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A Kansas City high school choir gets its shot at a 'once-in-a-lifetime' concert in Carnegie Hall

A man, standing at left, gestures with his hands as he conducts young kids who are practicing as a choir on a school stage.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Paseo Academy's choir director, Willie Thornton, conducts students as they prepare for their performance at Carnegie Hall.

Paseo Academy's choir director, Willie Thornton, says it's going to be a life-changing experience for his students, some of whom have never set foot outside of Kansas City.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice, practice, practice,” goes the old joke.

That joke is now a reality for some 20 students at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts in Kansas City. That's because they'll be performing at the legendary concert hall in New York City this coming weekend.

Eameshia Dedner, a junior at the high school, said she remembers the moment when choir director Willie Thornton first broke the news to members of the choir.

“I didn't believe him at first. I’m like, okay, I know we're good, but I don't think we're that good,” Dedner said. “It still honestly hasn't hit me that we’re going.”

A man standing at left, wearing a brown sports jacket, gestures toward 15 high-school-aged students gathered on stage. They are rehearsing as a choir.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Members of the Paseo Academy Chamber Choir line up to practice ahead of their appearance at Carnegie Hall.

The Paseo Academy Chamber Choir was selected to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the WorldStrides Festival. They’re among top choirs from around the globe chosen to participate.

They’ll be rehearsing at the music hall all this weekend, leading up to their big moment on stage Sunday.

Thornton told KCUR’s Up to Date that he takes a detailed approach to the choir’s practice, which includes focusing as much as 30 minutes on different elements of a piece, including phrasing and dynamics.

Thornton compared it to a coach preparing a team for a big game.

“To be honest with you, I'm getting on their nerves and some of them say , ‘Mr. Thornton, you're just too demanding.’ But my goal is to maximize their potential,” he said. “Sometimes they can't see what's inside of them, and it's my job as a teacher to pull it out. If I'm able to pull that out of them, man, what a blessing it is to be able to do that and see it in real time.”

A man, standing in the middle of the frame, gestures with his hands as he conducts high school students during choir practice. In foreground are the backs of two girls who are in the choir.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Willie Thornton, director of the Paseo Academy's Chamber Choir, says he's preparing students for a "life-changing" experience.

Students in the choir admit the past few weeks have been hectic— so much so that they’ve lost track of the number of rehearsals they’ve undertaken to prepare.

They’ve also worked hard to earn support from friends, family and even their superintendent, Mark Bedell, to raise the $60,000 dollars required for the trip.

Junior D’Koda Perry said they simply did whatever it took.

“And if that means that we have to keep working, like staying after school, coming on days that we have other stuff to do to practice, then that's what we got to do…” Perry said. “Because this is very important and it's a once in a lifetime thing.”

Thornton believes it’s the first time a choir from Kansas City Public Schools has ever performed at Carnegie Hall.

Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern has close ties to Carnegie Hall. His late father, the legendary violinist Isaac Stern, spearheaded a campaign to save the landmark building when New York proposed to demolish it more than six decades ago.

Since then, Stern said performing at the venue has become synonymous with success for artists. He said taking the stage at Carnegie Hall will elevate the way the choir sees itself.

"For young people to go to New York, is a big deal. And to play in New York, everybody wants to play in New York, and there are a lot of really nice places to play,” Stern said. “But to play in Carnegie Hall, with all of the history that it has there — every great composer, conductor, player, singer, jazz artists — everybody has been in that building, speaking, singing, playing."

The high school students are hoping their voices will be noticed by producers and others in the music industry.

Dedner said the significance of being recognized on a national level is not lost on her.

A young woman wearing an orange T-shirt sits in a row of theater chairs listening to someone talking off camera.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Eameshia Dedner, a junior at Paseo Academy, says she didn't at first believe her choir had been selected to perform at Carnegie Hall.

“It's really crazy. Honestly, as an inner city student coming from Kansas City, it's just wild to think that oh, they picked someone like us to go out there and perform on this prestigious stage,” Dedner said.

The trip itself is also a source of excitement for the students, whose earlier plans to perform elsewhere around the country had been dashed by the COVID pandemic.

After months performing virtually, Perry said the chance to finally perform live — in New York City, no less — felt like “a switch.”

“I want to sing there. I want to be there. I could just stand in the street and I'm just happy that I'm in New York,” Perry said. “I barely leave the house. The only place I've been is Mississippi.”

The Paseo Chamber Choir will be performing at other locations in New York as well as doing some sightseeing. Thornton said it promises to be a life-changing experience for his students, some of whom have never set foot outside of Kansas City.

“If they're able to see some other place other than Kansas City, other than Bannister Road, other than 31st Street or Prospect or Troost or Paseo and be in downtown Manhattan, that's incredible," he said. "I mean, that's just like going from dark to light."

But the students shouldn’t feel like they have “to take a backseat” just because they're from Kansas City, Stern counseled.

“If these young singers open up their hearts, and their voices and their lungs, and they just feel the sound, they will know. They are musicians who performed at Carnegie Hall," he said. "And that puts them in a really cool club."

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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