Music program provides structure

Local children sing at several concerts and events throughout the year.

by Daniel Groth

About 40 inner-city youths from the Twin Cities shuffled into the Rondo Education Center music room after school Tuesday while their choir director urged them to focus.

“Why are you looking at your music? The audience is out there,” yelled director Cheryl Reeves as the kids swayed back and forth, singing “It’s time to celebrate the simple people Ö”

The students, fourth- through eighth-graders, are part of CitySongs, a choir and social education program developed by University social work professor Helen Kivnick in 1992.

The program, which is free and does not require auditions, is a collaborative effort among the School of Social Work, the College of Education and Human Development and the Hallie Q. Brown-Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul.

The choir will present its fifteenth annual winter concert, “Hope is Bright, Be the Light,” at 4 p.m. Sunday at Camphor United Methodists Church in St. Paul.

CitySongs grew out of Kivnick’s experience studying the role of music in South Africa from 1983 to1990.

“I was so incredibly impressed by how much singing contributed to black life (in South Africa) and how close to bloodless revolution it was,” she said. “Some of the black leaders there told me, ‘When you go back, take what you learned here and do something with it.’ So I did.”

Kivnick said she started CitySongs to help inner-city children reach their full potential and to promote community development through music.

“Kids have to learn how to solve problems, they have to learn how to think, they have to learn how to pay attention when they’d rather not,” she said. “With CitySongs, they learn these skills in the context of something they really care about – music.”

Some alumni of the program have gone on to succeed in college – some of them as music majors.

“The kids wind up doing things they thought they never could do and feeling incredibly proud of themselves,” Kivnick said. “The program is strength-based, so we work with

kids based on what they’re good at and what they love to do, as opposed to first regarding them as having problems.”

Choir member Isabelle Miller, 9, said she participates in the program because it makes her feel good about herself.

“(CitySongs) is fun and it’s a good way to get my self-esteem up,” she said. “I have lots of friends here, and I don’t have a lot of other friends.”

Twelve-year-old member Nzinga French said she attends because the group “works as a community,” and she enjoys singing and meeting new people. French also writes spoken-word poetry and presents it at some concerts.

CitySongs promotes healthy youth development through music, weaving a vibrant multicultural community, Kivnick said.

The choir’s repertoire focuses on messages of positive social change.

“All the songs we sing are about peace and justice, creating a better world to live in and erasing racism,” said Hayley Hontos, the operations and development director. “We are teaching these kids that they can make a difference through their voices.”

The kids don’t just sing about social issues, they also talk about them. Halfway into each rehearsal, the children split into small groups for “social work education time.” During this period, graduate students from the School of Social Work facilitate discussion about developing as an individual and as a group.

“They talk about what they’re singing in the songs and how they can apply it to their daily lives,” Hontos said. “At least once a year, they talk about how racism affects them.”

Kivnick said CitySongs is uplifting not only for the children involved but for all who see the choir perform.

“A member of the audience at one of our recent performances told us that the experience inspired her to make the world a better place,” she said. “She ended up joining the board of CitySongs.”

The upcoming CitySongs concert is a rarity because the group only has two full-length concerts a year.

where to go

Hope is Bright, Be the Light
WHAT: CitySong’s 15th annual winter concert. Admission is free, but guests are asked to bring warm winter donations for the Tubman Family Alliance.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Camphor United Methodist Church, 585 Fuller Ave., St. Paul

“We perform about 20 times a year, but it’s usually at other people’s events,” Kivnick said. “This concert features just the kids.”

The event is free, but CitySongs asks attendees to bring a warm winter item for donation to the Tubman Family Alliance, a family violence prevention program that serves residents in Ramsey, Washington and Hennepin counties.

“In addition to enabling the kids to metaphorically spread their light at the concert,” Kivnick said, “we’ll also be able to spread warmth among the folks at the Tubman Shelter.”