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Anthony Trecek-King: How are we talking with our young students about mental health issues? Depression, how are we talking about domestic situations? Is there abuse that’s going on? We’re often not. We’re kinda glazing over it and speaking around it. But they need to be having these conversations because, guess what? They’re experiencing it.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and this is “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Joining us today is Anthony Trecek-King. He is the president and artistic director of the Boston Children’s Chorus. Thanks for joining us today.
Anthony Trecek-King: Yeah.
Anita Walker: First of all, tell me a little about you. How did you get into this work?
Anthony Trecek-King: Oh, that’s– what a great question, I guess. It’s a long convoluted path but I always knew that I wanted to be in music. And I took a path through engineering to kinda get here and actually ran away from music. But music is– I always believed music is one of those things that you have to do. And, if you want to do it, then you might not make it. But if you have to do it, like it’s a must for you– and I tried to run away from it several times and it kept pulling me back. So now I’m in it and I’m in it to stay and absolutely enjoying it and, yeah, <inaudible>.
Anita Walker: How long have you been with the children’s chorus?
Anthony Trecek-King: Actually this is year 10 for me. Tenth anniversary, I’m very excited about that.
Anita Walker: So talk to us a little about the chorus. It’s more than music, isn’t it?
Anthony Trecek-King: It is. So the chorus was founded just over 13 years ago by a social worker named Hubie Jones who’s a legend here in Boston. And it was with the express intent to use music as a catalyst to create social change. So, while we certainly sing, and I think it’s an excellent chorus and we have a great time learning about music, but we also take time to discuss and learn about our differences and how we can work together to become a more creative and collective community together, I think. So it’s a fantastic organization to be part of.
Anita Walker: Why is music such an effective platform for that, for social justice and social change?
Anthony Trecek-King: Right, well, I think with music in particular, A) so many cultures are involved in music. So it touches everybody. So everybody has some connection to music in some way and, for us, singing is actually our vehicle. So I think even further, whether– instrumented music can be limiting in some ways but with singing so many different cultures sing. And so, for us, it’s easy to get everybody in the same room. So I think that’s number one. The second thing with music is it accesses our emotions in a different way and it puts us in a different state of mind when you’re working on this common goal of singing together rather than a competition. It’s something that’s very collaborative, that is positive all the way through. And so, when we sing songs about difficult topics or whatever, it then opens up the conversation and, when you open up the conversation, then that’s where you’re really starting to make groundwork and tread in this area of social justice.
Anita Walker: So tell me some stories about the kids in the chorus. Where do they come from and what brings them to singing in this way?
Anthony Trecek-King: Well, they come from over 120 different zip codes, so they’re actually from a wide array of areas in the Massachusetts– but also we actually have drawn a student from Maine and a student from Rhode Island as well. So it’s certainly getting out there. That’s unusual, of course, but– and they cross at socioeconomic levels. They cross the, certainly, different ethnicities and religious backgrounds and that sorta thing. So we purposely try and create a very diverse environment in every one of our 13 choirs, so that way there is somebody that is different than you in each group. And it’s just– it’s really quite wonderful. We have kids that are extremely high achievers in their schools, and, I mean, we had somebody working on cancer research, which I think is absolutely amazing. But we have other kids who come from more disadvantaged situations where this is their one real outlet to be positive and have positive role models and positive peer experiences and things like that. So it’s been pretty incredible. I mean, to tell you– not to get on a tragic side of things but one of the questions I always ask each year is, if you had to protest something, what would you protest? ‘Cause we want the kids to be active in to go ahead and speak out when they see something’s wrong. And one of the singers said that he wanted to protest gun violence because he had a couple of his friends that were killed. And the room– you could feel that in the room, how everybody at that moment, everybody, was then affected by gun violence. So, even the child that lives out in Bedford or Wellesley, they all of a sudden were affected by gun violence. And that kind of equal status, that equal perception of reality is something that we work for and try to cultivate in every one of our singers. Because, from there then, there’s understanding that can begin to happen. We understand why today you’re in a very bad mood, and those sorts of things. And so that’s what we try and cultivate and those are some of the students. I mean, I can tell you all kinds of stories. They’re not always…
Anita Walker: Tell us another one.
Anthony Trecek-King: <Inaudible> I should probably pick positive stories.
Anita Walker: Well, real stories that are reflective of the kids and what their facing, and what they bring when they come to the chorus.
Anthony Trecek-King: Right, well, I’ll tell you of a singer who was from Lincoln Sudbury and she joined the chorus in high school. So she hadn’t been with us since she was seven. And I asked her, “How has this affected you?,” and she said, “Well, actually, I mean, it’s affected me absolutely no question, but it’s affected my family. My mother, who thought that she was very open to others and different people didn’t realize some of her barriers that she had until I came home and started talking about what we were talking about in chorus.” And so, because of the child’s participation in BCC, the parents are now more open and now more able to traverse different areas and different ethnicities and different racial subgroups. And so I think that, to me, is fantastic. I mean, that’s– we wanna affect the kids certainly but we want it to spread out beyond that, so that the parents are being affected and the wider community. ‘Cause, again, the goal was to use music as the catalyst to create social change. And social change is such a big thing, so how do we do that? And so this is one example of how it happens.
Anita Walker: When you think about the music that the kids are gonna be performing? Does social justice come into play in your musical selections?
Anthony Trecek-King: It does. It absolutely does. I like to pick music that makes us all think. And I end up having to have a lotta music written for the chorus or make arrangements of songs and music. Because the choral mode can be seen as a very religious, particularly a Christian faith, world. It’s got a rich tradition there but that doesn’t speak to everybody. And so we’re looking at how can we maybe secularize some of our issues. Not ignoring but find other texts and things like that to talk about. So I absolutely think about social justice. We’re singing a song now titled “Home” and it’s sung from the child’s perspective. So it’s a very youthful sounding kinda bouncy-like sing-songy thing. But the child’s mother is clinically depressed and so we’re hearing the child’s perspective of the mom who’s clinically depressed. And, throughout the song, there’s these flashes of reality where there’s a gun and the mother is maybe knocked out from overdosing on drugs. And the child is like, “Look, I can make something happy. I’m the reason why you should be happy.” And it’s gut-wrenching, right. I’m almost in tears talking about it. That’s a song I choose to sing with our kids because there’s so much in there that needs to be discussed. How are we talking with our young students about mental health issues, depression? How are we talking about domestic situation? Is there abuse that’s going on? We’re often not. We’re kinda glazing over it and speaking around it. But they need to be having these conversations because, guess what? They’re experiencing it. They’re experiencing it and so therefore it allows us to then bring it to the forefront and we absolutely sit down and then talk about it.
Anita Walker: Listening to you, I feel like one would expect that the kids go to the Boston Children’s Chorus and they reflect back to your baton. But what I’m hearing is that you’re absorbing from the kids what’s meaningful to them, what they’re going through in their life. And then you’re providing sort of food through music for them to work through it.
Anthony Trecek-King: Right, well, to me, conducting is a democracy. It’s not a dictatorship, and I know that that doesn’t always resonate with everybody.
Anita Walker: Not every musician thinks that’s so.
Anthony Trecek-King: No, I agree. Well, the important thing is that ensembles don’t need conductors but conductors need ensembles. And so I can’t conduct without there being people in front of me but they can sing without me. And so you gotta keep that in mind but it’s a democracy and I think that we’re in this together. And, even more so, the ensemble is theirs. They present the issues. They present what they wanna talk about, what’s on their mind, and I just try to help facilitate conversations. That’s really what I see my role is, as a facilitator more than anything else.
Anita Walker: I nearly teared up when you just described that song. I mean, that’s just…
Anthony Trecek-King: Yeah, it’s powerful.
Anita Walker: But that is real in the lives of these kids. Something tells me that they are in a better position to cope with these difficult issues, through music and through conversation, than maybe the adults in the room.
Anthony Trecek-King: That’s probably true. I mean, last June we did a session at a conference, a choral directors’ conference, where the kids and the participants join in a conversation. We have lots of conversations and I think we have conversations on tough topics and we’re able to do it because we’ve created a safe space. We’ve created equal status amongst the students and so on, and there’s a rapport that’s there. But we wanted to show the world how we have these conversations. So we had a conversation the– unfortunately the shootings in South Carolina just happened. So we had a conversation about South Carolina with our kids and the participants. And, when it was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room and we really feel like we accomplished something. But the kids were the inspiration and they actually showed the adults that it’s okay to have this conversation and it’s okay to be real and not to worry about hurting anybody’s feelings but just get out what’s on your chest. Get out what’s on your mind and that’s the only way we can talk about it. We’re kinda forcing ourselves into thinking that the colorblind society is the right society. But that’s such a huge mistake. We don’t want our kids, we don’t want our adults, to be colorblind because, when that happens you’re devaluing color. We wanna instead be a society that sees and values color, sees and values differences. And what we’re trying to do in the chorus is to give them the platform to see and value those differences. I’ll give you a fun story. It was about two weeks into rehearsal this year. I was noticing some social dynamics that wasn’t conducive to our goals within the ensemble, which is natural. It’s a new group of kids. They’re– don’t quite know each other and so what…
Anita Walker: All right, be specific. “Social dynamics not conducive to our goals?”
Anthony Trecek-King: Okay, so in other words, you had all the black kids going over here. You had all the Asian kids going over here. You had all the white kids from the suburbs going over here. And they weren’t necessarily mixing. And, again, it’s natural because, as human beings, what we do is we find kinda the easy. What’s– that’s similar. Let me find what’s like, who’s like, me ‘cause that’s easy and it’s hard to cross those barriers. So I decided, “Okay, great. I’ve gotta deal with this head on,” but I dealt with it head on in a weird way. We started talking about hair and it was a group of all girls and we started talking about hair and what people have to go through to fix their hair on a day-to-day basis. And there’s such a radical difference of how that happens that, naturally, culture started bubbling up and cultural appropriation started bubbling up. And then cultural understanding started bubbling up, all through this conversation that started with hair. And the question was with me. They asked me, “Did you ever have a fro?” I said, “Yes, I did but I have good hair,” and I said, “But you don’t know what that means, do you? So let me explain what good hair means.” And so we had this long conversation about that and started jumping in, and it was just– it was wonderful. And, when it was all over I heard from parents, “My child learned a tremens– just loved the discussion today and they learned. They couldn’t stop talking about it.” And now those barriers are gone because we talked about hair. Now they wanna talk to each other about everything.
Anita Walker: So do conversations like that make better music or does music make better conversations like that?
Anthony Trecek-King: Yes. It’s both, I think. So it’s an investment in time and any time that you take away from the music, it could be seen as a distraction. But I’ve seen that the knock on young singers is that they can’t emotionally connect to the music that they’re singing. But, by having these conversations, they’re emotionally connected to the music that we’re singing, and, therefore, the performances are more authentic. They’re more from the gut and not so much from the head and you can see it on their faces and their bodies. So it’s worth the investment to build a better community. Beside that, they listen to each other better. Just as a singer, you have to listen. That’s your number one job is to listen. And, when you care about the person next to you and in front of you, you’re gonna listen to ‘em and be more sensitive to those kinda non-verbal cues that happens in performances. So it’s such a blessing to do this. It really is. It’s absolutely fantastic.
Anita Walker: So I have to ask you. Can anybody sing?
Anthony Trecek-King: I believe the answer is yes. I do. There are an occasional person who can’t and there’s a spectrum. But I believe that most people can sing. The vast majority of people can sing. It’s just a matter of learning how.
Anita Walker: There is such a growth in choruses in general.
Anthony Trecek-King: Correct.
Anita Walker: Not just children’s choruses but adult choruses and community choruses. It feels like that could be a step in the right direction for our society. Do you think?
Anthony Trecek-King: I do because there’s something very communal about this. People love to sing and they love to be part of a greater community working towards a common goal of giving a great performance. Yeah, I mean, there’s millions of people that sing around the country and maybe we just need to have more people listen to the singers.
Anita Walker: So 10 years you’ve been with the Boston Children’s Chorus.
Anthony Trecek-King: Yes.
Anita Walker: So it’s always interesting at these birthdays with a zero at the end of ‘em them to both reflect where we’ve come in the last 10 years and how have things changed in the whole context of this children’s chorus. Also where do you wanna go?
Anthony Trecek-King: Oh, that’s a great question. Yeah, I’ve certainly been reflecting on what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished in the last 10 years. I think that we’ve been consistently ahead of what I thought we could accomplish in the timespan.
Anita Walker: When you say accomplish, are you talking about musical excellence or are you talking about the broader social justice component?
Anthony Trecek-King: Well, at first, my first stop is musical excellence. I think we got to a place of musical excellence– of standard I should say– sooner rather than later. I would think that would take us another couple of years to get to where we are right now. And growth, I mean, we grew in those 10 years from 120 kids to around 500 and that’s incredible. That’s incredible growth. That broader social message and broader social mission is something that we’re narrowing in on and honing in on and really starting to understand. Because there isn’t an example that we can follow that we can say, “This is exactly how it’s done.” There are close examples but not at the depth that we’re really trying to accomplish this work, and so I think we’re on schedule for that. I think things are moving along great and, in next five years, ten years I could really see that flourishing to more so that we can kinda share this message and share our learnings with other organizations so that they can begin to do it. People are already asking us around the country. They really are. Just spoke with somebody at the Cincinnati Boys Choir about this and how they’re going through a strategic planning process and they wanna incorporate some of the work that we’re doing here. So it’s happening more and more. I think, the more that we understand it, the more that we kind of systemize it and kind of create a platform for even seven year olds to kinda begin this journey, then we’ll be better off. But, artistically, I would lo– I’m looking at some wild collaborations and…
Anita Walker: Say more.
Anthony Trecek-King: Oh, I don’t know if I can say more but– ah, man.
Anita Walker: Come on. We won’t tell.
Anthony Trecek-King: Yeah, of course you won’t tell. But I have some crazy ideas to commission things like musicals that speak to who we are to work with, orchestras in a way and create music around what we’re doing. Even three dimensional art installations and things like that that I think will be kinda fascinating. I have an idea that I’m hoping to do next year around kind of environmental justice through song. So different ideas that we can kind of further or expand the idea of social justice, so that we could reach more and more constituents and more and more hearts and minds.
Anita Walker: The work that you’re doing here at the Mass. Cultural Council, we call it Creative Youth Development, as I think you well know.
Anthony Trecek-King: Right.
Anita Walker: It is a field of practice and it is intentional and it is something that has been really developed by doing, as you’ve been doing over the last 10 years and even 20 years for some of our organizations. Ten years ago, would you have introduced to your choruses the song that you described a few minutes ago about depression and…
Anthony Trecek-King: That’s really funny. It has come full-circle ‘cause, 10 years ago, one of the songs that we sung about, one of the topics that we discussed, was suicide prevention. And it’s because, again, we were reacting to what happened. There was a singer who had a friend that committed suicide so it was affecting our community and so we had to talk about it. We couldn’t just ignore it and so we worked with Samaritans who came in and gave us a suicide prevention workshop. And we sang a song in which– it wasn’t explicitly about suicide but there was enough there that it’ll allow us to have the conversation and so on. And, again, I mean, I remember these moments. Maybe I just cry too much but we’re having these discussions and singing these songs and you just, literally, you crumble because the emotional energy that’s in the air. And it’s cathartic and it’s necessary and we have to do it. So, yes, I mean, it might not’a been this song but it was another song. And every year we– it’s one, two, three, four, five songs that we really dig into that has this strong message, strong topic that needs to be discussed. I mean, when Trayvon Martin was shot, we sang a song about Emmet Till and it allowed us to contextualize Trayvon Martin from a historical perspective. And a story that isn’t being told as much as it should be, the Emmet Till story. So it’s these things that are constant for us and I think that makes us unique. It really does, that people aren’t necessarily going after this as much as we are.
Anita Walker: So, when you look at the young faces in front of you– I think I know the answer to this question but I’m gonna let you say it.
Anthony Trecek-King: Sure.
Anita Walker: Is your goal to develop great musicians, great singers or…
Anthony Trecek-King: Great people. The goal is great people. I actually discourage people going into music ‘cause I figured that, if I sit here and say, “Don’t go into music and they decide to anyway, then they have a chance. But it’s to create great human beings, that’s the ultimate goal. Secondary, just be appreciative of the arts and love and know the arts. But really, it’s great human beings.
Anita Walker: Anthony Trecek-King for the Boston Children’s Chorus. Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your creative mind out loud.
Anthony Trecek-King: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
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