Renaissance Street Singers
posted: May 14, 2007
Performing in Grand Central Station...

John, age 65, is the director and founder of The Renaissance Street Singers, an a cappella choral group of about 30 people who give free concerts in Grand Central Station and on the streets around New York. He says it's the thing he likes best about his life.

"When I came to New York, in 1965, I wanted to join a group that sang music, and my brother told me about a group called the Renaissance Chorus of New York, which was then directed by a man named Joel. It had started at the High School of Music and Art under Harold Brown, and gone into a decline from it's early glory.

"About 10 or 12 of us used to meet at the director Joel’s house on East 5th Street, which was a walk up, in what was a more or less slum dwelling. It was a volunteer group and we just got together and sang, and occasionally we would go out and sing on the street, and that’s how I got the idea of singing on the street.

"When that group had more or less fizzled, I put an ad in the Village Voice and got some responses and started a new group. Actually, the leader of the other group, Joel, came by and convinced me at some point that he was destined to lead this new group and under his tutelage it turned to ashes within a year. So in ’72 I had started, and by ’73 I started again, and my first rule was No Joel Involvement. I told him that and he understood. So that’s the birth of The Renaissance Street Singers. Joel lives in Boston now and comes to hear us and likes it very much. he's mellowed in his older years.

"I love the music. I think that’s perhaps the main thing. And I love to spread it around and perform it. It’s more fun if people are listening. So we go out on the street and we sing and most people walk by and they don’t listen, but there’s always a few that stop. We invented the singular of 'audience', by the way: if there is one person listening, we say we have an audient. And one person is enough; but if we have a lot of audients, then it’s even better!

"We get heckled occasionally, usually by drunks. Or sometimes the drunks will try to conduct. There’s a woman on Christopher Street who occasionally comes by and screams at us, 'Why are you here? Why have you come??' She thinks we’re doing something religious, which we're not. Though I suppose I would say that it’s spiritual, in the way that there is more than just music going on. Sometimes people come up to us and say that they were in a bad mood or something terrible happened in their life and we changed them in some way, or made the day better for them.

"We perform for free, but people sometimes try to give us money, anyway. They think, 'They say they're free, but they really want contributions.' But we give it back immediately. We say, 'Thank you, but we really are a free concert.' We don’t want contributions, and we don’t take them."