Alysia Lee can already hear the voices of the Sister Cities Girlchoir.
She can see the faces of young women from Camden and Philadelphia as they harmonize with and help each other and their communities.
"We'll start with 60 middle school students in Camden and another 120 in Philly in September," says Lee, who has spent the last six months enlisting support from civic leaders, musicians, and educators in both cities to launch the group.
"We're looking for people who like to sing. They don't have to wow us with their vocal prowess." Applications for the Sister Cities Girlchoir will be available in schools and other locations in Camden and Philadelphia, and online beginning June 1.
The classically trained mezzo-soprano is a fellow in a New England Conservatory program to promote El Sistema. The tuition-free music education system was founded in Venezuela 35 years ago and is expanding in the United States and Europe.
"Music has the power to inspire and connect people," says Lee, 30, who grew up in Randallstown, Md. That's where her own such connection began; her father sang in a gospel quartet, and when Lee was in second grade, she heard members of the cast of the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Porgy and Bess sing at her school.
"I remember it very vividly," Lee says. "I thought, 'These people who look like me are doing something so beautiful, and so different.' It was a turning point for me."
She began taking voice lessons; found that serious music helped her overcome "tumultuous" times in school; and went on to earn a master's degree in vocal music from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
A charismatic dynamo who has sung professionally and taught privately in New York for much of the last decade, Lee also has worked on the development side of nonprofit cultural organizations. That experience is coming in handy as she and her board of directors raise money toward the $190,000 cost of the first year of Sister Cities.
"I've always used music as a tool," says Lee, noting that El Sistema sees it as a way to encourage disadvantaged young people to set and achieve goals of all sorts, inside and outside the classroom.
Focused on intensive and immersive instruction and collaborative learning, El Sistema was founded by the pianist Jose Antonio Abreu as an 11-member youth orchestra. It now has 400,000 participants.
Abreu used the $100,000 prize he won from the TED Conferences organization in 2009 to establish the NEC fellowship program that has trained Lee.
"In Venezuela, we saw young lives transformed by the power of music," NEC president Tony Woodcock says by phone from Boston. "These were kids from the most in-depth poverty. What El Sistema has done is a huge contribution."
Woodcock also cites Lee's enthusiasm, which is so contagious I wish I could apply for a choir slot, too.
Camden poet Andrea Wall is likewise impressed. She says the girlchoir will bring "great joy" into the lives of poor young people, who may not feel "entitled" to such richness of the spirit.
Longtime activist Tom Knoche, a member of the choir's board, calls the project "exciting."
"Obviously we need all the angles we can come up with to try to reach young people and give young people opportunities," he says. "There are two unique aspects to this. It's not about making star musicians, it's about motivation. Everything is ensemble-focused. The kids practice and perform with a group, so they're building a social support system at the same time."
The choir is a venue, Lee says, for music "to serve the people who need it the most. It gives children a chance to add beauty and grace to their lives, and to see the strength of their collective voice."
For more information go to www.sistercitiesgirlchoir.org Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.
To view Kevin Riordan's interview of Alysia Lee, founder of the Sister Cities Girlchoir, go to www.philly.com/girlchoir