Students from Ramsay High School’s choir class surround a small piano and focus their eyes on choir director Zachary Banks. He begins the class by leading the students through a series of vocal exercises. On a normal day, they would start rehearsing their repertoire. But the last two weeks of choir classes have been different. That’s because in May the students and their teacher are going to Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“Allowing my students to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience and having the opportunity to experience New York in a way that I don’t think they imagined when they walked through the doors of Ramsey High School, that’s been my whole modus operandi,” Banks said. . “Let me take you places.”
Last year, Alabama State University invited the Ramsay Choir to perform with their choir at Carnegie Hall. Jaiden Sturdivant, president of the student choir council, said that when he heard that her school had been invited to sing in New York, he didn’t think twice about going.
“It really wasn’t a decision. He was like, ‘Carnegie Hall.’ We said, ‘Yes,’” Jaiden said. “When someone says you’ve been invited to Carnegie Hall, it’s not really a ‘Well, are we going to Carnegie Hall?’ It’s like, ‘When are we going to go to Carnegie Hall?’”
The major and tenor has been especially busy organizing the big trip. He said being invited based on his reputation as a choir gives him a sense of pride.
“It is a great feeling to know that we were invited. Not just, ‘Oh, we’re going to go to Carnegie Hall to sing.’ No, they invited us to sing,” Jaiden said.
Jaiden’s choir director Banks said these kinds of opportunities are not new to Ramsay. She graduated from high school and when she was in the choir, she had the opportunity to perform for Barack Obama in Washington, DC with his teacher Myrna Ross.
He said it’s an honor to follow in Miss Ross’s footsteps. He promised her that when she graduated he would return to take her place. She passed away before he finished college, but now Banks is making good on that promise.
“Miss Ross was everything. She was my mother when my mother passed away,” Banks said. “She just made sure everything was okay, checking on me, checking grades, making sure she acted right. I enjoyed the music. I started to love music under her tutelage”.
Banks said she tries to show that kind of passion to her students, like Renee Greene.
When she joined the choir last year, she was new to Birmingham and the school, but she said Banks and the choir helped her come out of her shell and gave her a family.
“My first day of school was tough, but (Banks) was actually the first teacher to come up to me and say, ‘How have you been? I know it’s been a little hard,’” Renee said. “Right when I came here, I immediately felt like I found a home.”
Now she’s going to sing at Carnegie Hall.
“Right now it feels unreal. I never really would have imagined that I would be where I am right now, especially in high school choir,” Renee said.
For many of the students, including Renee, it will be the first time they have traveled this far. Renee hopes to combat the nerves of the trip by singing.
“On the way to sing we’re going to be singing on the bus,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know if we’re going to be singing on the plane.”
Even with all the vocal preparations, the choir still has work to do money-wise. Banks said they are considering a $300,000 bill for all students to go. Ramsay students come from all different backgrounds, which Banks says makes fundraising even more important.
“We have students who are homeless and we have children who live in mansions,” Banks said. “So when I look at these students and say the cost is $3,000 per student, some of them immediately think, ‘Okay, let me see. I think my mom and dad, I’ll talk to them and see what we can do. Some of them say, ‘Well, I’m not going.’ And that’s why I’m working so hard.”
So far, they’ve been raising money by selling snacks and candy, soliciting corporate donations, and holding presentations.
Above all, Banks said she hopes this experience shows her students that music can literally take them places.
“I want to offer these students, simply put, the opportunity to experience the world through music.”
Kyra Miles is a member of the Report for America corps that covers education for WBHM.