They lift up their voices every Friday

Robert Darnell Hollinsed - a passion for music.
Robert Darnell Hollinsed - a passion for music.


Music was part of his life from the beginning.

Robert Darnell Hollinsed, director of the Kew Gardens Community Center Chorus-he prefers to use his middle name, Darnell-- was born in 1954 in Astoria, Queens, not far from the Steinway piano factory. Maybe in some spiritual way that had something to do with his passion from early childhood on for music that, he says, now serves as a bridge between him and people of all cultures, backgrounds, ages and skin colors, falling right in with his belief in Buddhism and its desire for a peaceful world.

"Just think," he says, "here I am, a black guy, 51 years old, with dreadlocks, teaching this chorus of seniors in Queens. We come together through our music. Recently, someone complimented me on how good the chorus sounds and how much better than last year, and I felt like, Wow, Man."

Mr. Darnell took over the chorus last summer. Its 20 or so members, formed mostly of people who also attend other classes and events at the community center, meet every Friday morning. Some have sung in church choirs but for most this chorus is their first attempt to master the intricacies of technique, singing in unison, learning new melodies and harmonizing.

"Get ready for a torture session," Mr. Darnell says with a wicked look in his eye as he introduces a new song. After a hardworking half hour, they think they've got at least the first verse only to be told, "Now, let's do it again."
At a luncheon given in Robert's honor.
At a luncheon given in Robert's honor.

Most of the songs they sing are familiar Broadway tunes . . . I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, My Favorite Things, Old Devil Moon, Somewhere, On the Street Where You Live, to name a few, but there are others that are a little more complicated including Mr. Darnell's own compositions. A song for which he wrote the lyrics and the music exhorts, "Lift up your voice, won't you lift up your voices and sing . . . about justice, and freedom, and liberty, about too many guns that are killing our young people."

"Our politics may be way different," Mr. Darnell says wryly of his group of seniors which probably harbors a Republican or two. "But I feel like every one of them is a friend."

Rock-and-roll and jazz that his own music mostly embodies first caught his imagination when he listened as a small child to records played by his older brother, Arthur. Among them was that of a popular rock-and-roll group of the late 1950's, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. "That's the music I decided I wanted to sing," he says.

There was musical talent in the family which lived in the Ravenswood projects in Long Island City. His father, Arthur Sr., played the piano at the houses of friends because he didn't have his own, and his mother, Veora, sang at her church. In addition to Arthur, he has two other brothers, E.J. and Christopher. E.J. now plays in a band.
Lift up your voices and sing.
"Lift up your voices and sing."

It was a church choir, and a strict choir mistress at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Astoria, that gave Mr Darnell his first disciplined introduction to singing at the age of 14. His next step was joining the Queens Borough-wide Chorus which was 150 members strong and rehearsed at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills. From there, as a student at Long Island City High School, he joined the All City High School Chorus, another city-run program for which he had to audition. During the summer, youngsters were able to sign up for city-sponsored teenage performing arts workshops that paid each attendee $90 a week and were held at the Manhattan School of Music. But more than the money, Mr. Darnell found easy access there to what until then had been an unavailable luxury-a good and well-tuned piano. "They had pianos in every room-Steinway pianos. Some of my friends played piano and I was blown away," he says. Later, he took piano lessons at Manhattan Community College which he attended after graduating from high school. But singing was always his first love. When his father asked, "What do you want to be?" he answered, "I want to sing."

He wanted to sing more than he wanted a lengthy college education and after leaving Manhattan Community College picked up odd jobs, working for United Parcel and later as a bicycle messenger, content to be infused with New York's music scene every moment of his free time. Great influences on him were composers like Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, later a friend. One Perkinson song called Fredome/Freedom that combined classical jazz with soul music, "was a pivotal piece that made me want to compose," Mr. Darnell says. Other musicians who gave him the courage to pursue his dream were Barry Harris, head of a jazz ensemble, Phil Bingham, director of the chorus at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and John Motley, who was head of the All City Chorus.

He heads his own chorus, the Poetic Notion Chorus, based in Brooklyn where he lives. He is in the midst of writing a funk opera, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword, which is about the individual's responsibility in working for world peace.
Now, let's start from the beginning.
Let's do it again."

It was the Yamaha piano at the Kew Gardens Community Center that first brought him to Queens. On a website "I heard of this place in Kew Gardens with a piano where you could do a recital. So I said, Wow, let me check out the piano. I called and Lucille's lively voice came on. I told her 'I'd love to do a show,' and she said, 'We have a birthday party coming up if you want to play.'" Lucille is Lucille Bruto, the director of the community center.

And along with a singer, play he did, performing Aquarius and Climb Every Mountain and Happy Birthday along with four of his own compositions. And that led to an offer to take over the Kew Gardens Community Center Chorus which was about to lose its director, Nelly Vucsic, for lack of funding. Mr. Darnell agreed to become one of the center's unpaid band of volunteers.

"It was like, fantastic, I'm a choral director. And then, the first day, when 20 people started filing in, I like panicked."

Preparing for the Friday class means a lot of practice on his part, he says, because he writes his own arrangements. But that first moment of panic has been replaced by a real camaraderie and a real love of teaching older people, he adds. "One aspect is learning the music correctly; the other one is having fun. And this chorus can sing a lot of things very well. When it really works well, it sounds amazing."

The chorus sings, "Ahh . . . lift up your voices, ahh . . . lift up your voices, ahh lift up your voice and sing."

"Man, that's good," Mr. Darnell says. "Now let's do it again."