Any attempt to describe Voices of Unity Youth Choir—winner of two gold medals and a Champion of the 2010 World Choir Games—has to begin with its sound: precise, practiced and, more than anything, powerful. A great choir has certain qualities. Some are tangible like talent and musical proficiency; others are harder to define. For Voices of Unity, it’s what happens when director Marshall White stands before his young singers, and they begin to channel his enthusiasm and energy, producing a sound that is rich, emotional and inspiring.
In 2000, White launched Unity Performing Arts Foundation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was acting on an idea that had been simmering for several years: an organization that would use the arts—music, dance, creative writing, drama and oratory—to teach urban kids self-discipline and character, and to instill the belief that these qualities paired with hard work could make anything possible.
What made that principle challenging was White’s decision that anyone who wanted to be in the choir, regardless of ability, would be allowed to join. “I wasn’t going to audition kids just to tell some of them no,” he says. Over the first six months, those who couldn’t match a pitch when they started learned to sing. “I don’t teach traditional choral techniques,” White admits. “I teach a vocal style whose sound comes from the soul, and people are always telling me how amazing the choir sounds.”
A good deal of that success comes from his disciplined approach to rehearsing. For many of the choristers, it’s a family affair. Currently, the 103 members represent 65 families. They range in age from 6 to 25 and come from Fort Wayne and surrounding communities. One girl makes the weekly trek from Toledo, which is about 110 miles away.
Every three-hour rehearsal begins the same way. Before they open their folders and begin to sing, White delivers a half-hour life lesson, a discussion of the core values that will enable each of his choristers to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life. “Our mission is youth development and creating potential leaders,” he says. The underlying message: No dream is too big to dream.
If there was any doubt about the validity of that concept, it evaporated in 2010 when White and Voices of Unity traveled to China to participate in the World Choir Games. They won gold medals in the Popular Choral Music and Gospel & Spiritual categories, as well as the Champion of the World Choir Games title in the latter category (highest score from the judges). For choir member Stephanie Woodson, the memory of the announcement that the choir had been named Champion remains vivid.
“It was the most incredible moment of my life,” she says without hesitation. “We ran to the stage to accept the award, and sing our national anthem as the American flag was raised in the air. We were so overwhelmed with emotion, and when we returned to our seats, our equally joyful and tearful Chinese tour guides greeted us.” It was an amazing achievement for White and Voices of Unity and one that, seven months earlier, had seemed as likely as a trip to the moon.
In late December 2009, White got a call from Lori Lobsiger, INTERKULTUR liaison in the U.S., later named Director of North American Markets for INTERKULTUR. “I had known Lori when she was executive director of the Embassy Theatre Foundation in Fort Wayne,” White explains. “We had done some performances there, and she fell in love with what we were doing.”
Lobsiger didn’t mince words. “She asked me how I and the choir would like to represent our country at the World Choir Games in China in July” he recalls. Lobsiger estimated that the choir would need to raise at least $300,000 to cover expenses. White didn’t have a clue as to how they could possibly do that.
“I prayed to God to give me the wisdom to figure it out, and it wasn’t long after that, that ideas started coming into my mind,” White says. He designed a fund-raising campaign, recruiting more than 100 people, including key businesspeople. White had only one caveat: “I would tell everyone, if you don’t believe we are going to achieve this, you need to walk away.” Every meeting began with the mantra: “We’re going to China.”
The fund-raising got underway in February, and one week before the 2010 Games, Voices of Unity had raised $470,000 to take 101 people to China. This time around it has been easier. “What we achieved in China let people know that we are the real deal,” White says with pride. At the first fund-raising meeting, one generous donor stepped forward with $50,000.
Voices of Unity is bringing two choirs to the 2012 World Choir Games, the competition choir that hopes to repeat its gold medal-winning performances in the Popular Choral and Gospel categories, and a second choir that will perform but not compete. During the Opening Ceremony, choir members will join a mass choir to sing “I Can—the 2012 World Choir Games Official Song” with Grammy Award–winning artist Kirk Franklin. Thirty-one choristers who took part in the 2010 Games are returning.
One of those veterans, 18-year-old TiErika Hunt, knows that first-timers are in for a life-changing experience. “Going to China taught me that I can do whatever I set my mind to do,” she says. It also sparked a fascination with China’s people and culture. “I’ve been studying Mandarin and hope to someday return and become a translator,” Hunt says, proof that behind the rhetoric of World Choir Games philosophy is a sound truth: Singing does, indeed, bring nations together.