Opera Philadelphia

T-VOCE Unites Philly Students for Spring Performance

By Aubrey Nagle

Papers shuffle in and out of folders. Pens scrawl across nametags. Feet shuffle into rows of chairs. Hellos echo through the room. 

It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny spring Saturday. Many Philadelphia teens are groggily rubbing their eyes as they eat breakfast or, better yet, still asleep in their beds. But for a select group of dedicated, passionate students, 10 a.m. on a Saturday means one thing: rehearsal.

The Teen Voices of the City Ensemble, or T-VOCE, a new initiative launched by Opera Philadelphia in partnership with Art Sanctuary and the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, meets each Saturday morning to practice, learn and – most importantly – have some fun with music. Now in its first year, this all-city youth choir is composed of students in grades 8-12 who live in Philadelphia, many of whom have no prior performance or musical experience because their schools lack music education. 

Credit: Phillip Todd

It’s no coincidence the choir’s name, T-VOCE, is derived from the Italian word for voice: the ensemble is all about empowering Philly youth to express themselves through spoken word and song. Using writing prompts to guide them, the teens turn their personal lives into artistic expression, bravely sharing original poetry with the rest of the class – always to rapturous snaps and applause. Some may stand up and sing a solo tune, while shyer members form a captive audience until choral practice takes the spotlight. All walk away having participated in a supportive, creative environment.

Though T-VOCE will host its first public performance Thursday, June 2 at the Annenberg Center, the dream of a choral ensemble driven by youth empowerment was long in the making. It all started during a casual Starbucks brainstorming session between Michael Bolton, Opera Philadelphia’s Vice President of Community Programs, and Valerie Gay, the Executive Director of Art Sanctuary. They were hoping to find a way to bring more music to their successful afterschool arts-immersion program Hip H’opera.  If Hip H’opera could bring visual and performing arts to students at its three anchor schools - South Philadelphia High School, Master Charter Lenfest and Esperanza Academy - how could they bring music, particularly vocal music, to those schools and schools across the city?  

With dreams of an all-city choir, they approached Holly Phares about leading such a group two years ago - when “that little dream was just a dream seed,” she says.

Credit: Phillip Todd

Today, Phares, a lifelong musician and a professional educator, is choral director to about 20 students from across the city, leading them through vocal training, poetry exercises and rehearsal each week. Though it can be challenging to nurture a choir of students with varying musical backgrounds, she knows how important it is to make such opportunities available for young people.

“It’s about the kids. We have to make it exciting for the kids,” Phares said. “The way I got into music, the way I got into singing in choirs and teaching, was that when I was their age I given amazing opportunities.” 

The ensemble’s upcoming spring recital will take place in conjunction with the Philadelphia International Children’s Festival. T-VOCE will perform choral music – including a major crowd-pleaser from “RENT” – as well as spoken word poetry, and The Esperanza Academy Dance Ensemble will also share their talents with the crowd. (Tickets are just $10 and are available online.) The students partaking in the event come from many different neighborhoods and schools, representing a rich cross-section of Philadelphians.

But the flourishing, diverse ensemble is just the beginning for T-VOCE. As the program continues to grow, Opera Philadelphia hopes to reach even more teens whose school music programs are sorely lacking.

“I hope that we’ve created an energy and inspired teachers, parents and students to want more of this,” Phares said. “I hope that indeed we can obtain the funding to keep it as a viable, high-quality program to give these kids and more kids in this city the opportunity to create art together beautifully in beautiful places so it does give them an opportunity to see what they’re capable of beyond the school day, beyond their neighborhood.”

As for the students already taking part in the program, its benefits can be seen in the smiles on their faces and the applause heard between each shared tale.

T-VOCE is sponsored by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wyncote Foundation.

Opera Philadelphia thanks Holly Phares, pianist Ting Ting Wong, Art Sanctuary, the staff of the Annenberg Center and our many vital volunteers for making this programming possible.

Do you know a teen that would like to join T-VOCE? Click here for more information.

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