In the summer of 1986, I participated in a choral music festival for kids at Butler University. I had just turned 13 and had finished the seventh grade. My involvement in the festival stemmed from an invitation from Henry Leck to all elementary and middle school music teachers around the city encouraging them to recommend students for a week of music learning and fun.
I had no idea that week would be the birth of a musical legacy that has blessed Indianapolis and central Indiana for the last 30 years. Leck had no clue of the journey he was about to begin either.
"I was the music director at the Universalist Unitarian Church on 43rd Street when I got a call to host the Chicago Children's Choir," recalled Leck. "I didn't know anything about them. I was going to be in the Chicago area for other business so I offered to visit and see who and what they were."
At the time, Leck had enough on his plate to do. Not only was he working for his church, but he also had just begun a new position at Butler University and he was working on his doctorate at Indiana University Bloomington. But what he witnessed in Chicago changed his life.
A Universalist Unitarian Church started the Chicago Children's Choir. When on tour, the choir would reach out to other UUC congregations for housing and other support, hence the call to Leck. After driving through some of Chicago's sketchier neighborhoods, Leck found the church and the choir in rehearsal.
"It was amazing," remembers Leck. "All of these kids from not the greatest of circumstances were creating music together. I realized that this was a way to show them something and help them rise out of their individual situations."
Leck felt that kids in Indianapolis could benefit from a similar experience. Adding to an already full plate, Leck took the steps to start a children's choir for the Circle City.
The road wasn't an easy one, but the stars were aligned for it to happen. At the same time that Leck was discovering his future in children's choral music, The city of Indianapolis was in the throes of planning to host the Pan American Games in 1987. (The Pan Am Games are held every four years in the year prior to the summer Olympic Games and are exclusive to countries in North, Central and South Americas.) Organizers had many projects and participations checked off their list — except for more participation from the city's children. Leck applied for and won a $25,000 grant to start the Indianapolis Children's Choir, with a little help from the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which allowed Leck's budding choir to use their 501(c)(3) status for the grant.
Leck's mentors and colleagues at IU gave him the foundations he needed for instructing kids en masse how to sing. (A little known fact about Henry Leck is that his musical background is actually in instrumental music and conducting.) He learned through those influences that kids are sponges when it comes to learning and good choral technique is good choral technique no matter the age.
There were well over 200 kids in grades 3 through 8 that participated in that first choral festival. The majority of us became founding members of the Indianapolis Children's Choir. We rehearsed in the fellowship hall of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis where Leck was the music director. We learned the Kodaly hand signs for singing a major key scale and learned proper breathing by pretending to suck in air through a straw. We learned to sing in Latin, German and Hebrew. We learned about culture, music history and world history.
We did a lot in that first year.
We sang Christmas carols and songs from the second floor balcony at Union Station. We performed at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. We performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Pan Am Games. Some of us even performed in an opera with Butler music students. (Look up Help! Help! The Globolinks. It's a fun and crazy show.)
I still remember all of it — from the Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britton to "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" (poetry written by Jewish children at the Thereseinstadt concentration camp that was set to music) to the sign language we did to "Love in Any Language" performed with Sandi Patty for the Pan Am Games closing ceremonies. Even snippets of the opera score will pop into my head from time to time.
I was only in the Indianapolis Children's Choir for its first year. I continued on through high school music with a handful of my ICC brethren and even majored in music for a time in college. That major was eventually dropped to a minor to make room for a career in communications and journalism, but the lessons from my ICC days have stuck with me over the last 30 years. (The March 13 concert "Tapestry of Song" will include ICC alumni sharing their experiences and how the choir shaped their lives from then on out.)
Leck gave up something as well. ICC grew exponentially each year as did the work it took to maintain and grow its programming. Although he never finished his IU doctorate, the smile that Leck wears when talking about the choir's accomplishments tell me that higher degree wasn't really missed.
The Indianapolis Children's Choir has grown from its humble beginnings. The choir now provides music education to 3,000 children each week through multiple choirs in nine counties. The non-profit organization has a board of directors, an administrative staff and office space on the campus of Butler University.
"One trip I took a group of students to the site of the concentration camp where they sang "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" on the ground where the poems were written," recalls Leck.
From Wabash to Columbus and from London to Moscow, ICC singers have entertained the state and the world and have learned from those experiences.
There is so much to be said about the man behind the young voices. But after April 30, assistant artistic director Joshua Pedde will take the reins and continue the vision. But don't think for one second that Leck is going for good.
"I'll still be around. I'll still be on staff," says Leck. "I just won't be involved in the day-to-day operations."
So what will Leck do in his spare time, besides visit with and spoil the grandkids?
Take the ICC brand to the kids that need it the most.
Leck's vision is to create programs in inner city and low-income schools and neighborhoods where music programs are minimal and the opportunities don't exist.
"Maybe something in short-term intervals for those who can't necessarily make the commitment to the Butler campus or other regional choirs," says Leck.
His vision to build confidence and self worth in children continues and really has never wavered. And his results are solid. ICC alums have grown up to become international opera singers, television music directors, Broadway choreographers, real estate agents, teachers, lawyers, doctors and journalists.
Leck's time behind the baton may be coming to and end, but the legacy he built for Indianapolis and its children will live on.