I walked into PS188x@H790 in the Bronx and I checked in with the security guard who directed me to the auditorium downstairs where Peace of Heart Choir would be performing later that afternoon. I opened the door to find a beautiful space—a gleaming auditorium with perhaps 200 seats equipped with a lovely stage, a beautiful baby grand piano and sound system. I joined the choir on stage. Brian was singing and playing guitar—running through his solo on “Blackbird.” Rene then directed us through several other pieces in our repertoire.
There was definitely an excitement in the air. This school is the school where Peace of Heart Choir member, Brian Muni, works as an occupational therapist and runs a music program. We would be performing for about 50 students. Half of the school’s students have special needs. It was a good rehearsal but even more glorious was the outreach.
When our rehearsal was over, we exited the stage and Brian, our host, introduced his students. They took the stage--about 10-15 students--ready to sing a song of Thanksgiving. In their song of gratitude, I heard the word “happy” several times and thought of our own opening song, the Pharrell Williams single, “Happy.” Barry and I watched in the wings and we looked at each other and commented how wonderful they were. We were all touched and now it was time for our outreach to begin. We took the stage and Rene said a few words. I then introduced our opening song, “Happy”, noting how grateful we were for the students’ performance, how this song makes us happy and we hope it makes them happy too. We performed “Happy” with an indefatigable exhilaration and the students responded in kind. The students were following along and clapping--they were clearly happy to see us and we were happy to see them.
Gail introduced our next song, the James Taylor standard, “That Lonesome Road” and invited the students to look up James Taylor if they weren’t familiar with him. The song was in sharp contrast to our opening song, “Happy”—both in content and tone. “That Lonesome Road” was solemn punctuated by fine vocal support from Gail. Our next song was the sing-along, “Peace Like A River”. We sang energetically and joyously. Some students clapped along with us here as well.
It was now time for one of our crowd favorites, “Guantanamera”. But first, Brian called upon his students for volunteers. Brian’s original request was actually for six volunteers. About 15 students enthusiastically raised their hands and Brian graciously obliged all of them. “Well, that’s more than six but you can all come up here,” Brian said as he waved his hand gesturing them to step forward. His rapport with his students was evident and their enthusiasm was a clear sign.
Rene then ran an impromptu workshop for the students before we performed “Guantanamera”. The students were going to provide part of our musical accompaniment . Rene starting pulling objects from his treasure trove or his “magic bag” as he affectionately referred to it. He had shown us the “magic bag” earlier during rehearsal. Rene handed out some musical instruments including POM bottles and coconut water bottles “magically” transformed into musical instruments by blending rice and most importantly, water. He explained this to the students and they were transfixed and excited at the same time. After Rene’s instruction, the moment had arrived for “Guantanamera” to start with Brian and Rene on musical accompaniment--both on guitars--the students wholeheartedly playing their newly acquired “magic” instruments and our choir singing our hearts out with joy and a sense of fun. Our audience was obviously enjoying it.
Next was our sing-along, “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” with Brian and Rene providing musical accompaniment. We followed it up with a song popularized by the Beatles, “Blackbird” with our host, Brian, providing lovely vocals and musical accompaniment on guitar and Olga P. providing lovely vocal support. Olga T. was the embodiment of the blackbird, breathing life into the small blue plastic birdie discovered by Rene among the treasures of a small store in Beacon, NY.
At this point, Ruth took the opportunity to introduce the choir and our mission. Gary introduced our next song, Matisyahu’s call for peace, “One Day” with lovely solos by Gwyn and Gary. Gail and Marv, both on flutes, provided perfectly whimsical musical accompaniment for the lyrical Korean love song, “Arirang” with an introduction by Sheila.
Our next song was the sing-along, “Down By the Riverside”. We usually go into the audience and shake hands at the respective parts. Instead, we simulated the motion of shaking hands directed towards the audience and then we proceeded to shake each other’s hands.
Barry introduced our next song that highlights the principles of each of the seven days of Kwaanza--“Seven Principles”—which featured a lovely solo by Gail.
Next was Brian Muni’s “Pieces of the World”. As Brian explained in his intro, he was inspired to write this song by some of his students. The song sounded beautiful with solos by Olga P., Gail, me, and Gary.
We concluded with our signature closing song, “Let There Be Peace On Earth” with an introduction by Larry who stressed the importance of peace, especially in the strife-ridden world of today and emphasized the words, ‘and let it begin with me’. Our voices soared in the auditorium. Brian invited the audience to have a round of applause for ThePeace of Heart Choir. We took a bow to very appreciative applause from the audience.
But we would remain on stage. The students joined us on stage to perform their final song, “Lean on Me” and they invited us to sing along and so we did, smiling and moved by their efforts.
The choir had been in fine form this afternoon. Brian had been a wonderful host and Brian and Rene had been a great team providing musical accompaniment and working with the students. Rene jumped on and off the stage at various times during rehearsal and during the outreach. We all worried a bit at times for his safety but it definitely added to the spontaneity of the outreach. There had been moments of joy and laughter—an afternoon of great music and great emotion.
After the concert, I interviewed several students who had been part of the outreach. One student said the outreach made her happy because she loves music. Another student said that it made him happy too. She started to dance because she was happy and then another student started and then so did I. It shouldn’t be surprising that when I asked each of the students to identify their favorite song of the outreach, they replied “Happy” in unison with big smiles on their faces.
As I walked through the corridors of the school, I felt very touched and I felt very fortunate to have been part of this very special outreach. I took note of the hallways with their inspirational messages, and the emphasis on the arts, drama, and music. I noticed one message in particular that struck me on one of the rugs in one office. It read: “When one student graduates, we all succeed.” Yes, indeed.
It had been an inspiring and heartfelt afternoon. Mr. H., one audience member, said that from where he had sat in the audience, it was as if our two great choirs—Peace of Heart Choir and the students’ choir--had melded together as one and you would think we had practiced together all of our lives. He then asked when we were coming back and added, “We definitely need more of this here.”
-Carrie, Choir Singer
It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert