New Pathways: Steeped in tradition, Houston Boychoir embraces its future

For nearly 60 years Houston Boychoir has helped young men master the skills they need to shine both on and off the stage. One of the premiere choirs of its kind in the country, it has nurtured three generations of boys since its founding in 1962.

And yet, like so many nonprofits in the arts sector, Boychoir rarely found the time it needed to focus intently on the future.

That changed last fall, when Boychoir signed on for EmcArts’ New Pathways for Arts & Culture, a three-year program that creates the space and conditions for partner organizations to tackle their most complex challenges through effective innovation. Representatives of Boychoir joined peers from Catastrophic TheatreFifth Ward CRCGalveston Historical Foundation, Houston Early MusicSilambam Houston, and The Pilot Dance Project for Phase 1 of New Pathways | Houston, a series of six workshops focused on building adaptive capacity.

“If an organization isn’t growing and learning, we know what it’s doing,” said Carole Nelson, who joined Boychoir in 1991 as a part-time vocal coach and music educator. She took the helm as artistic director in 2004.

“I feel very strongly about the growth of the organization behind the music, not just the music that we deliver. But as a small staff, we do everything — titles don’t really matter around here — and normally there isn’t really time for this kind of exploration. When you can stop the day-to-day activities and focus, it is extremely beneficial.”

During the workshops, funded by Houston Endowment and led by facilitators with EmcArts, Boychoir identified alumni engagement as a challenge that needed serious attention. While the 100 or so boys who participate in the program in a given year are its greatest asset, keeping up with them after they graduate from high school can be an arduous task — especially for an organization that has no digital records before the year 2000.

“By the time they reach 18 they have a greater understanding of what they have received and, in many ways, a great deal to give back to the organization,” Carole explained. “But this is a time in a young person’s life where they are moving around a lot and hard to keep track of.”

Interested in creating a mentorship program that pairs alums with boys in the program, Boychoir decided on some steps it could take to help achieve that goal. In December the nonprofit invited alums who live in Houston and those on break from college to a holiday gathering to renew old friendships and create new connections. The multigenerational gathering turned out to be a hit.

“I’ve known them since they were 10 and 12 and 14 years old,” Carole said. “To see the kinds of men that they have become, to see them as fathers and contributors to society at large, is very moving on a personal level. It speaks more than words possibly can.”

Next on the staff’s agenda is planning a panel discussion during which alums can share their experiences in college and beyond with current choir members.

“We’ve been trying to get alumni more involved in participating with the choir,” said Haley Bartell, who began work with the nonprofit several years ago as an accompanist and recently added executive associate to her job duties. “They share a story that is really powerful.”

As participants of New Pathways | Houston continue their  adaptive journeys into 2020, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for Boychoir. Carole, whose nearly 30-year career with the group included leading the boys on concert tours through East Germany, the Republic of China and South Africa as well as a Carnegie Hall debut, has decided the time has come for new leadership.

“In order to protect the organization for the long term — not for me personally but for the boys and families in Houston and for the music — it’s time to transition,” she said. “Haley is in training, developing as an executive director. We don’t have an exact date on the transition yet but in the next few years it will happen. We are now in place to support Haley in her growth and development.”

Toward that end, and in tandem with New Pathways | Houston, Haley signed on for EmcArts’ Adaptive Leaders as Cultural Innovators (ALACI) program. The year-long commitment began with workshops in February and will continue online due to COVID-19.

Haley said she already feels buoyed by meeting others in the ALACI cohort dealing with similar transitions: “The best thing is interacting with a community of peers who haven’t been in leadership very long and being able to be open and vulnerable with them — to know that you are not alone.”

Through individual coaching sessions, Haley hopes to discover her leadership style and hone the adaptive skills she needs to successfully lead Boychoir in the future.

“I am really grateful ALACI came along when it did,” she said. “I love that this is an organization that makes music happen for so many boys who might not have access to it otherwise. I wanted to make music happen, and this is an organization that does it to the fullest.”

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