Youth for Understanding
Chorale Alumni

Making Memories Thru Music

Press Release
Newspaper Articles about the Reunion:

Detroit Free Press, Canton/Northville:  Click Here.

Jackson Citizen Patriot:  Click Here.

Observer & Eccentric (Hometown):  Click Here.

The Youth For Understanding Chorales 1958-1973

Rachel Andresen related that in 1956 a German boy’s inability to explain a point of excellence in American education was the beginning of the sixteen Youth For Understanding Chorales. “Mrs. Andresen,” the boy said, “I can interpret all the things that happened to me when I was in Michigan except that people won’t believe me when I tell them about the music programs you have in your public schools. Why don’t you bring over a choir and let people hear the sound and judge for themselves what happens in your public school music programs?”

“And that,” Mrs. Andresen related, “was the beginning of the Michigan Youth Chorale idea.” The first group went overseas in 1958. Over 1,000 singers were to follow. The Chorale was originally called the Michigan Chorale or Michigan Youth Chorale and later it was named the Youth for Understanding Chorale. The best vocal music students from grades 11 and 12 were selected from participating Michigan high schools on the recommendation of their vocal music teachers. In addition, students needed to qualify as Youth For Understanding exchange students before their music ability was appraised.

The first group was conducted by Lester McCoy and visited Germany. Mr. McCoy continued to direct Chorales on their tours of Europe and South America through 1963. He also developed the program format of sacred and secular works, madrigals, spirituals, folksongs, and popular show tunes that would remain the standard format for all of the Chorales that were to follow.

In 1964, Robert Pratt became the conductor. Under his direction, sections of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass were frequently dissolved and the singers were mixed into SATB quartets. Thus, the overall sound of the group evolved into a richer mixture of blended voices. Mr. Pratt also added the international folksongs always sung in the languages of the countries the Chorales visited.

The Chorales rehearsed weekly from November through June in Ann Arbor. All music was memorized and in June, prior to the tour, intensive rehearsals took place. For seven weeks each summer, the Chorales toured in Northern Europe or South America. Performances took place in cathedrals, schools, major concert halls, prestigious music festivals, and on television and radio. Many of the concerts were accompanied by local orchestras and some were given in the presence of well-known composers, such Zolton Kodaly and Alan Hovhaness.

On two occasions, the Chorales entered the Soviet Union for four days, singing in Russian, and leaving “a rust spot on the iron curtain,” in the words of Arvid Andresen. Chorales received high praise from music critics in both Europe and Latin America. In most locations, the musical ambassadors were housed with families giving them insight into the culture and traditions of their host countries.

Many Choralers have stayed in touch with their families and some have even returned to visit them proving, once again, that music truly is the international language of understanding. From 1971-1973, the Chorales toured South America, Europe, and Central America accompanied by a string ensemble.

At the end of each tour, a homecoming concert was given in Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. The traditional closing pieces were always performed and the alumni from previous chorales were invited to the stage to sing with the current Chorale. Those pieces included “Instrument of Thy Piece”, by Hayden Morgan and dedicated to Lester McCoy and the Michigan Chorale, “Onward, Ye Peoples” by Jean Sibelius, the spirituals, “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit” and “Oh, Freedom!”.
The Chorales existed during a period in history when the wounds of WWII needed to be soothed and the tensions of the Cold War had to be reduced. Their tours occurred almost to the year throughout the entire Vietnam War. In their own way, through music, the Chorales were able to put a face on America rather than just the image presented by foreign media; a young person’s face which showed passion, dedication, understanding, and love for their fellow man.

Many Choralers worked part-time jobs to pay for their trips and drove long distances to rehearse in Ann Arbor. All Choralers today, however, would agree the sacrifice was well worth the effort. And, thus, 200 of the Chorale Alumni gather in June to remember an incredible musical and exchange experience and to ask what they can do to reestablish this concept. It is the task of the Chorale Alumni to find a venue for choral ambassadors so that the Ugly American image that seems to prevail in some countries could, through music, be softened.
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