Signal Path Podcast: Chicago Children’s Choir
Hear the stories behind the music with the Signal Path podcast. Tapping a global network of musicians, producers, engineers and other sonic innovators, Shure brings you exclusive interviews with the people shaping the world of audio.
Episode 35 – Chicago Children’s Choir
For the latest episode of Signal Path, Mark Brunner spoke with Josephine Lee, the president and artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Choir. In the podcast, Lee discusses her early musical education, her introduction to the choir nearly 20 years ago and how the cherished cultural institution continues to enrich kids’ lives in the city.
Mark Brunner: We’re here today with the illustrious Josephine Lee, the president and creative director for the Chicago Children’s Choir. We're doing a special event here today at the Shure For Those Who Tour house located in the heart of Lincoln Park in Chicago. We've got a bunch of the Chicago Children's Choir kids downstairs doing a microphone workshop. And Josephine and I are up here in the podcast studio waxing philosophically about all things CCC, the Chicago arts community and the role that this magnificent choir plays in that. So we will apologize in advance. You may hear random sounds of young singers coming through who are auditioning mics downstairs, as well as the rumble of the L train, which is a familiar sound to those of us here in Chicago. Josephine, Lincoln Park is home for you, right? You grew up here.
Josephine Lee: Yes. I was actually born and raised in Lincoln Park, not too far from here.
So tell us about home life when you were young. When was music introduced into your life?
Well, I started playing violin at age three, and my violin teacher encouraged my parents to have me play piano as well. So it helped with my sight reading. And my mother was a self-taught musician, singer and pianist. So we also incorporated voice. And I sang a choir and I ended up conducting that choir at age 15.
Amazing. What type of music did you learn first? At age three.
Well, here’s a fun fact. I asked to play the violin. And I immediately asked to quit. It was painful. And my mother said, ‘You're not quitting piano or violin until you graduate high school.’
Wow. So the mandate was given.
Yes. So I started with Suzuki, obviously in classical training, traditional. It was a hybrid. I learned to read music at a very young age.
And what types of music got put in front of you?
At that time some Mozart, Bach, Czerny, Hanon.
Did you gravitate toward that? Did you appreciate that? Such a young age?
Totally not. It was the task. But then when I went to college, I studied with this incredible professor named Dmitry Paperno, who was trained by the late Alexander Goldenweiserat the Moscow Conservatory. Rachmaninoff was a friend of his and he made me play Mozart sonatas at age 17. Because apparently I wasn’t playing it properly with the right pianism.
What did you say to him when he told you that?
Well, I had to retrain myself, you know, just the tone, harmonic structure, how to use the pedal properly, have a voice, the melody, just even basic technique. I had to retrain myself. This Russian methodology fascinates me.
So college wasn’t too far from here either, right? You went to DePaul?
I did, yes. And then on to Northwestern after that.
So all of that has been here in the Chicago area?
I've been trying to leave Chicago my whole life
Especially in the winter we are in now.
Yes. Fortunately, I love Chicago. There is a reason why I'm still here. It's a great city. It's culturally diverse. I think it's more so now than when I was a child. And Chicago Children's Choir became my safe haven creative playground, an opportunity to nurture and collaborate with incredible young talent in our city. And so it's been very, very fulfilling these past 20 years.
Well, we'll talk about that diversity aspect a little bit later on. We’ll talk about where the choir is formed from and where you perform. But you've been at this for almost 20 years now. That's a long time to be committed to a certain institution. So there must be something extremely special about the Chicago Children's Choir.
Yes. I was introduced to the choir when I was at DePaul University. We have a neighborhood choir here, a satellite program at the university. A woman named Dr. Suzanne Baker, who runs the DePaul Community Music Division, introduced me to this organization. Her dad was a part of it, and now she works at the choir as one of our conductors.
So I thought I would have the opportunity to go to Europe and work in the opera houses there. I loved traveling, but I needed to have a job, a full-time job. So Dr. Baker introduced me to the program. So I walked into the cultural center. This was 1990. And they said, sure, we'll give you a job.
And they sent me in two of these in-school programs in the south and west side of Chicago. So the choir at that time was serving around 3,000 kids. Currently, we have 5,200. It's amazing. It's a 64-year-old organization that was founded during the height of the civil rights movement in 1956. So when I went into these in-school programs, I was completely blown away by a few things, one, the fact that kids didn't have music education every single day. My father was a minister. My mom was a teacher, but they valued education and music. So I had weekly piano/violin lessons. And then when I went to high school in the suburbs, I had orchestra every single day. And then night conducted my own course on the weekends and taught 20 piano student. So that was my life. I just couldn't believe that that wasn't available to every child. Number two, completely blown away by the extraordinary talent. And that there was an opportunity for these young people to shine. So that's really what drew me into this organization in ’99.
Listen to the full interview with Josephine Lee and subscribe to Signal Path with the podcast provider of your choice below. Though the Choir’s concerts are currently on hold, you can check them out on YouTube here.