Just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sondra Harnes watched the Soviet Union’s Red Army Chorus sing “God Bless America” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. After experiencing the moving performance, and the emotional response of the audience, Harnes was inspired by the thought of obtaining international peace and unity through song. Thus, in 1990 Harnes, along with James Selway, Rosalind Paterson and Judith Penniman, formed The World Children’s Choir (WCC). The organization moved its rehearsal location to Christ Crossman United Methodist Church in Falls Church this past May.
The choir’s artistic directors, Harnes and Selway, are both professional performers and operatically trained as soloists. Harnes, a lyric soprano, graduated magna cum laude from Southeast Missouri State University and was awarded a full-tuition scholarship by the Julliard School. James Selway, a baritone and accomplished pianist, received a Bachelor of Music degree from the Julliard School. There he was a full-scholarship student in the opera department and member of the American Opera Center. Selway received a Master’s of Music from the American University of America. For the past 25 years they have maintained a studio in Falls Church where they teach voice and Suzuki piano.
Harnes’ idea was to create a children’s choir, providing the highest quality in vocal arts education and promoting cultural diplomacy through international friendship and peace. Part of the mission of the WCC is to raise money for children’s causes and work with organizations, such as UNICEF, Childhelp USA and Save the Children, at charity events. The WCC’s website, worldchildrenschoir.org, describes the choir’s vision. “Through song, children of many cultures and nations, come together. They sing of friendship, peace, understanding and caring for one another and the planet; they sing of hope.”
Artistically, the choir provides children professional training in the vocal arts, performance, vocal coaching and choreography. Children are taught the Bel Canto style of singing to develop solo quality voices. They learn to sing in many languages and perform internationally.
The choir begins working with children as early as age 4 and continues training with students up to 18 years of age. Each ensemble of the WCC provides teaching to students of specific criteria. The Opera Ensemble is geared to high school students ages 14 – 18, while the Junior Choir teaches students age 4through the first grade. The Concert Choir is open to students ages 8 – 18. Bella Voce, the Friends Chorus and Performing Arts at the Heart of Literacy include children from grades 4-12.
The Heart of Literacy program was created to include children from low-income families, so that they too can join the choir. The program allows for some students to study and perform with the choir for free, while a sliding scale was established for those families who are able to pay something, just not the total tuition. The program includes lessons in singing, West African drumming and dancing. The website claims that “up to 25 percent of the Choir members receive needs-based scholarships and no qualified child has ever been turned away for their inability to pay the tuition.”
By learning how music and art express emotion, tell stories and create shared experiences, the WCC’s mission is to help give children a voice, one that will celebrate cultural diversity and promote positive international relations. They believe that “by bringing children from many cultures and nations together in song today, we can sow the seeds of a more peaceful world tomorrow” and that “through the discipline of these musical experiences, children can gain self-discipline, respect, compassion for others and a concern for the environment.”
The WCC has performed for three U.S. Presidents — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, Queen Noor of Jordan, Queen Sofia of Spain and Mikhail Gorbachev, to name only a few prominent audiences.
The lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the White House Ellipse and singing under the stars is just one of the WCC’s noted performances, others include singing at the International Child Art Foundation’s World Children’s Festival, the Youth for Tomorrow International Conference at the United Nations and the National Missing Children’s Day Ceremony held at the U.S. Department of Justice. They have also performed in Romania for a group of teens and young adults mostly comprised of abandoned Roma children.
At the pinnacle of WCC’s vision is peace for all children. Their mission is reflected in a quote on their website by Mahatma Gandhi, saying “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”
And that is exactly where the World Children’s Choir has begun their international journey of peacekeeping, with and for, the children.