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RVA Street Singers Perform at Kennedy Center

Service-Learning Students and Community Members Continue Founder’s Legacy to Build a Community of Acceptance  

By Jenny Pedraza

On Sept. 12, more than 30 members and volunteers with the RVA Street Singers boarded a bus to Washington, D.C.

The community choir, which includes individuals experiencing homelessness, was “taking its show on the road” to perform at the Kennedy Center during the center’s REACH Opening, a 16-day arts and music festival that celebrates the center’s new indoor and outdoor performance areas. The festival concluded Sept. 22 and featured a variety of free events, including concerts, comedy improv, yoga classes, films and movies and virtual reality experiences.

Street Singers at the Kennedy CenterAfter meeting with the stage managers and performing light, sound and mic checks, the RVA Street Singers led the audience in an interactive performance, weaving in narration by choir members, students, faculty and church staff, highlighting the "process and product" of developing community through song.

Audience members had the opportunity to sing along with original songs written by the group and in collaboration with lyricist John Freyer, assistant professor of cross disciplinary media in the School of the Arts. The presentation also included information on music wellness and simple improvisation exercises, allowing the audience to participate throughout the program, with the choir providing musical leadership.

Colette Daley, ’20, a VCU sociology major from Falls Church, Va., participated in the Kennedy Center performance and has been a member of the choir since the fall of 2018.

“The energy we had on stage that day was awesome and everyone had a blast,” Daley said. “From this experience, I have learned about the power of music - that it can bring us together in ways I never could have imagined. What I love most is the sense of community and getting to be with my friends - laughing, singing and smiling.”

Part of the VCU service-learning course, “Music and Social Justice,” that launched in the spring of 2018, the RVA Street Singers join together with VCU students from a variety of majors to sing together during weekly sessions. The choir meets every Monday at the Second Presbyterian Church of Richmond. Over the course of a month, 40 to 50 different people from the community participate, with a core group of between eight to 10 “regulars” who rarely miss a session.

The course and choir were a passion project for founder Rebecca Tyree, assistant professor of choral music education in the Department of Music and 2017-18 Service-Learning Faculty Fellow. Tyree died in May 2018 of an injury from a bicycle accident near Bryan Park.

Tyree’s vision for the choir has continued with the work of Robin Rio, a board-certified music therapist, adjunct VCU music professor and emeritus professor of music therapy at Arizona State University; and Cameron Carter, assistant director of field education for the VCU School of Social Work.

“To be able to make this presentation at the Kennedy Center, it meant so much,” Carter said. “It was really Becky’s [Rebecca Tyree’s] dream for this choir to be focused on building community and being inclusive. Maybe people experiencing homelessness might not normally feel welcome at the Kennedy Center. But there they were, performing at it.”

Carter said that the choir has continued to grow and evolve after Tyree’s passing because of an advisory committee made up of people who were part of Tyree’s life, helping to ensure her original goals are honored.

Rio said the group, as a whole, loves to sing a lot of gospel music or songs that tell a story, or inspire positivity or just have great rhythm and harmony. The RVA Street Singers wrote the song, “Unity," as a group and debuted it at the Kennedy Center performance. In partnership with Freyer and the Recovery Ally Choir, the RVA Street Singers recorded the song, "One Foot in Front of the Other," which has become a favorite.

“Our members feel like family,” Carter said. “There is this core group who have been there since the beginning, and they are bringing more people into the fold. We’re using music as a way to provide an inclusive space, a place for student engagement, a place for understanding diversity. We’ve got a great community being built, where people are being accepted and finding their voice.”

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Read the Sept. 10 Richmond Times-Dispatch article that features the RVA Street Singers’ trip to the Kennedy Center.