From Carnegie Hall to sheltering in place, how coronavirus has hit one famous Newark music school
Updated: May 28, 2020
Tahir Anthony, center, sings with other members of the Newark Boys Chorus at Military Park in Newark in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic has prevented the choir from performing or practicing as a group. (Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media)NJ Advance Media for NJ.com By Riley Yates | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Just a month ago, Tahir Anthony was looking forward to the chance of a lifetime: singing for a packed audience at Carnegie Hall.
Coronavirus canceled that concert, of course. Now, when the sixth-grader performs, it is alone in his family’s Rahway home, playing by ear on an electronic keyboard he got for Christmas.
Tahir, 12, is one of 50 students at Newark Boys Chorus School, a prestigious private academy in downtown Newark. Like schools across the state, it is scrambling to adapt to life ravaged by the outbreak of a deadly pandemic.
But this school, which charges no tuition and serves a student body of disadvantaged children drawn from the Newark area, especially feels it. Its mission is making music, a communal activity that can’t be replicated through online learning in a time of social distancing.
“We were preparing so hard for Carnegie Hall, and it was saddening, very, very saddening to just let it go,” Tahir said. “I miss the singing that we do. I miss my friends, and I miss my teachers. This is definitely a lot to take in."
Technology has allowed Newark Boys Chorus and countless other schools to offer coursework remotely since classrooms closed last month. But technology can’t reproduce the concert hall, and the choir has been unable to continue to practice or perform, though it is central to its existence.
“What is missing is the most valuable piece of what we do: Creating together," said Paul Chapin, who heads the school.
“Creating beautiful music, creating beautiful art is at the core of what we do as a school,” Chapin said. “Not only does the world need what we do, but these students as individuals need what we do.”
Music makes up 40% of the school’s instruction, and it opens doors that its third- to eighth-graders might otherwise never pass through. The chorus tours nationally and internationally, and those trips are sometimes the first opportunity for the students to fly on a plane, much less travel to another country.
Their March 15 performance at Carnegie Hall was called off, as was a trek through New England. The chorus has about 40 concerts a year, and is bracing for roughly half — its entire spring fare — to be silenced as efforts to stanch the contagion continue with no clear end in sight.
That makes the school emblematic of the countless dreams deferred by the coronavirus, which has delayed weddings, canceled professional and amateur sports, and thrown into question such rites of passage as the prom and graduation.
“Thank God we have a piano in the home, because I believe it keeps his sanity,” said Tahir’s mother, Tihira Anthony. She said her son constantly asks her when he’ll be able to return to school.
“He’s crushed. He’s crushed,” said Anthony, a security guard at Newark Public Schools.
Members of the Newark Boys Chorus School in 2019 in Santiago, Chile. Adan Santos of Newark, first row left, and Tahir Anthony of Rahway, smiling in center.
The loss comes as some parents grapple with financial insecurity. Many businesses have screeched to a halt to combat the virus’ spread, throwing thousands out of work.
Eighth-grader Adan Santos’ parents are living off their savings, after his father, a chef, was sent home when restaurants closed last month. His mother, Yajaira Santos, said the family is hoping unemployment benefits come through, after applying several weeks ago without an answer.
Santos said she can tell her son misses the chorus and the chance to interact with boys his age. He has started singing in the bathroom of their Newark home, though his little sister complains he is distracting her from her school work, Santos said.
"Singing teaches them a lot of values, you know,” Santos said. “Basically, it makes them more sensitive, more dedicated, because these kids work very hard. They work before school. They work after school. They do a lot of traveling.”
Priscilla Foster, whose 14-year-old son, Vincent Price, is a soprano at the school, said her entire family purchased tickets for the Carnegie Hall concert, seeing it as the culmination of the eighth-grader’s time at the school. Her sister was going to attend. So was her mom and dad, her niece, and of course, Vincent’s 7-month-old baby brother. Not to mention his father’s side of his family.
“I’m pretty upset because we were about halfway done with our schedule for the year,” said Vincent, who lives in Union and plans to go on to boarding school. “At that point, you don’t really expect it to end suddenly.”
The Newark Boys Chorus School has been unable to perform or practice as a group because of the coronavirus pandemic. Vincent Price of Union, far left, and Tahir Anthony of Rahway, closest to camera, in 2019 at a service in Newark.
Coronavirus has closed concert halls throughout the United States and the world. As symphonies, orchestras and choirs have been muted, some have taken to social media, releasing virtual concerts that splice together their musicians performing from home.
One senior at the Berklee College of Music in Boston used 74 of her peers to produce Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now.” In another widely circulated video, the Serbian National Orchestra played “Bella Ciao” remotely. And that’s just two of many that have gone viral (no pun intended).
But there’s a difference between syncing the sounds of individual musicians performing by themselves and practicing as a group online, said Chapin, the chorus school’s head. Because some computers are faster than others, delays in transmitting each performer’s music makes live practice impossible, he said.
“Right now, we haven’t found, or seen anyone else find, software that allows for a remote rehearsal," Chapin said.
To partly make up for it, his students are doing other musical homework. They are being asked to sing along with videos of their choir or other choirs performing. They are critiquing those performances, to look for ways to do better. They continue to work on musical theory. And they are practicing at home, though alone.
Donald Morris, the chorus’ longtime musical director, said the whole experience drives home a reality that even he — after 33 years at the school — hadn’t sufficiently appreciated: Songs are, in their very essence, a shared experience.
Morris hopes that knowledge will make students appreciate their music all the more, having felt the loss of that connection.
“My goodness, we never thought about this before — how essential is this being together,” Morris said.