Saturdays Look A Little Different at the Lewis Arts Complex: Introducing the Trenton Youth Singers

TAP students wearing a TAP t-shirt.

Most Saturday mornings walking across campus, things are quiet. Students, recovering from a week of classes, problem sets, papers, and more, are sleeping in. Aside from the occasional early riser bustling off to the library or Small World, there’s a sense of calm. 

Meanwhile, down campus at the Lewis Arts Complex, the morning stillness is about to be broken. Buses full of middle and high school-aged students are just arriving, and a devoted group of Princeton undergraduates is hurrying to finish setup before their young collaborators burst through the doors. In a moment, the Forum of the LAC will be filled with a cacophony of laughter, conversation, and singing — a weekly reunion forged by a common love for the arts.

Trenton Arts at Princeton, or TAP, is the umbrella initiative responsible for this joyful weekly scene. A collaboration between the Department of Music, Lewis Center for the Arts, and Pace Center for Civic Engagement, TAP facilitates arts engagement activities to nurture a creative bridge between the Princeton and Trenton communities. Each Saturday, Trenton students devote three hours to their chosen artistic mode of expression via the Saturday Morning Arts program’s four groups: Trenton Youth Theater, Trenton Youth Dancers, Trenton Youth Orchestra, and Trenton Youth Singers. TAP’s “SMArts” program complements the already robust arts education offered during the week at Trenton’s middle and high schools, with arts educators from TAP’s partner schools serving as teacher partners within the four SMArts groups and offering guidance and support to ensure TAP’s — and the student’s — success. 

The program has been wildly successful so far. Some of the SMArts groups have become so popular among the Trenton youth that they’re close to bursting at the seams: TAP’s inaugural ensemble, the Orchestra (TYO), for example, is currently only accepting select instruments. Newer programs, however, like Trenton Youth Singers (TYS) are growing and actively recruiting new members. We sat down with TYS director Solon Snider Sway and student leader Juliana Wojtenko ‘23 to talk about their young ensemble and the exciting things to come.

TYS, like the other SMArts groups, is oriented toward exploration, growth, and the joy of making art. By connecting people across generations — middle and high school youth, undergraduates, and faculty — the group aims to create a welcoming environment in which learning, growth, and community are prioritized over performance and perfection. 

“We’re creating space for learning new musicianship skills through vocal warmups, ear training, solfege exercises, vocal improvisation, and sight reading, but also through unique workshop programming like ‘Coaches’ Corner’ and our collaborative guest workshops.

— Sway
TAP maestro orchestrator and students.

The workshop environment of the program is where the magic — and the work — really happens. Of course, the students of TYS do get the chance to perform. Each semester, TAP has a showcase in which all groups present what they’ve been working on, and the ensemble also occasionally performs smaller-scale presentations such as at Princeton’s Alumni Day. But these moments of sharing are more a perk, rather than the primary mission of TYS.

Earlier this semester, TYS was visited by guest artist and Lewis Center for the Arts faculty member Chesney Snow for a beatboxing workshop, and just recently, choral composer and conductor Jim Papoulis dropped in for a songwriting workshop in which the students generated a whole song in the span of a single session together. “Jim had the students talk about their lives and share their feelings, and then collaboratively they came up with a hook for the song and then fleshed it out with Jim at the piano” (Sway).

Workshops are a key part of TYS and TAP, led not only by faculty and guests but also by the Princeton undergraduate student volunteers, who are as much a part of TAP’s raison d’etre as the Trenton youth themselves. 

“It’s important to us that we’re creating a space for students grades six through twelve to connect with college students, but also vice versa. This is really rare, but it’s a beautiful thing with so much learning to be derived from it.”

— Sway

Princeton students like Wojtenko, this year’s TYS student leader (funded by the Trenton Arts fellowship), sing in all rehearsals with the Trenton youth. They’re helping to encourage the students to feel comfortable in the repertoire that they’re singing. But they also sign up for unique leadership opportunities, like Coaches’ Corner, which spotlights the undergraduates by giving them a space to showcase and share their own experiences with music. In Fall 2022, as just one example of the breadth of workshops presented, student volunteer Isabella Checa ’25 taught the TYS students some basics of Latin American rhythm and song through music that she learned growing up in Ecuador. 

Student volunteers also lead warm-ups every Saturday and teach private and semi-private voice lessons to the Trenton students. The volunteers are coached by faculty fellow Rochelle Ellis, who guides them in working with students at all levels. “It’s nice seeing the [Trenton] students grow. As the year goes by, they start to break out more. I am hoping they will feel confident to sing the solo song they’ve each been working on in their voice lessons” (Ellis). Ellis’ daughter is a member of TYS, so coaching the student volunteers on how to teach youth like her daughter has been a particular joy. “My daughter has always enjoyed hanging with me at Princeton. Now that she’s a teen, I love having the opportunity for us to share the TYS experience together.”

Princeton students receive leadership guidance not only from Sway and Ellis but also from esteemed guests, who visit campus to offer insight into best practices in arts education. One recent guest was Harmony Program’s founder and director Anne Fitzgibbon, who spoke with the Trenton Arts fellows about how to be an effective arts educator.

“It’s not only about knowing how to be a teacher, but how to create a community in which students feel safe and supported. That’s what music was for me when I was growing up, and I really want to create that same kind of space for my students. TAP is helping me do that.”

— Wojtenko

According to Sway, the sort of shared leadership model that TAP and TYS exemplify has unique pedagogical advantages on a more practical level. “If I need to work with a couple of new students solo, I can always ask Juliana to take the group to the side and do something for a while. Plus, when you have the advantage of rehearsing in the Forum — along with access to the whole Lewis Arts Center, including the unbelievable practice rooms in the Effron Music Building — it’s easy to split into groups.” But the model also ensures that students are benefitting from many different perspectives and voices, a core objective of the program.

“One of the great things about this group is that people get to learn about each other’s worlds in a way that they never would otherwise. We have students who have never spent time on the Princeton campus and suddenly, through conversations they’re having with the Princeton students and experiences they’re having in the Lewis Center complex, they’re interested in perhaps applying to college someday or learning what it’s like to be a music student.”

— Sway
TAP students singing.

Sway is also intentional about presenting a broad range of genres and artistic styles to the students each week. In the Fall 2022 showcase, TYS’ program included a song from Pixar’s Soul, a mash-up of Studio Ghibli tunes in Japanese in collaboration with the Princeton Playhouse ensembles (which Sway also leads), a holiday mash-up of a traditional Dominican song with a traditional English Carol, a sing-along with the orchestra, and “This Little Light of Mine.” This spring, they’re adding to that list “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman, a newly-commissioned arrangement of songs from The Wizard of Oz, Wicked, and The Wiz, and, of course, the new song that the students wrote with Jim Papoulis during their winter workshop.

“One of my beliefs is that we should sing from as many genres as possible to give students experience learning about things they might not be exposed to otherwise.”

— Sway

Trenton Youth Singers originated some four years ago as an experiment. Could the success of the Trenton Youth Orchestra be replicated in a choir and singing setting? COVID interrupted TAP’s in-person experiment, but efforts to build community persisted via Zoom. Then-TYS director Gloria Yin ’18 and student leader Mariana Corichi Gómez ’21 facilitated virtual guest talks, established new traditions like Coaches’ Corner, and maintained some semblance of togetherness, at least as best as they could.

“The Zoom year was missing something really essential — singing together really requires being together in person — but they were able to maintain community. And the model of tools that we’re using today in TYS is because of that continuity that we’ve inherited.”

— Sway

Since the 2022-23 academic year began, TYS has grown from six Trenton students and six Princeton student coaches to sixteen students and ten coaches at the time of this article’s publication. But Sway and Wojtenko (a senior in the history department who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in musicology and then a lifelong career in arts education) imagine a not-too-distant future in which TYS will be home to an even larger ensemble and cohort of student volunteers. Sway is gearing up for a busy spring to achieve that goal. He’ll be visiting Trenton schools to introduce TYS to the students, working alongside TAP’s teacher partners at Trenton Central High School, Trenton Ninth Grade Academy, Holland Middle School, MLK Jr. Middle School, and Hedgepeth-Williams Intermediate School to grow this community together. 

“We’ve been so lucky that our amazing teacher partners have let us visit their music classes to talk and work with the students. It’s such a gift to have such generous partners at these schools. We really couldn’t do any of this without them.”

— Sway

Sway and Wojtenko continue to spread the word on campus as well so that they can bring new undergraduate student volunteers into the fold. “If you like to sing,” says Sway, “that’s enough of a qualifier.” No prior background in teaching is required, he explains, but a basic understanding of music is helpful. Everything else new student volunteers will learn in training and on the job. For many student volunteers, TYS and TAP offer a rare opportunity to build a skill set that is so crucial in a myriad of life paths. 

“I really believe that having the opportunity to facilitate this sort of community for students is what I’m here to do. Whether I end up getting a professorship or working with kids, these are skills that I’ll be glad to put to use throughout my life.”

— Wojtenko

As a community-first initiative TAP — which itself was inspired by so many other community programs around the globe — is uniquely positioned. Benefitting from all the resources of the Princeton campus and the various departments that offer financial and pedagogical support, TYS is primed for the kind of exciting growth that Sway believes is just around the corner. “We have rooms in abundance available for us to use. We have an annual budget that we can devote to purchasing sheet music, hiring accompanists, giving souvenirs to the students at the end of concerts, buying T-shirts, binders… All those basic things are taken care of. Plus, to expose students to other voices through guest artists is just an amazing resource for both the Trenton students and the undergraduate student volunteers.” 

“It’s remarkable to have this really robust institutional endorsement enabling TYS and TAP to stretch and grow. And all of this is dependent, always, on our continued collaboration with our amazing Trenton community partners.”

— Sway

It’s an exciting time for TAP and, especially, for TYS. Indeed, at this inflection point, it feels almost as if the sky’s the limit — that, or perhaps the availability of space on the buses!

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