How the Ypsilanti Community High School choir returned to the national spotlight

Crystal Harding has fond memories of being in the Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS) choir when she was a teenager.


"I was here in the '80s, and so was my brother," Harding says. "I met my husband in choir, and my daughter sang in the choir. I'm in one of the pictures from 1983 that is hanging in the choir room."


She taught music at Erickson Elementary School in Ypsi Township for 32 years, but when the position of choir teacher at YCHS in Ypsi Township opened up in 2016, she thought of it as an "act of God" and "jumped in, no regrets," she says.


She remembers the glory days when the choir was the "jewel in the crown for decades, winning national and international honors." The choir program hadn't competed in at least four years when Harding came on board, but it is beginning to find success again under her leadership.


First place show choir


During the 2017-2018 school year, Harding was determined to have the choir begin competing again. At the Festivals of Music competition at Northern Virginia Community College in April 2018, the choir took first place in the "show choir" category during its first national competition in four years.


A show choir is a choir that includes dancing and choreography, and often costume changes, with singing. Harding was responsible for adding that element to the YCHS choir.


"Apparently, the adjudicators were not sure what to do with us, because we were the only show choir," Harding says. "All the other choirs were in tuxes and ball gowns, standing up straight and singing opera, and we're turning flips and cartwheels."


Winning a first-place trophy was a thrill for choir members, but so was the entire trip, which included a visit to the nation's capital. It was the first trip out of Michigan for some of the students.


Vera Oakes, now a 15-year-old 10th-grader at YCHS, has sung in school choirs in lower grades and says she likes "the music opportunities" at YCHS. She was 14 and a ninth-grader during the Washington, D.C. trip.


"It was a really big, new experience for me," she says. "I'd been away from home before, but not as far as D.C., always just in Michigan."


Tyrell O'Neal, now a 17-year-old senior, hadn't enjoyed choir as much under a previous teacher and says he feels that Harding was better at "developing musical skills" in her students.


Before joining the choir, he had never been out of the Midwest. His only previous trip out of Michigan had been to Ohio.


"I got to see the White House for the first time," O'Neal says.


Elijah Love, a 16-year-old senior, says he never had a previous opportunity to travel like he did with the choir.


"It was fun seeing all the historical places" around the nation's capital, he says.


"Last year was a great experience," Harding says. "They saw the monuments and said, 'Wow, we've only seen this stuff on TV before.' I was thrilled to see these kids have this experience of history firsthand."


How to get to Carnegie Hall

The choir is currently raising funds for its next big goal: to perform at Carnegie Hall, through an arrangement with CODA Concerts, an education-based performance company that hosts choral festivals in four cities around the nation. During the trip, planned for March 15-19, 2019, students also plan to see the sights in New York City. Harding sang in New York City when she was a student in the choir and wants to give her students more mind-expanding opportunities like the ones she was given.


"I know how much those trips meant to me, and I want these kids to have the same experience," she says.


Oakes is interested in seeing the 9/11 memorial while she's there, and O'Neal is hoping for a glimpse of Madison Square Garden.


"I've always been a huge fan of learning new stuff, and a trip to New York City would definitely be a new thing," Oakes says.


In addition to singing at Carnegie Hall, the students are scheduled to see a Broadway musical and visit NBC studios, Rockefeller Center, and the Apollo Theater.


The choir received an endowment more than 20 years ago, but the group can only spend 7 percent of that money each year. Harding says they're in reach of $35,000, which means they can take about 30 students on the trip. However, 75 students sing in the choir, and she'd like to take everyone who would like to go.


This autumn, choir members have been hosting social media fundraisers and selling items from a brochure. They had raised $5,000 from those efforts as of early October.


Harding says the cost per student for the trip will be around $1,500, but many of the students' families would have a hard time coming up with even $200 out of pocket.


"These trips are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for these kids," Harding says.


Those interested in updates about the choir's performance schedule or upcoming fundraising efforts can keep tabs at the Ypsilanti Choral Association Facebook page or email Harding at CHarding9@ycschools.us for more information.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.