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Mary Huff, the artistic director of the New York City Children’s Chorus (NYCCC), recalls that her favorite performance this year was when she took her younger elementary school-aged choir singers to perform a sing-along at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center. The singers performed songs from the 1940s and 50s, as well as campfire songs, for a group of residents living with Alzheimer’s and other health challenges. As the children sang “You Are My Sunshine” with the accompanying hand motions, and the residents responded with the lyrics and hand motions with huge smiles on their faces, Huff had her own shining moment when the occupational therapist at the Center told her: “I can’t believe that you are able to bring in these children, and give these residents such a beautiful experience.”
Huff’s primary goal at the NYCCC is to teach children how to sing in the bel canto tradition. “I teach children to sing in a very, very healthy way, while they learn a great deal of discipline, how to handle constructive criticism, and how to thrive under pressure,” she explains. “I just made the perfect little children’s choir that I wish that I could have been in as a kid.”
Huff, a mother-of-two herself, cites the feedback she receives from parents about the joy and beauty their children’s music brings into their lives as some of the greatest rewards of her work at the NYCCC. “These children [in the chorus] happen to have a lot more beauty in their lives…because of all of the music we teach,” she says.
Throughout her career, Huff has been no stranger to finding beauty and joy in music—even during times of tragedy. Before founding the NYCCC three years ago, she was the director of the St. Ignatius Loyola children’s choir. The family of a boy who had been a victim of the September 11 attacks brought her in to reboot the choir in an effort to memorialize their son and his love of music. Under Huff’s guidance, the St. Ignatius Loyola children’s choir became one the best Catholic children’s choirs in the country. More recently, in December 2012, just 12 hours after the Newtown, CT, elementary school shooting, the NYCCC had the honor of singing back up for Paul McCartney on “Saturday Night Live” in a moving tribute to the victims. “What else can you do in times of such tragedy?” Huff asks.
In addition to her work with NYCCC—which keeps her busy with its popularity, as this year she auditioned 300 children for 30 open spaces—Huff is also currently involved with 13 different children’s choirs and serves as the associate director of music at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, in addition to having a musical family of her own to care for.
Huff’s husband, Andrew Henderson, happens to be the executive director of the NYCCC and the director of music at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and both of their sons, ages 10 and 8, are in involved in music as well. On a typical day, Huff will pick one of her sons up from school, and he’ll do his homework in her office while she works before the family proceeds to choir practices and rehearsal. “I don’t think that I could keep work and kids separate,” Huff explains. “I’ve always thought that, as you go about daily life, if you don’t have art or poetry or dance or music, why is it worth living?”
To learn more about the New York City Children’s Chorus, visit nycchildrenschorus.org.