Change Agent offers music theory training with Urban Choral Initiative

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Early in his career as a music teacher, Jonathon Turner led a particularly talented college choir at Emmanuel Christian Academy.

The students were exceptional singers and musicians, he said, but the majority of them could not read music.

“At the same time, I taught in tandem at Purdue University and Mount Union University, and at both institutions I was able to see the direct correlation with African American students who are incredibly gifted, but do not have the theoretical training, and therefore would never be part of these music programs.

“For me as a black educator and as a former black student this was a problem.”

Since 2018, Turner has worked to bridge the gap between talent and training through his nonprofit, Urban Choral Initiative, which offers formal music theory education to middle and high school students in the inner city.

The program began as a six-week summer intensive outside of Akron’s First United Methodist Church, but is now moving to its own space at 222 West Ave. in Tallmadge, where Turner hopes to offer a choral program throughout the year. as scoring, annotation and production courses.

He also plans to partner with the Autism Society of Greater Akron to offer an access program for artists with disabilities and could rent a recording studio and rehearsal rooms for private use.

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“It’s a question of impact and opportunity,” he said. “I want to make sure that I can provide a fair experience for students who just need this exposure, who just need this opportunity to be surrounded by knowledgeable people to help make a difference.”

Jonathon Turner gives a tour of the new headquarters of the Urban Choral Initiative in a former medical practice in Tallmadge.  Renovations are underway, with a ribbon cutting slated for September and an official opening in October.

Turner, 30, who grew up in Akron and now lives in Stow, knows firsthand how important early training can be.

Although neither of his parents could even clap to the beat, Turner grew up with a music-inclined aunt who helped him integrate into the musical community at Shiloh Baptist Missionary Church.

Turner got closer to organist Kenneth McCorvey, who taught him how to write songs on the radio and put them in choral arrangements.

“I have been really lucky and blessed to have access to these opportunities and these people, and I realize without them I wouldn’t be doing anything I do today,” said Turner, who is currently director of choral activities at Cleveland Lutheran High School East and conductor of the Gospel Meets Symphony Choir of the Akron Symphony Orchestra.

By comparison, many young black musicians learn by rote.

“This is largely tradition in the black church and just a little bit in the African American diaspora all together,” he said. “I sing it to you, you sing it back. I slap it to you, you hit it back, and so I internalize it, but I can’t read it if I see it.”

As a result, the young black musicians that Turner targets with the Urban Choral Initiative may have relative height but don’t know how to use it.

“If I start a song in the wrong key, they’ll know where it’s supposed to be because it’s so ingrained, like a string player who can hear A-440 in his sleep,” he said. “It’s there, but they don’t have the theory to know what an A major third is or what an A half step is. They know what it must be like, but they don’t know what key it is, or how to describe it to another musician without just humming it to them. That’s the part they often miss. ”

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And without this skill set, these musicians can’t even get through the auditions door for institutional music programs, which typically require the ability to read music.

In college, this often means that gifted musicians without theoretical support cannot declare a major in music and not be a part of university-sponsored choirs. Instead, they join student-led groups, which often don’t have the same level of funding.

“In a perfect world you can do both, but I want to make sure you have the opportunity to sing Brahms Requiem in Sydney Australia,” he said. “These are the opportunities that I want our students to have, and I know they can’t get them without bridging the gap with music theory.”

Turner added that those in the top choirs aren’t necessarily more innately talented, but rather better trained.

“They had access to things that the kids in the neighborhood, so to speak, couldn’t afford or couldn’t get because poverty is not only money poverty, it is also poverty of people. resources, ”Turner said. “I thought if we could catch them young enough we could give them the formal training they need to match their level of giving so that they can have fairness and be included and fully vetted as good, solid musicians. because they all had the same tools and resources and access that any other student would have.

In the summer of 2018, Turner invited some of his Emmanuel Choir students who were particularly talented but needed training in the inaugural Urban Choral Initiative program, and the 12-person group met for 2 and a half hours three days a week. At the end of the program, they organized a concert and a demonstration to showcase their new musical knowledge.

The following year, their numbers nearly doubled, but Turner was unable to offer any programming in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, Turner began looking for a new space, so the program could expand its offerings and not have to work on the church calendar. He landed in a former doctor’s office on West Avenue in Tallmadge, which offers easy access from Akron, as well as a well-soundproofed space in what was once an x-ray room.

Recently, Turner worked with a student in the 2018 group who is now in his senior year. When they first worked together, Turner taught him the Italian tune “Caro Mio Ben” and the student wanted to prepare him again for a college audition.

“When I first taught him the song, he had a strong ear but wasn’t a strong reader,” Turner said. “You could really hear the difference now and it felt so good. It’s a guarantee that it works. It takes a little longer at this age to see it, but it’s worth it.”

A ribbon cut with Tallmadge officials has been set for September 29, and Turner plans to officially open in October. His lease is for five years and Turner hopes to overtake the space and move to a new, larger location.

Journalist Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, [email protected] or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.

Change agents

The Beacon Journal shines a light on the emerging leaders of the new generations who are making a difference in the neighborhoods, businesses, schools and organizations of Summit County. Do you know of a change agent that we should introduce? Tell us about this person at [email protected] Please include “change agents” in the subject line and be sure to share the contact details of the person.


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