Iris Stevenson Gets a Helping Hand

SBO Staff • ChoralSeptember 2011UpClose • September 20, 2011

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For decades, director Iris Stevenson has led her sprawling choral group from Crenshaw Senior High School in South Central Los Angeles just about anywhere she could manage. The strategy has paid off – giving generations of kids trips they’d never dreamed of and the inspiration to make take steps forward in all aspects of their life. But with a program as large as this one (currently around 800 members, but topping off at one point around 1,200), there can be precious little time left for fundraising. This year, with a little help from MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, the group was able to secure last-minute funding for a life-changing trip to China. 

At a Glance: Crenshaw High School

Location: 5010 11th Avenue, Los Angeles, CA

On the web:

Students in the CHS Choral Program: 800

Students Enrolled at CHS: 2,600

The now-legendary Stevenson has served at Crenshaw since 1985 and her groups have consistently blown away audiences across the country, in foreign nations, and in churches right in their own backyards for decades. They’ve been personally invited on tours of France by President Jacques Chirac and good will campaigns across Asia. Word got around this summer that they might have a chance to send the choir to China with an international student delegation, but her group had no plan.

A well-timed pep rally-style symposium on the school’s progress with politicians and corporate donors televised live from the school on MSNBC changed all that. The cable station’s Joe Scarborough and Brzezinski met Stevenson and got a first-hand look at the choir’s high-energy gospel, step, and traditional arrangements. Brzezinski in particular made it her mission to get the choir to China and spent a few days plowing through her contacts until former Walgreens executive Hal Rosenbluth stepped up to sponsor the whole trip. A few weeks later, Stevenson and 59 of her students were singing civil rights anthems on the Great Wall of China.

Just another chapter in the long line of programming miracles to file away for the Crenshaw choir that ensure that for any newcomers to the urban school, there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

Spread across a wide swath of storied Los Angeles neighborhoods that border nearby affluent areas like Baldwin Hills and View Park, the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Central L.A. isn’t the first place Buffalo, N.Y. native Stevenson thought she’d end up. Fresh out of graduate school for music education, she says she picked up the job almost as a missionary position, expecting a short-term commitment to help breathe life into a program besieged with gang violence and high drop-out rates.

Before she knew it, things were turning around by leaps and bounds and her music education program had evolved into a tight-knit family support network for hundreds of kids a year. Her school, which serves a neighborhood vividly portrayed for its social problems in music and films like “Boyz N the Hood,” became known as a stronghold for youth from a wide variety of domestic backgrounds.

Today, the program is known throughout the world for its spirited performances, moving personalities and Stevenson’s own thoughtful arrangements. The Crenshaw choral universe is ever-shifting, but made up of a core of six groups – a mixed choir, chorale, glee club, men’s chorus, women’s chorus, and jazz choir. The Crenshaw Elite Choir includes everyone. Stevenson builds the group’s skills in all directions, and though there is no specific gospel choir, their performances of gospel music are legendary. “I thought if I’m the only vocal music teacher here during this time, then they need to learn everything from the arias to country music,” says Stevenson.

Choral Director recently caught up with Stevenson talk about her approach to maintaining such a special program, using the choir as a way to open the eyes of both her students and her audiences, and her uniquely hands-off approach to fundraising.

Choral Director: Let’s get into this recent trip to China, which seems to have grown exponentially once the story was picked up on cable news just a few weeks before the trip.

Iris Stevenson: It’s something I’ll never forget. I remember being at our school and we heard that about 14 of our students were maybe going to China as student ambassadors from our school. We didn’t know who was putting on the Crenshaw to China trip, but we heard about it. And we were happy that they’d chosen 14 students to go to China and our Los Angeles Urban League evolved into making opportunities happen for our school.

CD: MSNBC did a broadcast with you to talk about the school going to China, and at that point you already had choir members volunteering just to be part of the video interview. There were no intentions of actually getting to China at that point?

IS: What you couldn’t see was the choir sang all night, even when they weren’t filming. The students that were involved in the MSNBC program asked if they could just bring pillows and sleeping bags to the school and we just slept in the area waiting for the interview to start. We just didn’t want to miss that interview, which was early the next morning. So we sang from about one o’clock in the morning until seven in the morning. All night long. We had our step show the next day, and the kids stayed in school all day and then performed that night on next to no sleep! But they did it for MSNBC.

I’m a fan of Joe Scarborough and I like the “Morning Joe” show! The person I also like is Mika Brzezinski. She said “I think this choir needs to go to China.” I remember looking over my shoulder and saying, “Did Mika say she wants the choir to go to China?” Really, you hear a lot of stuff like that. In our neighborhood, we hear a lot of promises. Some of them come to pass and some don’t. Well, right away, within four days, I received a call. “You guys are going to China.” I’m so grateful that other people feel as passionate about investing in young people as I do. And that they had the money and they stepped up and put their money where their mouth was.

CD: What was the material that you performed?

IS: We used “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” “Long John Done Gone” by Jester Hairston. Our whole presentation was about our presentation from Africa to the United States and beyond. So we went through the trans-Oceanic period then the Civil War period. What happened during the Civil Rights period and different periods of our history, and even now with current music trends. It was received extremely well. In fact, I think that we’re going to keep the presentation together and just take it out on the road.

We did about 15-20 songs, including the civil rights songs. I wrote, “The Day of Our Capture,” which included call-and-responses in Swahili, we sang in the Urhubo language and danced. They’d been passed down from generation to generation. We did “tree songs,” the call from tree to tree. With that whole piece, we scripted a day from 4am to the time of capture. We went from “tree songs” to a “A Call to Hunt,” which was “Ose Yia” – “Are you ready to hunt?” Then we went from that, completing the hunting and eating, into their jumping of rope and their celebration and on into their dance after we sang a part of Allunde, which is a lullabye. It’s really different.

CD: How did the Chinese students react to the visit?

IS: What we enjoyed about the Chinese delegation was that they didn’t have a choir but they all had pure singing tones. Just beautiful. They wanted to sing for us and they just sang and we had a young lady who was almost afraid to play the piano. I let her play the piano and she played a Chopin etude. I mean just to see that – she had it memorized and I was able to assist her with it. Piano is what really started it for me. I love piano. I kind of fell into the choral music and it just looks like I have a dual emphasis, but my first love is piano.

They were just so shy because they were suddenly the center of attention. But that’s the way our kids do it – if you’re singing, everybody gathers around you. And if another person’s singing, everybody gathers around that person. They wanted to sing and dance together, you know with the latest dances. Then they began doing some of the Tai Chi sort of demonstrations. It was first-hand and really wonderful.

CD: You had also made a promise to trek to the Great Wall of China and sing when you went on MSNBC.

IS: Right. Now at the Great Wall– that was maybe 500 people watching. What we did there was really impromptu. I had stated that we’d do it, but we were just going to do a little something. But it turned into singing and stepping and performing and they wanted more and more.

CD: Any other locations?

IS: I remember singing in Tienemen Square and so many people just ran over. It was just a few of us – we were just singing because we were by the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. We’d heard how the young students in that square were talking about freedom, they were basing it upon Martin Luther King, Jr. and non-violence. So we wanted to sing some of the songs from those days to let them know that these songs are associated with your struggle. But we didn’t come over to be a political catalyst or anything like that. We didn’t want to do anything like that. We sang “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” things like that. There were just so many people that came over to where we were standing. There was only seven or eight of us at that point. But it was just a moving tribute, I remember, that even the police were rocking and singing. We stopped singing because I felt like we needed to disband to avoid an unlawful assembly. We didn’t want to cause any problems.

CD: It must have been incredible to get these kids over there for all that, but you actually have a lot of different trips throughout the year that different parts of your choir gets to participate in. Does that mean that you end up spending a lot of time with fundraising in general?

IS: I can’t do a lot of fundraising, honestly. I just can’t. I went really deep into my head, but it’s just that fundraising really takes away my creativity. I can’t do it and maintain the level – you hear a lot of people that say, “Okay, we need you, Iris.” At this point, I tell people that when it comes to fundraising, the “F” word is not allowed. It’s just not allowed. But, we’ll do it. I will plead, I will beg, I will do that. But fundraising will just stifle me creatively.

CD: Was there a time when there was more pressure to work on fundraising?

IS: You’re always pressured to provide funds. So since we know we don’t have the deep pockets, we raise funds through mom and pop contributions. So we’ll do the concerts and sometimes they’ll pay. We don’t require payment for performances – I think that’s awful. You can’t be paid for every performance. But we’ve been blessed to have people that look at us and invest in us and we’ll perform to the highest degree necessary to keep our program going. So we do a lot of community things. Nothing is too small.

An example of that is a project we did called “Food from the Hood.” Our project was that we were going to grow our own vegetables and do Farmer’s Market-type activities. We grew vegetables and made our own salad dressing, we marketed our own dressing and raised scholarships for our young people. It was a great project. Our horticulturalist asked us to sing to the ground so it would produce. All of us laughed it off because we’re singing to this fallow ground at this point, but it was a fun thing.

Out of that investment came a call from Prince Charles, who is an avid gardener. He called and said that he was going to be in Los Angeles and would like to visit the garden and have our choir sing for him. I wound up arranging a his song, “God Bless the Prince of Wales,” and hugged him when he visited. He arranged for us to go to St. James Palace in London. It was a fantastic trip to perform for, as they say, “our friend, Prince Charles.”

CD: It’s amazing how many opportunities just seem to open up for the group.

IS: I think you need to just serve – serve your community, serve your school. School should be fun. At this age, in high school, these are the last years of their so-called “free education.” After that, life happens. They may never have another opportunity to travel anywhere in their life. So they need to use this time to see other cultures. That’s been my shtick from the very beginning – I’ve had the opportunity to travel and I want other people to have the chance to have a classroom without walls. I believe that. I believe we need to learn and be globally minded. We have to believe in global education.

We’ve done so much that a lot of our stuff is on YouTube so people end up seeing it and finding ways to contact us. We did the NBA All-Star weekend this year. You have to be popular in other areas other than music circles. When that came up, we were the coolest choir in L.A. because we were there when Blake Griffin jumped over a car. I believe in exposing them to a lot of different things. After that, a lot of things came up, like “America’s Got Talent.” And living near Hollywood and all that filming, they’re always looking around for people who are willing to perform. You have to have a sound and be willing to work hard and work out something different.

CD: That must be amazing for the kids to wake up and head to something like that and then perform on national TV later on that same day. There aren’t a lot of places where that’s an option at all!

IS: I know. We try to keep them focused and appreciative for those opportunities. There are a lot of places where they don’t have these opportunities and since we rotate, we don’t want the same students to have the same opportunities all the time. I also have a lot of special needs students. I give them opportunities so they can say, “I can have this.” That’s been my thing since I started here.

CD: Let’s talk about those early years – what had your experience been leading up to Crenshaw?

IS: I’m a product of Villa Maria Institute of Music in Buffalo. It was one of the first Fine Arts institutions in the country. 16 kids from across the country that could do college work in junior high. There were some of us in 7th grade, some 8th graders, some 9th-graders. We thought we were mighty. I was born and raised in the projects of Buffalo, N.Y. I started playing the piano at three and started writing music at four and I guess I was considered a child prodigy.

So I was picked for this program and from there I decided to go to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. I went to teach at Canisius College in Buffalo but decided the college scene was not for me. I was seeing all the minority students dropping out of school. I wanted to find out where they were, so I left teaching on that level and continued my quest and wound up attending SUNY in Buffalo for teaching, where I got my Master’s.

The Other Side of Crenshaw’s Powerhouse Music Program

Iris Stevenson isn’t just the choral director at Crenshaw Senior High – she’s also the chairperson of the music department (and even has an entire wing of the school named after her). One of her closest colleagues is band director Al Tarver, who began teaching at Crenshaw 15 years ago after a career as a classical and jazz trombonist.  He spoke with Choral Director about the examples and inspiration he’s taken from Stevenson throughout the years.


What is it that helps Ms. Stevenson develop such  successful relationships with her students? 

She really cares a lot for the kids and goes out of her way to make sure they’re learning everything. She’s like a mother to the music department and the entire school.


What have you learned from her as an educator?

Patience.  Simple as that – more patience.  Before coming here, I was just a freelance musician in classical and some jazz.  You get used to working around mature and older people, there are certain things that you just take for granted. When you start working at the high school level, you’ve got to have patience because these kids are going through those puberty years.

You have to love what you’re doing and you have to love the kids you’re working with.  If that love is not there, you’re just going through the motions. The money isn’t all that great so you have to have something beyond that. It’s really the love.  She’s really locked into that.   Before I came, the music department didn’t have an instrumental program for years, but she kept the instruments locked in the cabinet and exclaimed that the school better get a music director.  She told me all of this and that was instrumental in me taking the job, because I saw her commitment.


Had she been looking for a band director long?

They’d had a few but they’d only stay a few months and then never come back.  In inner city schools, it’s a different level of energy that you’ve got to deal with.  If you’re not ready, it’s going to take you by surprise. I hadn’t taught, but I’m from Alabama and I went to a school exactly like this one. In way of speaking, I’m from the streets, so I just really understood them and knew the different things to do to keep it running smoothly.


What are some things that you’d picked up that came in handy?

I just know that the students need to know somebody cares for them. They get a lot of nonsense in the streets so they’ve got to at least be able to identify with one person that’s got their back.

When I came here, I could see some of the same things with Ms. Stevenson. You’re looking for someone to identify with, especially with a lot of the kids coming from broken homes or single-parent homes. Sometimes they’re looking for a male role model, someone to care for them.


What do you see with Iris – what are some ways she connects with students that you learn from?

See, it’s just that Iris is from New York and basically the streets too, so she can identify with and look at things subjectively and tell if something is going on at home or they’re not at peace. She will either talk to them  or do something to alleviate that.


Is there anything from her program that you found musically inspiring?

What I really enjoy is the energy. The music has to be energetic in the instrumental program if you have a lot of energy in the choral program.  When I first came here, I said it wasn’t just going to be all about marching band music and hip-hop. I said that’s good for football season, but I said we’d also learn the classical repertoire and jazz music. And the kids actually really bought into it because they identify it with cartoon music and motion picture themes.  So I said, “Okay!” They really got into it and started learning their instruments.  That’s been my outlook from day one, and she has a similar approach to make sure the kids learn from all aspects.  And each year, all of our seniors get scholarships.  They buy into the program and then they know they’re going to college somewhere.


CD: There was something of an exponential growth in membership after you arrived at Crenshaw High School, right?

IS: When I started, there were 12 members, and at some point soon it had grown to 1,200.

CD: Wow. That must have a profound impact on the culture of the school.

IS: When I came, I was brought there because they were havin g a little bit of a gang problem and it gave the young people something else to do besides participating in a gang. You get in the choir gang and it gives you a place to belong. The 1,200 was overwealming – I’m a paperwork person so I was working myself to the bone. Grades, reading papers – it was too much. We cut down to 1,000 or 850, gradually. We met with a lot of resistance because people want to participate.

CD: That gang problem changed over time?

IS: There are gangs but they’re greatly reduced. I believe that’s what held the fascination to me, that we can actually plug in and make a change. And we did. I believe in basing the choir upon a family concept and that’s what was missing. We found that the parents were abandoning the kids and grandparents were picking up the reins. When I saw that we were dealing with a lot of grandparents, I asked them to come out of retirement be the grandparents of our musical department. So I would have these volunteers and some would just come through and walk through campus. That’s really what we did to stop the gangs – the gangs saw their grandparents. Who wants to beat up anybody when your Big Momma’s watching or your Big Daddy’s watching? They stopped that nonsense.

CD: Do you have any changes in your goals for the kids to get to by the end of the semester?

IS: Our councilors tried to give me the same students for the entire year. Sometimes, if we can, we’ll get them in for four years. Because music evolves, the teaching methods evolve. You always have new examples that are out there, but the techniques are the same. You have to breathe properly and you have to articulate and we have to make sure their blend is there, their tone. That never changes, it’s just a matter of blending it all together, just like cooking, you know. The techniques change, but you better get those proteins and vegetables in there!

CD: You’re not dealing with the same students every semester?

IS: Yes. It is really amazing that we can accomplish as much as we accomplish and we have them for just a year. Wow. If we can get them for even a whole year, that’s great. We have some that remain, a nucleus that remains for four years. They don’t want to go anywhere else or experience anything else, but for everyone else there’s not enough time. But they stay around. It’s not just “Wham, bam, thank you m’am.” They’ll spend lunches with me. So I don’t really have preparation time because they all want to be there. But I love my students and I think that’s what they look for. They look for the love, the acceptance and someone to really believe in them and keep them on the cutting edge of society. They know that’s the link, so they come on into the hallway for some new energy and revitalize and then go on.

CD: So when you went to China, were you sure to include kids from the nucleus to go over?

IS: I know I’m crazy, because you know if you’re going to China you have to take your best voices, but it’s not like that at our school. A lot of times the ones with the best voices stay home. We’ll take the ones that need the experience more. I don’t know what they’ve been through that particular year, but I want to make sure we provide an opportunity not to the smartest or most talented, but to the ones that need it the most. I have to know each one personally. We know their parents, their sisters, their brothers. We know their ups and their downs. We know their names and their stories, so whatever opportunities come in, we try to plug them in.

CD: Does any student in particular stand out as someone whose personal life has touched you recently?

IS: So one of my keyboard students was this guy who just loved playing keyboards and was a great, gifted football player. And the other guys won’t tease the people because at our school, it’s really cool to be a football player and be in music. So this guy was playing, just smiling and everything, and I had him for four years. This last year, his weighted average was 4.3 which he carried all the way through high school. And I said, “Where do you want to go to school?” He said “Air Force Academy.” I said I knew he could – he was a very smart young man. Then, as I was reading his application, I noticed something very peculiar – he was homeless. The whole family was homeless and he wanted to make sure that he excelled so his brother would know that you could smile and excel even though you were in the back of a car.

But that’s how important education is. This guy was really special. He was accepted to Harvard and Yale, but he chose the Air Force Academy and people started pouring scholarships into this guy. He says, “I could make it, but I want to make sure my mom and my brother could make it.” So the Academy made sure that his mom and brother were housed before he left Los Angeles. He wasn’t leaving otherwise. I mean there were hundreds of stories just like that. He just graduated and has a full ride.

Just a great guy and loved to sing. We have hundreds of students like that.

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