York University’s City Youth Gospel Project inspires young singers

gospel choir
gospel choir

Some 270 students and their teachers from nine schools in the GTA and beyond will visit York University for Music Professor Karen Burke’s third annual City Youth Gospel Project (CYGP) on Friday, April 29. The event is a participatory performance workshop that promises to raise the roof of the Tribute Communities Recital Hall.

“It’s great to see so many students, many of whom have limited access to gospel music, get into it so intensely,” said Burke, founding director of the hugely popular York  University  Gospel Choir and the Juno Award-winning Toronto Mass Choir. “They always leave with huge smiles on their faces, totally exhilarated by the energy and the communal experience.”

Burke designed the CYGP workshop to give young students the opportunity to experience the rhythm and harmony of gospel music and to practice whole body singing in a mass choir backed by live musicians. Six high schools and three  elementary school are participating in the project.

Karen Burke directs students in the Gospel Choir
Karen Burke directs the York University Gospel Choir. Photo by Judy Karacs

Members of the York University Gospel Choir volunteer as hosts, ushers and performers onstage. Showcasing the performance skills they have learned throughout the year, they are excellent role models for the younger singers.

Music student Philip Torrenueva, who is entering his fourth year studying jazz vocals at York University and has enrolled in the Gospel Choir every year, is a returning volunteer for CYGP.

“I love this event,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see the participants’ nervousness and uncertainty get transformed into adrenalin and confidence. Singing and moving to this high-energy music lifts all our spirits to new heights.

“I’m also extremely happy that we give students a place to worship through the songs,” said Torrenueva. “Sometimes talking about religion is uncomfortable, but Karen’s approach is really great. She respects the diversity of the group, but she allows us to feel the presence and the atmosphere we create with the music.”

Karen Burke. Photo by Judy Karacs
Karen Burke. Photo by Judy Karacs

Fourth-year Social Sciences student Jan Odai is also a returning choir member and CYGP volunteer. “I’m proud to help keep the history of this music alive by introducing it to a new generation of singers,” he said. “Karen shows how gospel is connected to the music of today. It’s really uplifting to see the students react so positively to the music and Karen’s teaching.”

Second-year French Studies student Sabrina Fortino participated in CYGP in her last two years of high school. Discovering though those workshops that she could be join the YU Gospel Choir even as a non-Music major was part of why she chose York for her post-secondary education.

“I took music all through high school and I’m so happy to continue it with the Gospel Choir here at university” Fortino said. “Whole body singing and the connection we feel to the music, to each other and to our audience, is really special.”

Her alma mater, St. Joan of Arc Catholic High School in Vaughan, is returning again to CYGP this year and Fortino will be their host. “I think it will be both cool and reassuring to have someone they know with them and helping out that day,” she said.

Young participants from previous years describe the CYGP experience as “inspiring”, “awesome”, “‘fun” and “upbeat”.

While Burke is still finalizing the repertoire, she says Hezekiah Walker’s old-school, high-energy gospel hit “Clean Inside” is a perennial favourite of singers and audiences alike and will definitely be on the program.

A renowned singer, choral director and composer in the field of African-American vocal music, Burke is recognized as an authority on the history and performance practices of gospel music. She has worked with many leading choral ensembles and organizations, including the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Youth Choir, the Ontario Music Educators’ Association, Ontario Choral Federation/Choirs Ontario and Poland’s Pro Novis Foundation. Her Toronto Mass Choir has been touring and recording in Canada since 1988.