When the voices of a choir come together, they produce a warmth and a power greater than the sum of their parts. "There is something special that happens when you bring people together in music in general—something about the power of the human voice," explains Oakland Youth Chorus Executive Director Keri Butkevich.
The Oakland Youth Chorus (OYC) helps children find that power. The chorus started in 1974 as an effort to unite youth from different neighborhoods of Oakland. It reached across racial, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers to teach musical-performance skills and foster friendships that might not otherwise occur. Today, it serves more than 600 students in 18 school and community sites. In addition to eight K–5 choruses, OYC directs a city-wide Concert Chorus for middle- and high-school students that has won several national awards at Heritage Festivals and sung at the White House.
The school and community choirs are open to anyone who wants to join. Choir directors assess students' current skills and help them grow from there. The students then showcase these skills in performances ranging from city-wide parades to local school recitals. These concerts present a repertoire that includes everything from the Beatles to Panamanian work songs. In addition to reflecting the community of Oakland, these diverse performances help to "extend people's knowledge of music of the world" by incorporating melodies from Russia and Bulgaria, says Keri.
The K–5 choruses, known as Miracle Choruses, frequently use their voices for good, performing at American Cancer Society events or promoting AIDS awareness and urban-farming initiatives. These performances in particular show what choral music can do. Not only can it transform shy children into musicians—it has the "power of bringing people together." And by using their voices for community service, Keri explains, the singers develop "an awareness and appreciation for being part of a movement for positive change."