Preparing for the ‘Experience of a Lifetime’: Birmingham Students to Sing at Carnegie Hall

Zachary Banks leads his choir class at Ramsay High School in vocal exercises. They’re preparing for a trip to sing at Carnegie Hall in May. (Photo by: Kyra Miles, WBHM)

The students in Ramsay High School’s choir class encircle a small piano and focus their eyes on the choir director, Zachary Banks. He starts class by leading students in a series of vocal exercises. On a regular day, they’d start rehearsing their repertoire. But the last couple weeks of choir class 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 an experience of a lifetime and getting a chance to experience New York in a way that I don’t think they imagined when they walked in the doors of Ramsey High School — that’s kind of been my whole M.O.,” Banks said. “Let me just take you places.”

Last year, Alabama State University invited Ramsay’s choir to perform with their choir at Carnegie Hall. Jaiden Sturdivant, president of the student choir council, said when he heard his school was 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 was like, ‘Yeah,’” Jaiden said. “When someone says you got invited to Carnegie Hall, it’s not really a, ‘Well are we going to go to Carnegie Hall?’ It’s like, ‘When are we going to Carnegie Hall?’”

The senior and tenor has been especially busy organizing the big trip. He said being invited based on their reputation as a choir gives him a sense of pride.

“It’s a great feeling knowing 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 aren’t new for Ramsay. He’s a graduate of the high school, and when he was in choir, he had the chance to perform for Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. under his teacher Myrna Ross.

He said it’s an honor to follow in Miss Ross’ footsteps. He promised her when he graduated that he would come back to take her place. She passed away before he finished college, but Banks is fulfilling that promise now.

“Miss Ross was everything. She was my mother when my mother passed away,” Banks said. “She just made sure that everything was good, checking on me, checking on grades, making sure I have my act together. I enjoyed music. I began to love music under her tutelage.”

Banks said he tries to show that kind of passion to his students — like Renee Greene.

When she joined choir last year, she was new to Birmingham and the school, but she said Banks and choir helped get her out of her shell and gave her a family.

“My very first day of school was rough, but (Banks) was actually the first teacher who reached out to me and was like, ‘How’s it been? I know it’s been kind of tough,’” Renee said. “Like right when I came here, I kind of immediately felt like I found a home.”

Now she’s going to sing at Carnegie Hall.

“Right now it feels unreal. I really would have never imagined that I’d be in the place I’m at right now, especially in high school choir,” Renee said.

For many of the students, including Renee, it’ll be their first time traveling that far. Renee expects to combat travel nerves by singing.

“On the way to sing we’re going to be singing on the bus,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know if we’re going to be singing on the airplane.”

Even with all the vocal preparations, the choir still has work to do money-wise. Banks said they’re looking at a $300,000 bill for all the students to go. Students at Ramsay come from all different backgrounds, which Banks said makes fundraising even more important.

“We’ve got students that are just short of homeless, and we got kids who live in mansions,” Banks said. “So when I look at these students and say that the cost is $3,000 a student, some of them immediately think, ‘Well, let me see. I think my dad and my mom — 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, asking for corporate donations and doing performances.

Above all, Banks said he hopes this experience shows his students that music can literally take them places.

“I want to offer these students, simply put, an opportunity to experience the world by way of music.”

Kyra Miles is a Report for America corps member covering education for WBHM.