On Wednesdays, following the final school bell at the Noel Education Center, a collection of excited students strolls into the chapel at the Spiritual Life Center. Soon after, the space is filled with activity and music.
While the pandemic put a lot of things on hold, the desire to build a community around music was not one of them. And, for the first time since 2019, choir started back up at Cunningham this school year, giving our youth the opportunity to perform at the annual Board Day luncheon and the residential Christmas program.
The time spent together during weekly choir is very intentional. Beginning with breathing techniques, our youth warm up their vocal instruments, then practice their songs before concluding with prayer.
"It’s important for youth to have the ritual of breath, song and then prayer," Ashley, Special Therapies’ music therapist, said. "It helps to set expectations and gives structure to the group. All our youth are given a choice to participate in choir. They don’t need to have a background in music. There are no auditions, but we do require respect of self and others while in the choir.
"Respect is so important for members of the choir," Ashley continued, "because they have some choice in picking songs they want to sing, it is also a vulnerable time where teenaged youth are putting themselves out there on stage in front of their peers and everyone should feel comfortable while singing."
Along with respect is total inclusivity. Naturally, connections, bonds and friendships grow and develop into a positive community for choir members outside of the chapel, but these youngsters make it their mission to welcome others to join them and they work hard to make new members feel comfortable.
When Samuel*, who is just 9 years old, showed interest in joining choir, Ashley and Chaplain Gay invited him to attend practice. Even though the youngest among the group comprised of mostly 14-17 year-olds, Samuel was welcomed with open arms. The kids showed understanding and compassion toward Samuel, who was a bit intimidated at first.
"Samuel stayed seated while the choir practiced on the stage," Chaplain Gay said, "but the entire practice each choir member gave encouraging words to Samuel. Many invited him on stage or stepped off to sit with him and speak into his concerns. ‘Want to sing with us?’ was asked during every song."
With the combination of choice, ritual structure and respect, our youth are learning the notes and words to songs and also developing tools to become great leaders.
"It’s really interesting to see our youth step outside of their comfort zone," Chaplain Gay said with a big smile. "Neither Ashley or I have led the prayer after choir; it has been the kids who have stepped up, outside of their comfort zone, and led us in prayer. One young lady shared she had never before prayed out loud, only to herself, and here she was, leading the entire group aloud!"
Following choir practice is Wednesday afternoon chapel services where the choir leads everyone in song.
"I see more lips moving during worship since we’ve had the choir back," Chaplain Gay said. "Singing allows youth to drop their guard. And with a new sense of confidence, our choir members are eagerly inviting their peers to join them in choir or at weekly services."
Music therapy reduces anxiety and physical effects of stress and improves healing. So while being part of the choir helps develop leadership skills, it also has benefits for our youth as they heal and grow. And make beautiful music.
*name has been changed to protect the privacy of our youth