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In “leap of faith” to expand inclusivity, Berkshire Children’s Chorus adopting sliding scale for 2023-2024 tuition

The Berkshire Children's Chorus in action at Zion Lutheran Church of Pittsfield in June 2023.
Berkshire Children's Chorus
The Berkshire Children's Chorus in action at Zion Lutheran Church of Pittsfield in June 2023.

The Berkshire Children’s Chorus season kicks off next week. The chorus, with its membership of third- through eighth-graders, holds weekly rehearsals throughout the school year in Pittsfield and Sheffield. As part of a new initiative aimed at expanding the musical education nonprofit’s inclusivity, the organization is taking on a sliding scale approach for tuition for the first time since it began in 1990. To explain the chorus’s goals for the new model and more, Artistic Director Ryan LaBoy spoke with WAMC.

LABOY: I think it's important to understand that Berkshires Children's Chorus offers kids a wonderful opportunity to connect and sing across Berkshire County. We are really building to make it a place that is accessible to all of the Berkshires’ children, and we're using music as our vehicle to connect kids across the region. And so, I would say that's maybe one of the biggest things. We talk often about giving kids the opportunity to find their voice, and we mean that both literally and figuratively. Finding their voice in terms of improving their singing skills, but also using their singing skills in service of good, in the greater good in our communities, and also finding your voice in community with people who think like you, and who love the things that you do, and who embrace all of who you are in our choir rehearsals week over week.

WAMC: Now, this year, the chorus is embracing a sliding scale model for families trying to get their kids enrolled. Tell me about that- How's that going to impact the tuition structure as it currently exists?

The chorus has been around for 30 years, and we've always charged tuition. And this side of the pandemic, we've been asking yourself really important questions about what it means to live into our name, the Berkshire Children's Chorus, and how we can better be a place for all of the Berkshires’ children, and if we are going to place for all of the Berkshires’ children, what are the barriers to access that perhaps exist? And so, one of the ways that we're seeking to answer that that question is by reexamining our tuition model. So, rather than structuring it saying, families are expected to pay X amount of money and we do have scholarships that exist, we are sort of flipping that model on its head and saying, actually, what if we allowed families to self-select according to their income level, and offer them just a scholarship gratis, right, instead of asking them to come to us and ask for a scholarship, what if we behaved generously in our community and said, you know what, we got you, we know that paying for children's activities, especially if you have more than one child and it all depends on your socioeconomic status, can be really taxing for a family. So, what would it look like for us to be an organization that, as small as we are and as limited as we are, to be as generous as we possibly can to make the chorus more possible and accessible for many talented kids from many different walks of life? And so, we're trying to flip the thing on its head. It's a leap of faith entirely, but one that we're really excited to take, and we're excited to see how our chorus grows and changes because of it.

Now, the chorus works in both the rural community of Sheffield in southern Berkshire County, and the county seat, the comparatively more urban Pittsfield. Tell me about that- When you have nodes, so to speak, in two very different communities within one county, what do you think the impact from this new model will be on those two disparate environments?

Yeah, I love thinking about the possibility of that. What I'll say is, our pilot in Pittsfield was 10 weeks this past spring, and it was wildly successful. We partnered with Berkshire Music School, and we were able to, through some local cultural council support, make that opportunity free for any families that were interested. And so, we had to actually put a waiting list on enrollment for our program, it was called Play and Sing. 10 weeks in advance of the concert, we taught the kids how to play ukulele and sing some songs with us at our concert. And so, there was this very beautiful moment when I as a conductor not only had the pleasure of leading the chorus and hearing them sing and just being so impressed by their talents, but I turned around to look at the audience, and it was just a sight to behold of all of all of the beauty that Berkshire County holds in terms of who lives here and who we are making music for. And so, it was beautiful to see our rural families from South County or even not far outside of Pittsfield. Just because we're in Pittsfield proper doesn't mean that there aren't folks who are living on farms. But to see, just, I don't know, folks from every walk of life. To see folks linen clad and coming as though they're attending a show at Tanglewood and to see folks who are coming in their graphic T shirts after a day of work, and everybody is there just applauding so generously, because we can all get behind our kids and watching them shine. And so, I think that this new opportunity for the chorus gives us an exciting way to build bridges across socioeconomic and racial divides, frankly, in our community, in really exciting ways- Again, using music as a tool to serve our community.

Now, this endeavor is being backed by Lee Bank. From your vantage point, how sustainable is this model? Is this the next chapter of what cultural institutions like the chorus look like in Berkshire County? Is this sort of a rare, a grant supported opportunity? What's your outlook on the future of this kind of model?

Yeah, what I would like to say first and foremost is just how incredibly proud of our board I am. Because this is a, as I mentioned earlier, a leap of faith for our organization. This is different than how we have functioned for 30 years. And that can be really scary, especially when you look at the financials and sort of a fiscal responsibilities. But that- We shouldn't let fear stop us from doing what's right, right? I think in our wildest dreams, we would love to be a tuition free organization. However, we are small as our own 501C3, and we have to figure out creative ways to make the budget work. So, this new model represents sort of a pilot – we're calling it a pilot this next year – phase for us to experiment. And, as I said, if we choose to operate from a place of generosity rather than from a place of scarcity, what will the outcome be? And so, we're super excited that Lee Bank Foundation has gotten behind us and is helping us to support that spirit of generosity and that creativity. In terms of a sustainable model moving forward and whether or not this is the future of cultural institutions here, I would love to see it be sustained and I would love to see more institutions adopt this kind of model, especially when it comes to sharing creative opportunities with our kids. And there's a lot of work to make that happen. So, I have no delusions of grandeur that this is going to be a perfect ride this next year. So as an organization, we're really committed to just being astute and being responsible and trying to stay ahead of the ball and to look at the numbers as they come in and to make some inferences about what is sustainable. And, you know, we don't have to go from A to Z. There's a whole alphabet that we can walk through before we land on the perfect model. So, we're really excited for this pilot. We think we'll see some incredible results for our chorus.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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