As the minister of music at Grace First Presbyterian Church, Stan DeWitt always thought about bringing a music program to the greater community.
With several children’s choirs sprinkled throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties, Long Beach was lacking a program of its own, despite its population size, DeWitt said.
“We thought, ‘This is perfect,'” DeWitt said. “This would be something for us to do that will create something that the city could use and wants.”
In 2017, the Long Beach Youth Chorus officially began.
“In the beginning, as a small organization, it was just kind of hard to get the word out and kind of hard to get traction in terms of word-of-mouth and getting kids to come in,” DeWitt said.
However, the organization continued to grow steadily up until the pandemic, reaching about 30 children in 2019.
In the summer of 2020, though, the organization’s first artistic director left to move out of state, and by the end of the 2021 season, the youth chorus had dwindled down to 10.
“I think that being small actually probably helped us weather the pandemic because it’s not like we lost a ton of money on tuition because we didn’t have that much coming in anyway,” DeWitt said. “I think the thing that saved us through those challenges was the support of the Long Beach arts community and Long Beach foundations.”
The organization primarily recruits youth through word-of-mouth, and through outreach in Long Beach schools, an approach that stalled during the pandemic.
“Right now, the main thing for us is just get the word out so that people know what we’re doing,” DeWitt said. “And then it kind of speaks for itself, I think, once they see what’s going on.”
But after hiring new artistic director Stevie Hirner, who brings an “energy and an excitement and a real kind of focused dedication to the program,” the Long Beach Youth Chorus is “now starting to take off again,” DeWitt said.
For the first time in the organization’s history, the Long Beach Youth Chorus has grown to over 40 singers, and last season it added on a second program specifically for younger musicians in grades two through five.
The new program currently has about 20 youth involved, in addition to the sixth-through-12th grade program, which has another 22 students.
Adding an additional group for younger students, who are just starting to develop the ability to sing and understand musician concepts, was particularly important for DeWitt, he said.
While nearly all of the high schools in the Long Beach Unified School District have choirs (apart from magnet schools), DeWitt estimated that about seven middle schools do not have choirs. At the elementary school level, there are no choirs—while music teachers visit schools, it is fairly limited, DeWitt said.
“There’s much more of a need at that level than there is at the older level,” he said.
According to DeWitt, arts in schools typically take a backseat compared to athletics and STEM offerings, particularly since Proposition 13, which passed in 1978 and drastically shifted how California public schools are funded, he said.
During the youth program, students not only sing, but begin to explore reading music, along with fundamentals of music and rhythm, DeWitt said.
“That then helps them when they go to the older chorus, because they’re prepared to really do some more advanced work quicker,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt has his sights set on eventually growing to four or five choirs, with some being audition-only—neither chorus currently requires an audition, and audition-free programs will always remain, he said.
“We want to eliminate barriers for any child to sing with us,” DeWitt said.
Music has the potential to improve the lives of both children and adults—and in some cases, even save lives, DeWitt said.
In high school, as DeWitt fell more deeply into music, it helped him avoid many problems that some of his peers faced, he said.
While singing in the Cal State Long Beach university choir as a student, DeWitt had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand and Australia for seven and a half weeks.
“It deepened my friendships with people in the choir. It gave me experiences that I never would have had otherwise,” DeWitt said. “That tour changed my life. I just want to give kids maybe not seven and a half weeks, but I want to give them those opportunities.”
In October, 10 of the nonprofit’s older singers had the opportunity to sing with the USC Chamber Chorus.
“When the USC Chamber Singers started singing, they were standing behind our kids … our kids’ eyes just widened to the size of saucers,” DeWitt said. “They were just blown away, they’d never experienced anything like that. So those are the moments that for me keep me going through this because it’s just—we know we’re doing it for kids. And to actually see that reaction in them is what makes it all worthwhile.”
The Long Beach Youth Chorus is kicking off its first tour this year with a trip to San Diego in May, but a long-term goal for the organization is to eventually tour internationally.
“It gives choral singers a kind of sense of personal autonomy and confidence. It expands their worlds a little bit and also creates really meaningful opportunities for even deeper friendships and relationships within the chorus,” DeWitt said. “When you sing in the choir, you have this sense of being part of something that’s bigger than yourself and you’re an integral part of it, but to then take that on the road … it just really deepens that experience for singers.”
Registration for the next Long Beach Youth Chorus begins in May. Join the Long Beach Youth Chorus for a gala on March 11 at First Congregational Church, 241 N. Cedar Ave.; tickets can be purchased for $25 here. Contribute to Long Beach Youth Chorus here.