A 2nd Act: Singing On

There were many times in Herbert Washington’s childhood when things didn’t fall his way. He never met his father or older brother. His mother had schizophrenia. At 7, he was taken out of South Phoenix by child welfare services and sent to live with an aunt, uncle and cousins in Tempe. It was a roof over his head, but often not a pleasant experience. Two years later, the family moved to Phoenix. And that’s when the world changed for young Washington.

The music teacher at his new school, Debra Brandsma, was so impressed with his voice, she encouraged him to audition for the Phoenix Boys Choir, founded in 1947. His talent was recognized there too — he was in! For the first time in his life, Washington felt seen and found a passion.

He also found more. Judy Van Boening, a surgical nurse, was volunteering with the choir when Washington joined. The more she got to know him, the more she realized how remarkable he was. A single mother with two sons of her own, Van Boening eventually made him a part of her family by adopting him.

Added to Van Boening’s love, Washington soaked up everything he could about music. “The choir develops leadership, character and teamwork in its members,” he said. “We traveled to countries I had only just read about, which in turn opened my eyes to appreciate the resources we have here in America.” It was a miraculous second act, but more was to come.

Washington went to St. Olaf College in Minnesota. While there, then-artistic director of Phoenix Boys Choir Georg Stangelberger brought the choir to campus for a boys choir festival. “Georg asked me to work in a small group setting,” Washington said. “It was my first taste of conducting in front of an ensemble. It was exhilarating!” After he graduated from St. Olaf, Washington returned to Phoenix to work full-time for Stangelberger, doing administrative and artistic work. After completing a master’s degree in choral conducting from the University of Arizona, Washington held various choir-conducting positions across the Valley. And then his second second act began.

After 20 years of dedication, Stangelberger was leaving the Phoenix Boys Choir and a global search for his replacement began. Washington applied and was the only local person interviewed. In May 2019, he became the choir’s third full-time artistic director. Stangelberger had come from the Vienna Boys Choir and had done a masterful job creating international recognition for the Phoenix choir. Washington’s mission now is to build national awareness. “My first concert was entitled ‘Sing On.’ There were many who wondered what would happen to the choir after Georg left. I wanted people to know that no matter what, we would come together in music and sing on,” he said. And they have.

The benefits of the choir to the boys, aged 7–14, are many. Participating keeps the boys mentally stable and healthy. As it had been for Washington, music is their passion. The parents are appreciative of the content and discipline the choir provides. And their resilience is inspirational. Not only have some of the boys come from challenging situations — just like Washington — the choir has made changes to expand its reach and face the global pandemic.

Under Washington’s tenure, the “Sing for Brotherhood” program was created to make music more accessible to families. Many don’t have transportation or financial means to get to the choir’s central Phoenix building. So from Sedona to Maricopa, mini-choirs have been created. A music teacher is recruited in these outlying areas whose job is to create a cadet-level (1st–3rd grade) choir. In a synergized, family-friendly, “day camp” environment, the boys eat together, rehearse together and sing together. Their parents provide food and volunteer throughout the day. Boys have a chance to get their feet wet as members of the choir and parents see how the program works. Boys whose families are financially challenged are also eligible for scholarships.

Understandably, the current pandemic has created hurdles. But Washington says they haven’t missed a single rehearsal. Beginning on March 17, they shifted to an online platform and Zoom as if they were live. He continues to think outside of the box and wants all of Arizona to know the choir is working and thriving, with a fantastic 2021 season to be unveiled soon.

“I am so proud of this organization,” Washington said. “It’s important for the boys to realize they are a light in the world. They make a very positive impact on the audience, each of whom then goes out and shares that positivity with those in their lives.”

It’s a message of hope he shares before each concert. “Music is a universal language that transcends barriers and moves the emotions,” Washington said. “Not long ago, right after we sang, a grandmother came up to me. With tears in her eyes, she told me that she had felt lost and had had suicidal thoughts. But the choir filled her with love and a new sense of life purpose.”

Just like that grandmother, Washington believes the choir saved him. And it’s still saving lives as it continues to sing on.

To learn more, go to boyschoir.org.

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