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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 31, 2004

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Princeton Girlchoir Hosts Boys Choir of Harlem

Like the Little Engine That Could, the adult leadership of the Princeton Girlchoir has exerted itself greatly, and has managed to organize a concert of the formidable Boys Choir of Harlem in Trenton’s War Memorial. The performance, which benefits both the Girlchoir and the Boys Choir, takes place Saturday, April 3, at 7:30 p.m.

The Girlchoir opens the evening with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "It’s a Grand Night for Singing," and then turns matters over to the Boys Choir. The Boys Choir presents an eclectic program including sacred music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Francis Poulenc, Broadway, jazz, and gospel songs.

Asked to contrast the sound of girls’ choirs and boys’ choirs, Janet Westrick, founder and artistic director of the Princeton Girlchoir, says that they are not dramatically different. "It depends on the choir director. I like a bright sound with a shimmer to it. The Girlchoir will sound brighter than the Boys Choir of Harlem, because there are some changed voices in the boys choir. But young voices are young voices."

For both ensembles the appearance at the 1,800-seat War Memorial is a first. The April 3 concert is the veteran Boys Choir’s first performance in central New Jersey. For the Girlchoir, an auditorium the size of the War Memorial is the largest venue in which they have performed in their 15 years of existence.

The Boys Choir, says a spokesman, is dedicated to saving and transforming the lives of inner-city youth. It calls itself "music-driven." Founded in 1968 by Walter J. Turnbull as an after-school program for 20 boys, the choir has grown into a school that serves more than 600 boys and girls in grades 4 through 12 from all parts of New York City. Turnbull continues to direct the musical programs.

As a musical ensemble the Boys Choir has traveled the world. As an academic institution, the School has a notable acceptance rate at colleges and universities in the United States. Over the years 98 percent of its graduates have found places as college freshmen. In 2002 all 41 members of the graduating class were accepted to American universities. Collectively, they received more than $215,000 in scholarships that year.

Rather than having a single academic center, the Princeton Girlchoir draws its 160 members from 40 schools in 25 communities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jan Westrick, who founded the organization in 1989, continues to be its overall artistic director. In 1994 an apprentice choir was created. In 1997 the Girlchoir expanded to three singing groups, each with its own director. The three groups often perform together.

Members of the Princeton Girlchoir are in grades three through nine. Westrick’s Concert Choir consists of girls in grades seven through nine; a selected group of Concert Choir members makes up the PGC Ensemble, which, in extra rehearsals, learns pieces in addition to the regular Concert Choir repertoire. The Semi-Tones, directed by Mellissa Hughes, is an ensemble of primarily fifth and sixth graders. The Grace Notes, directed by A. Toby Simon, come mostly from grades three and four.

Janet Perkins, executive director of the Girlchoir, calls participating in the Girlchoir "a life sport." She has learned that taking part nurtures benefits which resonate long after girls finish ninth grade and leave the choir. Perkins’ knows the choir, not only because of her official position, but because she has seen its impact on her daughter, Morgan, a former Girlchoir member, now a college senior. Even without advance warning, Perkins scrolls down a sizeable list of advantages that come from the ensemble and that go beyond music.

"Participating gave Morgan opportunities to travel, and gave her perspectives that she wouldn’t have gotten if she had just been a tourist," she says. "The girls learn about getting along with others. They learn life skills, similar to what young people learn in summer camp, but they learn through music. They experience leadership responsibilities when they distribute music, make announcements, and take care of the music library. The older girls help younger girls adjust and handle homesickness when they’re on tour because they know how to travel." And then there’s the direct advantage of singing in the choir: "Musically," Perkins says, "it’s a good basis for high school and college singing."

As a piano teacher, who has dealt with youngsters on a one-to-one basis, I can add that mastering music builds well-rooted self-esteem. Learning a piece is very much a put-up-or-shut-up experience; it can’t be faked. To learn a piece is an objectively verifiable feat. While praise is a welcome bonus that tactful listeners can give to a young musician, the accomplishment stands on its own. The same internal reward comes whether one works in a group or works alone.

The Girlchoir is an auditioned ensemble. After an entrance audition, members are re-auditioned each year. Founder and artistic director Westrick lists the components of the audition. She checks vocal range, and asks aspirants to sing a scale without accompaniment. Choir members must show that they can sing a round, tending their own part while they hear the other parts. They must demonstrate their tonal memory by singing back three notes played on the piano. They must clap by memory a rhythm they have heard.

The choir shows its qualities in live recordings of the annual spring concerts. On the CD from 2003 the girls sing a varied program, sometimes accompanied, and sometime a cappella.

Director Westrick earned her formal credentials at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio; at Western Michigan University; and at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Born in Hamilton, Ohio, about 20 miles from Cincinnati, she comes from a modest background. Her father was a factory worker; her mother, a housewife. "College was a big deal for the family," she says.

Westrick’s piano lessons began before she was 10. "I got good fast," she says. She majored in Music Education as an undergraduate. "I taught elementary school music till I had kids," she says, "and I began to think that it was more and more fun to get kids to sing. I thought, ‘I’m having so much fun and they’re paying me!’"

A resident of Princeton since 1976, Westrick is the chair of the performing arts department at Princeton Day School and teaches music in its middle school. Her husband, Fred Schott, is pastor of Christ the King Church in Kendall Park. The couple has five adult children.

For Westrick satisfaction is a higher priority than money. "When we started the Princeton Girlchoir 15 years ago," she says, "I didn’t pay myself for about three years, and we charged the girls only for the music, which came to about $50 year."

This year fees ranged from $450 to $700, depending on the particular singing group within the choir. Scholarships are available. Additional expenses come from the optional participation in tours. The choir has traveled in the United States, and also in England, France, Spain, Italy, and Canada. The Girlchoir anticipates a relatively inexpensive journey when it appears at Newark’s Performing Arts Center in March, 2005, for a performance with the Newark Boys Choir.

Forty nine girls, almost a third of the Girlchoir membership, plan to attend the Pacific Rim Children’s Choral Festival in Hawaii this summer. The festival takes place on Oahu from July 6 to 13. The Choir applied to participate in this auditioned event in 2002. Costs for the trip are $2,700. Moneys come from parents, fundraising, and scholarships.

The War Memorial performance is a landmark jump for the Princeton Girlchoir. Ever evolving, the ensemble can be expected to be ready for the larger leap to Hawaii.

– Elaine Strauss

Princeton Girlchoir, Patriots Theater, Trenton War Memorial, 609-984-8400. The Princeton Girlchoir, led by Janet Westrick, hosts a benefit concert by the world-famous Boys Choir of Harlem. All proceeds benefit the educational and scholarship programs of these two prestigious organizations. Tickets are available through the Trenton War Memorial box office 609-984-8400, $25 and $50; $15 students. Patron and sponsor tickets may be ordered through the Girl Choir Office, or 609-688-1888. Saturday, April 3, 7:30 p.m.

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