Finding Their Voice
Oakland School for the Arts’ a cappella ensemble, Vocal Rush, forms students into instruments of change, for themselves and society.
OSA Vocal Rush heads to Carnegie Hall this month. Teacher Lisa Forkish urges members to define success by giving their all.
Photo by Dave Strauss
They were middle school and high school students—actors, writers, musicians, phenomenally talented young people, many of them hailing from some of the more underserved neighborhoods of Oakland. Like most teenagers, they were finding their way through adolescence into adulthood, and school was the backdrop for their evolution.
It was the spring of 2011 and Oakland School for the Arts was in the midst of its own evolution. The charter school and brainchild of former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown had relocated to the newly renovated Fox Theater on the corner of 18th Street and Telegraph Avenue where it is today. While such a move would be considered a positive one, it signaled transitions that were occurring inside and out. Originally founded with the mission of serving Oakland’s low-income, inner-city youth, the school’s population was slowly shifting, a reflection of the demographic changes shaping Oakland’s own landscape.
Having served as a haven for artistically inclined, mostly African-American students since it opened its doors in 2002, OSA was now gaining in popularity and attracting students from other socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and neighborhoods. Many were drawn to the changing, shifting, expanding energy that was transforming downtown Oakland.
Change is hard for anyone. For teenagers especially, it can be earthshaking. Even small changes matter, like when Lisa Forkish, a recent Berklee School of Music graduate, came that spring to work with a choir of about 40 students in the school’s vocal department.
“I was a new teacher, I was white, and I was 25 years old at the time. Honestly, those students were not keen on having me show up on the scene,” said Forkish. “A lot of the students made my job challenging.”
Forkish recalled how, in an effort to find an “in” with the young people under her instruction, she drew inspiration from an experience that had been transformative in her own youth—a cappella singing.
“I started singing a cappella with an all-women’s group while in college. There was just something special about that experience,” she explained. “The music was in the foreground, but our connection to each other as people drove the music. It was one of the first times in my life that I witnessed the deep healing and connection to yourself and each other that comes from music—even the connection it brings to the audience and the lyrics to a song. It’s powerful.”
So Forkish formed an after-school a cappella singing club and made her pitch to her students. “I told them, ‘Here’s a way to make your voice heard, to get the airtime that you’re longing for.’”
Sixteen kids auditioned that year; 10 of them got in. They rehearsed once a week. They chose the repertoire and Forkish meticulously arranged the parts. Not long afterward, the students were performing on NBC’s hit show The Sing-Off and winning awards at the International Championships of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) competitions.
It might have been easy to let the accolades and awards go to their heads. But Forkish and her colleagues at OSA strive to instill humility and respect for the art of musical performance that keeps the group grounded.
“We always go into competition with the intention of having an impact. That’s it. Period,” Forkish said. “We want to move the audience, to inspire the other groups, and feel that we did our best. When you think about it, a competition is in the hands of a few judges, and you don’t know what they’re thinking or going through in that moment. You might be the best group there and still not win. I tell my students to define success as giving your all. That’s what matters.”
To watch OSA Vocal Rush in action is to watch young people articulate themselves with a sense of self-identity and personal agency that even the most enlightened adults would find awe-inspiring. There is a remarkable strength and poise to the way members of the ensemble sing their part and state their message. It is a testament to the way that art and musical expression not only shape the result, but also shape the individual as well.
“A cappella is unique in that the instruments are just our bodies and our voices,” explained Forkish. “I think of it as a metaphor for peace—I’m singing my part and you’re singing your part, and they come together and make a beautiful sound.”
In recent years, OSA Vocal Rush brought that metaphor to new heights as the group took on musical arrangements of poignant songs like “Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons, Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy,” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.” The songs became channels for powerful, positive expression about race relations, peace, youth empowerment, and personal triumph in the midst of a social climate in which daily news reports of police brutality and violence have sadly become the norm. The ensemble has come to embody the values that OSA seeks to instill in its students—mercy, forgiveness, love, justice, peace, and above all, authenticity.
“Fifty percent of my directing is focused on building character. I tell my students, ‘You don’t have to like each other, but you have to love each other. We’re going to be a family.’”
In April of this year, OSA Vocal Rush took first place again, winning a fourth victory at the annual ICHSA competitions. And with the win, Vocal Rush automatically advances to compete at Carnegie Hall in September in a new competition of a cappella groups of all age groups. This, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 students graduated in June, leaving Forkish with the challenge of bringing 10 new members of the group up to speed on the music. She doesn’t seem fazed, noting that the students who come to her through OSA’s admission and audition process are exceptional individuals with incredible potential. Every year brings new lessons in learning and life, for the students and for Forkish.
“Some of the most pivotal moments of my life in the last six years have come through working with this group,” she said. “They have taught me the power of music and the power of connection to heal, to understand the human condition, and to express it out into the world. I can’t think of a greater sense of purpose than that.”