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Final Bow, on Zoom: Joyce Keil Completes 33 Years as Ragazzi’s Artistic Director

October 12, 2020

Among all the challenges to arts organizations brought on by the COVID-19 health crisis, perhaps the greatest difficulties are faced by choruses. The intimate physical distance while singing, with singers described as “super-spreaders” means that for the time being, most choruses and choral organizations simply cannot operate as usual, even supposing that an audience would be able to gather in some form to see them. For Joyce Keil, founder and longtime artistic director of the Peninsula’s renowned boys’ chorus Ragazzi, this crisis came at a culminating moment in her career, interrupting her final season after 33 years. Since the shutdown, rehearsals are taking place online and students continue study with personalized learning plans, utilizing an online learning hub.

“Ragazzi” means boys in Italian but can also be a friendly term for “guys,” as in “ciao ragazzi!” The group has grown from six boys at its founding in 1987 to a multilevel organization with a highly developed curriculum for the 250 boys and young men from over 100 Bay Area schools. The group comprises many levels, from primary groups up to the Concert Group which Keil conducted until her retirement this year. After the boys’ voices change, they can join the Young Men’s Ensemble, directed by Travis Rogers. The group tours regularly and has visited Russia, Japan, South Africa, and Cuba, receiving international acclaim, performing on a Grammy-winning album and at Carnegie Hall. As with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, music education and positive social interaction are core aspirations.

Speaking on the phone from her home in San Mateo, Keil described the shift to online in her final semester.

Tell us about your transition with Ragazzi in response to the pandemic. It sounds similar to how Valérie Sainte-Agathe describes her pivot with the Girls Chorus.

Valérie said a lot of what we’ve experienced. The suddenness of it and the sort of unreality of it. We had a concert scheduled two weeks after March 11, which was our last rehearsal, so we had to cancel the concert, and in my mind, I thought, well, we’ll be back in a month. I didn’t have a plan. The first thing I had to figure out was how to use Zoom, and that took a while. At first, I just had us talk and see how we were doing, but eventually I had to do some classroom management, especially with boys. [Laughs.] Boys are very energetic and certain of them are quiet, certain of them are more outgoing, so I had to structure it so that everyone had a voice, and then I discovered I could actually do some teaching with Zoom, so we learned a new piece.

Our theme for the year was exploring the immigrants from the early 20th century so we were singing music from Poland, Africa, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and Ireland. We were really excited about doing that and we were going to culminate the season with the words from the Statue of Liberty. The kids dug in, and we took it phrase by phrase on Zoom. I asked the kids, “do you mind learning a piece that you may never get to perform?” And they said, “no, we want to do this, we want to keep learning and growing.” That was heartening. Then I learned how to [copy and paste] musical examples with screen sharing so we were able to do sight singing. Choral directors had weekly meetings and exchanged ideas, like what we call chain singing, where you take a passage say, “OK, you four boys, sing in your head and then come in a measure later so we can keep that going,” and they did. I’d read about how adults struggled with singing alone at home and doing virtual things, but the kids just did it.

I think now is a particularly hard time for people who are used to working in a group, at least among the adult performing artists I know. Dancers and singers are so accustomed to physically being close and hearing and feeling one another, the actual in-room vibration.

The kids feel that too. We did a recording of “Stand by Me,” which was part of the theme of the season. We addressed the idea that the immigrants wanted to feel welcome, and we talked about the words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We did this pop song by Morris, and at the end, every single boy said, “I’m so proud of us for hanging in there.” They just decided to be positive, but it’s hard for everyone.

What groups were important to you as a child and young person, that imprinted this love of being together? Was it choirs?

Yes, choir was important to me but I wasn’t really conscious of how important. I fell into choir directing. I wanted to be a singer, but I’m glad I didn’t become a singer because I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the road by myself. I was asked to direct a middle school in Berkeley, I didn’t know what I was doing; then I got asked to direct a church choir. I was singing hymns with my guitar, and I was so amazed people wanted to sing with me and really enjoyed it, and that’s how I got into it, by the back door. Then I went to school. Howard Swan was one of the founding directors of the American Choral Association and I sang with him at Occidental College all four years. At Bentley School, Mrs. Branch was headmistress, and she asked me to come and teach one day a week with my guitar.

What was the most important thing you learned from Howard Swan?

He was so inspirational. One of my favorite quotes from him, he did workshops after I graduated, even in the Bay Area, and he was talking to choir directors, he said, ‘don’t think you can just wave your arms and be Santa Claus up there, you have to do the research.” He would force us as students to feel the feelings of the music. I remember when I went back to school to study music, I studied two versions of a Debussy piece. One was (conducted) by Bernstein and one was by Pierre Boulez, and I said, ‘I want to be Bernstein.’ I’d rather have them be passionate even if it means I have to sacrifice some precision. Boulez is very clean and I love that, but Bernstein is all over the place and I said, ‘that’s who I want to be.’ As a result, I stretched the kids, sometimes too much, but we had some great triumphs. We did the whole Fauré Requiem and I’m very proud of that. The other part of my commitment is that boys need other boys to sing, because boys are continually told not to sing, that they’re going to embarrass themselves.

What is the most important technical advice you give to boy singers whose voices are changing?

I tell them first of all to be patient. They change in many different ways. Some of them change in a way that is not a problem, they just get lower but they can still sing, but some of them crack and they get frustrated and I tell them just to wait. We have a high school group. You know it used to be that when their voices changed it felt like the end. Now they have somewhere to go. We keep them singing treble as long as we can without hurting their voices. I think it’s just providing psychological support and hearing them often as it changes. You have to say, “OK, last week it was this, this week it’s something else.”

We always vocalize down using falsetto and that keeps the cords flexible through the register changes. There are some kids who can’t phonate in that passaggio from the C to the F. Most of them can sing second soprano better than alto because the alto [part] lies in that middle range. We have them change to the high-school group based on their voices, not by age. It really varies so much. I’ve had a couple of extraordinary soloists. I had a boy singing the “Queen of the Night” aria [from The Magic Flute]. Those boys don’t want their voices to change because it’s their identity, while other kids say, “yeah, it means I’m a man! I want my voice to change.”

Talk a little bit more about the societal expectations of boys and men. How did that affect your choice in the early days to found a boys’ choir?

It started when I taught high school here at Crystal Springs [Uplands School] in Hillsborough. I was constantly recruiting men, and it was so hard to get them. Then I worked for San Francisco Boys Chorus for two years as the assistant. I recruited by going to schools, and I would take silly little songs and we’d get everybody singing and the boys would raise their hands wanting to sing the solos and I began to research, well, if boys like to sing, why is it so hard to get them to sing? Then I got into this whole male stereotype.

The thing that’s most interesting to me now, that’s 30 years ago and you’d think now we’re very gender fluid and we’re very accepting of all kinds of definitions of masculinity, but Peggy Ornstein came out with a book this year [Boys & Sex] and it was featured in The Atlantic monthly, and there is still a Bro culture, still an emotional restriction on boys being able to talk about their feelings. I did research on that 30 years ago and it’s amazing that it’s still there.

So, if they want to be emotional and sensitive and explore music that is not loud and rhythmic and about cars and rockets or whatever [laughs], they need to feel safe and they’re going to feel more safe in a group of other boys who feel safe. I did research on this before the pandemic. I have an alumni group in their 20s and 30s, and a couple are almost 40. I asked, “is that true for you? Did you find that you felt safe in the group with Ragazzi?” And they said, “absolutely, but we would never go back to school and talk about what we talk about in Ragazzi.”

I’m personally blown away by the impact. I had no idea that these things were so important to the boys.

I interviewed Vance George at the time of his retirement from the [San Francisco] Symphony, and asked him what had been a low point, but he really said there was no low point, it was just “what you learn when you’re in charge of 200 people.” So pick your question, was there a low point for you, or what do you learn when you’re in charge of 300 people?

When you’re in charge of a nonprofit it’s always a struggle. I believe in allowing people to be who they are and trying to direct that into challenging the group. I’ve had really stable staff, but in the boys’ case, I know Valérie mentioned she didn’t like the word blend, and when I went to Cal State Northridge, which was an opera school, we didn’t use the word blend. We used vowel matching. That’s kind of allowing people to be who they are musically and in their personalities.

With boys I think you need a clear set of structures. And that took me time to learn. They’re very cooperative once they know where the limits are. My classroom management has gone through trial and error to much more positive reinforcement. I’m very interested in giving people agency, so boys have a sense of ownership about what they’re doing. They can have questions, they can suggest repertoire, they can tell me they think somebody’s behavior needs to be improved. I had one kid tell me, “we need more second sopranos. You didn’t balance the chorus right!”

How upsetting is it to realize that choral singing, for now, is just not safe?

It’s really scary. I’m so lucky to be in the Silicon Valley. We have a parent who is working on a system, you know how on Zoom when you talk all at once it doesn’t work? He is working on something. They’ve already coordinated eight kids on the phone, so people can contact Ragazzi if they want more info, I have no idea technically what it is but it’s something about the lag time. [Executive Director and now Artistic Director] Kent Jue knows something about it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted before Ragazzi rolled out its new technology for online rehearsal. Read an article about that here.

What are your plans?

One of the things I’m really interested in is outreach. Especially here in Redwood City, there is a whole Latino community that is pretty isolated from Ragazzi, so I would love to get something going there. I would also love to do projects, like choral preparation for some of these local opera companies, and I’ve done a lot of musicals. I’d love to do more musicals. I’d love to do vocal coaching, not the same person every week, I did that for 35 years, but I want to do something, I need to let the energy out.

Talk about family involvement. What has surprised you over the years.

The thing that’s amazing to me is how moved the parents are. I was told by several people that Ragazzi was the most important thing in their kids’ development, in terms of developing social leadership skills, and intellectual development. We have those kids for 10 years so we have consistent friendships and consistent learning.

I started a scholarship fund because I wanted to make sure we could always reach out to boys who want to sing, especially with financial ups and downs, and the number of people who have given well over a thousand dollars is incredible to me. They care a lot. The other thing is they have to drive, and that has been really difficult — compared to 30 years ago — with traffic. They come from Fremont. We’ve even had people come from San Francisco. We have a number of people come from Pacifica.

A lot of people are worried about the arts right now as funding priorities shift to social justice. Do you have thoughts or concerns about that? The Mellon Foundation just announced a shift from the arts to social justice. I wonder if there’s anything you want to say about that.

The Arts are key to social justice, for many reasons. Ragazzi has traveled to Cuba. We’ve traveled to South Africa. We’ve traveled to Central Europe. And what the boys see is people from all these different cultures, all these different people unified in music. When Italy was experiencing such large numbers of cases of COVID-19, what did they do? They sang.

I used to write blog posts for our parents for years, and the arts are key to our health. I’m very concerned that we don’t give money to that. You get kids together in a chorus, and they have nothing in common but that, and they form these great friendships. It also develops empathy. If I ask the boys what they love most about being in Ragazzi, they say it’s the looks on people’s faces when they sing. I’m very frustrated by the blindness of government not recognizing the importance of the arts in the school district. They’ve cut art and music. They think it’s a frill. It’s ancient wisdom. Plato used to say that to create a well-educated person you offer gymnastics for the body and music for the mind.

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.