What do you do when you want your children to be a part of a youth chorus but Riverdale doesn’t have one? For resident Elizabeth Wolstein, the answer was simple.
“I thought what’s stopping me from creating one myself?” she said, adding the program would fill what she called “a gap” in schools where musical programming becomes less available.
“I have a full-time job, so, it has all been a labor of love for me,” she said. “I was hopeful that other parents would see a children’s chorus as filling a need just as I did.”
Wolstein, an attorney by day, launched the Riverdale Youth Chorus in October. The 13-member choir has been a hit with parents and students as they prepared for their first recital Dec. 19 at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
“I like that we get to be with our friends and learn new things about each other, or learn things we never heard before, music that we love from some of our favorite movies,” said Ava Wanko, 10. “And, I like how we get the sense of this is fun.”
Chorus members like Ellie Engel, 9, had previous singing and dancing experience through The Riverdale Y’s theater camp, and said being in the choral group helped improve her singing.
“Before I think it was good, (but) I really didn’t know the notes for my voice,” she said. “But now I do really well, so now I think I can transition for going from low (notes) to high a little better.”
Engel also found what she learned at youth choir came in handy at her school. When she was learning “Frosty the Snowman” for class, she utilized a trick she learned in chorus when it came to memorizing songs — focus on keywords, and the rest of the lyrics would be easier to recall.
“We have the (Riverdale) Children’s Theater and we have The Riverdale Y, and we have those great venues that incorporate singing and acting and dancing and movement and so forth,” said Theresa Santiago, Ava’s mother.
“It’s nice to have a choir where they’re focusing a little bit more on their voice. They’re focusing more on their sound with each other, blending and working as a group, as part of a team, which other groups do as well. And, they make really good friends, which makes it fun.”
Lauren Goldenberg, another parent, says it’s more than just learning songs. It’s adopting a spirit of teamwork.
“The kids seem to feel a part of something bigger,” Goldenberg said, adding her daughter Ellie has become “a more confident singer” because of the chorus.
Both praised the work of chorus director Alison Levosky.
Learning the songs also sparked conversations outside of music, like when the group learned the Beatles song “Blackbird.”
One of the chorus members researched the 1968 hit and discovered its roots in race relations.
“It led to a really fascinating discussion about how it was possible for the Beatles — who were white — to sing about the experience of black Americans, which is something they did not understand personally, but they wanted to understand,” Levosky said.
“I was amazed at how thoughtful the kids were in their contributions to the discussion, and it was exciting to me as a conversation that could help us start to build empathy within our choir classroom.”
Chorus members have learned songs ranging from pop to gospel. That includes songs like “We Know the Way,” from the film 2016 film “Moana” — with some lyrics in the Polynesian language Tokelauan — as well as the Hebrew song “Al Shlosha D’varim,” which is based on Jewish morality laws. They also sing “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”
Wolstein tapped into her network of friends to get the word out about the chorus after more than a year of planning. She sent out emails, asked her friends to share the information, posted on social media, and handed out flyers at area schools like St. Gabriel School and P.S. 81.
The chorus is open to kids from third through ninth grade.
The chorus might be in recital mode, but plans are to eventually schedule a concert, Wolstein said.
Joining the Riverdale Youth Chorus isn’t free. Costs range from $135 to just under $300, depending on how many weeks a singer is participating in. The fee covers expenses like renting rehearsal space, song performance rights, and general operating costs, Wolstein said.
The chorus is not just about singing, however, Wolstein said. It’s giving her children —Jonathan, 11, and Juliette, 9 — as well as other community children something to look back upon in the years to come.
“People really derive a lot of pleasure singing,” Wolstein said.
“I want them to have fun singing in a group, and have that be something they carry with them through their life.”