POSTED ON MAY 30, 2012:
The Voice of Tulsa's Youth
Tulsa Boy Singers celebrate 62 years of history in Tulsa's music and fine arts
Although I usually cover Tulsa's pop and rock scene, part of the joy of Tulsa's music community is the fact the city has a rich heritage that crosses genres and extends in multiple directions. With summer just around the corner, I was recently contacted by a group that is intricately tied to our city's musical heritage, although many aren't aware of it. So when I heard about the Tulsa Boy Singers spring concert this Friday night, I was intrigued, to say the least, and had to know more.
When looking into the group's history, I found that Tulsa Boy Singers was founded by former University of Tulsa professor George Oscar Bowen and his wife Dorothy in 1948 and performed for the first time in the spring of 1949. Bowen enjoyed an extended career in music education in our city and retired from working with Tulsa Public Schools at the age of 73. Yet he continued working with youth until his death in 1957, at which point his former student and assistant director, Gene Roads, took over as Artistic Director for the group. Mr. Roads directed the group for the next 40 years, with leadership passing to his assistant, Stephen Tappe, following Roads' passing.
The group, which is built around young males ages 5-18, is credited by its alumni for building discipline and leadership in its members as well as developing the singers artistically. In the recent past, the choral group has also performed with Tulsa Opera, Tulsa Ballet, the American Boy Choir and has appeared at the annual OK Mozart festival in Bartlesville.
Current Artistic Director Casey Cantwell took over the role in 2003, following a tenure as assistant conductor and accompanist for Tulsa Boy Singers. Under his direction for the past nine years, the troupe has continued to develop and has performed across the United States and in Great Britain.
When meeting with Janet Drye, from the Tulsa Boy Singers' board of directors, we discussed a bit of the group's history and how it has developed over the years as well as a few of the challenges the group faces. Originally founded to consist of young males from ages 8-18, membership is constantly changing as voices change and singers graduate from the group and move on, so recruiting has always been crucial. With that natural transition of members, the troupe's size has fluctuated and currently consists of roughly 15 boys, it's smallest iteration for a number of years. Just recently, the organization changed its guidelines and is accepting singers as young as five years old in order to develop young voices and fill some of its gaps in the trebles of the choir.
Recruiting singers has always been a challenge. "We used to contact elementary school music teachers and they got word out," Drye shared. In recent years, however, the group's connection with those teachers has been reduced as budget cuts have limited the music programs in many schools.
Another challenge has come as so many children are involved in multiple activities at an early age, from music lessons to sporting events, limiting their time to become involved or even interested in the choral group. "We're hoping that with the new age changes, we'll be able to get kids interested and involved before they become so committed to other activities," Drye said.
Currently, the group performs twice a year in Tulsa, with a holiday concert in the winter and a late spring concert as summer approaches. In the past, the group has toured during the summer months as opportunities have presented themselves, with shows around Oklahoma, nationally and even overseas.
With the Tulsa Boy Singers' spring concert approaching this weekend, I got a chance to peruse the troupe's song list, which crosses boundaries ranging from classical works by Bach and Mozart to traditional English Cathedral to American classics form George Gershwin.
When asked how material is chosen for the group, Cantwell responded: "In choosing repertoire for TBS I try to do a variety of music and styles. However, I always include repertoire from the English Cathedral tradition since those choirs are, for the most part, choirs of men and boys."
"I also take into account the abilities of the boys at hand," he continued. "I try to do music that they will enjoy and which will be successful for them. I think it's good to stretch them to do music that's harder than they think they can do, while making sure that they succeed in doing it."
Cantwell also addressed the evolving nature of the group. "During my tenure," Cantwell said, "we have had ups and downs in numbers and talent. At the current time we have a smaller number of boys than we have in the past, but they have worked hard and are ready to perform. To help them out, I have three alumni of TBS who will be joining us for this concert -- all of whom are currently, or soon will be, in music degree programs in college. The constant changing of TBS members is at the same time exciting and scary, but it's never boring and is always rewarding."
Although the choir's size has become smaller in recent years, it has been under Cantwell's tenure that the group has performed in Great Britain and been presented opportunities to continue to perform nationally, a testament to his leadership and instruction of the singers.
The spring concert for Tulsa Boy Singers is this Friday night, June 1, at Trinity Episcopal Church (501 S. Cincinnati Ave). The concert begins at 7:30pm with tickets available, and admission is $10 for adults and free for students. A reception will follow in the church's fellowship hall, with a selection of food provided by the TBS organization and its member's parents.
While the spring concert is an opportunity for Tulsa Boy Singers to perform and showcase its talents, the event is also an opportunity for the group to both celebrate its history and gain some new exposure for the group which has continued on for over 60 years as one of the oldest secular choral groups in Oklahoma.
It's worth noting that Tulsa Boy Singers operates as a non-profit organization and is underwritten by the Oklahoma Arts Council as well as contributions from private donors. Although there is a monthly tuition for group members, over a third of those involved receive scholarships from the organization. Proceeds from Friday night's concert will be used to help defray the organization's administrative costs.
If you're looking for something out of the ordinary that showcases Tulsa's developing talent and a sense our city's history, an evening with Tulsa Boy Singers is a great way to step outside of the pop music box and start your introduction to Tulsa's fine arts. And with an early concert, you can head out afterwards to catch more on our live music scene and support both. More information on the group and its history can be found online at tulsaboysingers.org.
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