“Aay-aye-aye-aye lu-uhhve to seeeeing!”
Keshena Cisneros-Watson, the 26-year-old director of the Chicago Children’s Choir’s (CCC) newest neighborhood choir, which formed in Austin in January, encircled the air with her arms, her posture arched, her movement in-sync with the pitch changes in a crescendo diminuendo exercise she urged the small group of children in front of her to repeat.
“There’s something about when you make movements with your body — it helps you sing for some reason. I have no idea why. I’m not a scientist, but I just know that it helps,” she told the students during a rehearsal last week.
Each Monday and Wednesday since January, Cisneros-Watson commands a second-floor room at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St., to train her small, but growing army of around 15 students, ages 8 to 18, in vocal discipline — an asset she says is also helpful in other areas of the students’ lives.
“They have to commit to this,” she said. “So that’s part of the work ethic. We don’t only teach singing, we teach how to be a good person, how to respect, how to be a good citizen — on top of all the music stuff. Being in the choir is so helpful to a student, because it teaches them how to speak and perform in front of other people, how to be team members, how to work together. It also builds their self-confidence.”
Earlier this month, the Austin choir held its first community concert at Austin Town Hall in front of a packed auditorium. The West Side choir is the 10th neighborhood choir formed by CCC since it was founded in 1956 by a Hyde Park Unitarian minister who envisioned music as a vehicle for interracial and inter-cultural reconciliation and exchange. The Austin choir is the first CCC community choir to form since 2013.
“We saw in Austin a real willingness to partner with us,” said Dave Adams in an interview in January. “We got involved with the community and went to meetings. We realized that there’s already Austin Town Hall, which is a beautiful facility, and a lot of in-school programs that are already happening in the area that might feed into what we do. It’s a great community with a lot to offer.”
Erica Gates, 11, joined the choir when it started in January. For her, choir wasn’t new. She sings in her school’s Gospel and chorus choirs, in addition to her church choir. But the Austin resident said, since joining CCC, she’s learned some new genres.
“We get to learn lots of new songs and new things,” Gates said.
“We cover all types of music,” said Cisneros-Watson. “We want to expose them to different things they’d never have been exposed to if they weren’t in the choir.”
“Here, I like the song, “Blame It On the Boogie,” and “People Get Ready,” said 11-year-old Kenyatta Jones. The alto said she was introduced to the choir by Cisneros-Watson, who’s also her choral teacher at George Rogers Clark Elementary School in Austin.
In addition to those Michael Jackson and Curtis Mayfield staples, Cisneros-Watson said the children are also learning some classical numbers, which they’ll perform alongside other CCC neighborhood choirs in the organization’s annual Paint The Town Red celebration, which features two concerts and more than 4,300 singers at Millennium Park on May 26.
Cisneros-Watson said the Austin choir is still open to anyone within age range who wants to join, noting that she’ll initiate an audition process, but only after the choir’s established itself.
“Right now, I have kids from all different backgrounds,” she said. “I’ve got kids from private and public schools. I think I have one from Oak Park. They get to meet new friends that they wouldn’t meet in school.”
For Jones, there’s an added benefit.
“It makes me a better person,” she said. “When I’m singing it calms me down. It makes me a better student, too.”