each of the choir members works on core program goals set by Stewart that lend themselves to character-building and academia.
Among those goals: to develop positive social and cultural experiences which facilitate alternatives for understanding and respecting cultural and ethnic differences, to reinforce academic skills in reading through interpretation of text and vocabulary expansion; and to reinforce academic skills in mathematics by enabling the boys to demonstrate their understanding of rhythm, note and rest duration, and meter signatures.
Thomas Nash, 21, who joined the choir in only the fourth grade, has immense gratitude for Stewart.
“I sing with Lincoln University’s choir in Pennsylvania and received a scholarship because of Ms. Stewart,” Nash said. “She wrote my letter of recommendation to the choir director there.”
To learn more about the D.C. Boys Choir, auditions, performances and to donate to their upcoming trip to South Africa, go to dcboyschoir.org.