by Kate Branum • photography by Michelle Wise
The adolescent years of every girl’s life serve as the most crucial period of emotional development. These pivotal years begin to unearth some of the most difficult questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be?
Monique Salinas, founder of the Girls Choral Academy (GCA), knows all too well that the confidence required to provide definite answers to these internal inquiries is often challenging to grasp, and many girls need a secure outlet to help find their voices. She created the GCA in 1997 after watching her daughter struggle with self-esteem issues in an attempt to empower young girls in similar positions.
“As a doctoral student (in music), (Salinas) noticed that girls were very involved in music all the way through elementary school and high school, but as soon as they got to the college level and above, almost all music directors were men,” Lori Tennenhouse, executive and artistic director of the Girls Choral Academy, explained. “She thought, ‘Well, why aren’t girls seeing themselves at higher levels?’ It prompted her to do something in music that empowers girls.”
The GCA, formerly known as the West Michigan Academy of Music for Girls, strives to create a safe space dedicated to building leadership skills and self-confidence. Through inspiring music programs, young girls with a passion for singing are coached and encouraged to grow both artistically and personally as members of a close-knit community.
“(The programs are) also about infusing the girls with a sense of confidence–trying to get them to use their voices and to feel comfortable, and part of that is creating a space where they can trust each other,” Tennenhouse said.
The singers involved in the GCA are students from public, private, charter and parochial schools throughout West Michigan. There are two main groups within the academy: the Grandville Avenue Girls Choir, which is an after-school program consisting of girls in grades third through eighth who attend Southwest Community Campus School, Chavez Elementary or Buchanan Elementary, and the Campus Choir, which is a city-wide program for girls ages 5-18.
The Grandville Avenue Choir rehearses each week at First United Methodist Church in downtown Grand Rapids to prepare for various performances in the community and concerts throughout the season. During practices, the singers learn correct posture, breathing and vocal techniques, part-singing and stage presence.
In the past, the choir has collaborated with Grandville Avenue for the Arts, Grand Rapids Ballet and Artists Celebrating Together. The girls also plan a Christmas caroling outing each December at Pridgeon and Clay Manufacturers and surrounding neighborhoods.
While a love for singing is the main agent binding these girls together, Tennenhouse emphasizes that the goal of the Academy is much more than matching pitch and learning songs–it’s about creating experience. Each spring, the young singers have an opportunity to explore possible career paths. By talking about the future so early, Tennenhouse hopes to instill a growth-centric mindset to get each girl thinking about what’s next.
“We’ll take 15 to 20 minutes out of every choir session and we’ll do some brainstorming,” Tennenhouse said. “We also have people come in to talk to the girls about careers, and we will take college visits to tour (campuses) and talk to students.”
At the end of the season, the choir is rewarded with a trip to Chicago. This experience away from home–a first for many of the girls–creates unforgettable memories, forms new connections and serves as an added boost of confidence as they navigate the unfamiliar city together.
“It’s a big deal for the girls to be out of (Grand Rapids) without their parents–it’s an accomplishment, but it’s also a different view of the world, which is a big part of what we are trying to do–expose them to different experiences,” Tennenhouse explained.
Many girls who began in the Grandville Avenue Choir cross over into the Campus Choir. This diverse program is currently made up of 80 girls–all from different areas, ages and backgrounds. The Campus Choir often collaborates with other local choirs in the community, including the Grand Rapids Women’s Chorus, an organization founded by Tennenhouse in 1996.
“The idea is that these girls, who come from all over the city and may not have much in common economically, come together and get to know each other and become comfortable with people from other neighborhoods,” Tennenhouse said. “(We want) to build community so the girls can feel good about themselves, but also so they can go to any city when they grow up and have a community–all they have to do is join a choir!”
While the GCA is tuition-based, the program holds true to its main rule: No one gets turned away. The organization works year-round to raise money for tuition assistance and scholarships for those who need help pursuing their passion.
In addition to local performances, the Campus Choir travels to locations both in and out of state. Last year, the group sang at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island; this year, they are planning to sing at Disney World in Florida.
“The one thing that I think is just so exciting is exposing kids to different kinds of music and watching them grow and appreciate beauty and art,” Tennenhouse said. “I feel like that’s infusing in them a little seed that they will carry with them throughout their whole lives.”
At the moment, both the Grandville Avenue Choir and the Campus Choir are gearing up for the annual Let Their Voice Be Heard Benefit on November 16 at St. George Banquet Hall (336 La Grave Ave SE).
Since this year marks the 20th season of the GCA, the benefit is expected to be bigger than ever. Attendees will get a chance to listen to a special performance by both programs in the Academy, as well as Lascivious Biddies, an all-female jazz pop band from New York City.
“It’s going to be really exciting to have some professional performers here that the girls can see,” Angela Devries, development director at the Academy said. “They will also be doing a workshop with the girls the next day, so they will also get some one-on-one time with the trio.”
The benefit will also celebrate Salinas–the Academy’s founder–and present the Giving Girls a Voice away to Stephanie Leonardos, president and CEO of Amerikam.
“We choose someone in the community who is a great role model–someone the girls can look up to,” Devries said. “Stephanie is an amazing woman and a great leader who has done so much for the Girl’s Choral Academy.”
The goal of the benefit is to allow the community to see first-hand how much work, energy and heart goes into GCA performances. Devries emphasizes the importance of allowing those who have donated to the academy to see how their generosity is impacting the girls.
“I love being able to see the impact that the Academy has on the girls,” Devries shared. “I get to see the girls throughout the year and how they grow from the beginning of the season to the end and how much more confidence they have–from both our Grandville Avenue and Chamber Choirs–it’s really quite exciting to see them grow and develop.”