Ragazzi founder: “I am sad to leave, but happy that Ragazzi is in a strong place”

It is with mixed feelings that I am writing to let you know that, after 32 years, this (2019–2020) will be my final year as Artistic Director of Ragazzi. I am sad to leave, but happy that Ragazzi is in a strong place to continue to reach boys who love to sing, as well as to continue to reach audiences who love to hear boys sing. I am not retiring from music, but will continue to be dedicated to arts education, especially for boys who so desperately need access to the benefits of this type of learning.

Ragazzi was founded in the summer of 1987 when I was encouraged by Carolyn Watts, mother of a young musical boy, to offer a boys chorus here on the San Francisco peninsula. At the time we hand- typed and photocopied fliers for the local public and private schools, wrote to all the adult choirs in the area and announced our dream of music for boys.

Since I had worked for years with school, church and adult choirs, I knew there was a demand for male singers. Meanwhile, I was spending a lot of time taking singing to the schools in my role as the recruiting director for San Francisco Boys Choir. I saw the eagerness in the eyes of the young boys when I taught them little songs, and I realized that singing was something that boys love to do, but that somehow society had created the expectation that singing was not an appropriate activity for boys, especially when measured against the pull of sports programs to define current concepts of “masculinity.”

Armed with this inspiring information, I came to understand that having boys sing with other boys would create the culture of brotherhood necessary for boys to be free to explore their voices. The recent explosive growth of Ragazzi, now at 250 boys, shows that we were right. Boys want and need to sing, and given the opportunity, they will sing!

We were very idealistic at the time and we didn’t charge tuition or pay anyone. Over time we learned that we needed to cover costs, but we remained committed to offering the opportunity to any boy who wanted to sing. To this end, we made sure that fund raising was a part of our annual plan. The first gala and auction was held in the ballroom of Crystal Springs Uplands School.

An early break came when the local San Mateo Times published a feature column about us. In several months our numbers jumped from seven boys to 35. It wasn’t long before we were at 75 boys. We started a theory program and a training program in order to maintain a standard of excellence for those boys who had some experience, while making sure that those who needed education received it. Ragazzi became the recipient of grants to support the goal of making singing available for all boys, and individual donors stepped up to support our mission.

Another opportunity catapulted Ragazzi into the mainstream musical scene: Vance George, at the time Chorus Director for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, invited Ragazzi to sing with the San Francisco Symphony in a production of Honegger’s King David.  Suddenly, we had contacts and visibility.

By 1990 Ragazzi had a summer camp, and had taken its first international tour to Kathaumixw music festival in Canada. Our soloists began to win awards. Tours continued over the years: Ragazzi has sung to enthusiastic audiences in Italy, England, Wales, Korea, Japan, South African, Australia, New Zealand, Cuba, Quebec, New York, and Los Angeles. Several years ago, we added a tour weekend for our intermediates, Ragazzi Premiere and a domestic tour for our other performing group, Avanti.

In the Bay Area, Ragazzi has sung with many major arts organizations, including the San Francisco Opera and Symphony, Opera San Jose, Symphony Silicon Valley, and West Bay Opera. We have performed at Yerba Buena, Grace Cathedral, and have been featured on morning TV shows and on the radio. The interest in boy singers is truly heart-warming.

As Ragazzi has grown, the efforts of myriad parents and volunteers have been truly amazing and inspiring. The board and office staff have given tirelessly of their time and talents well beyond what could be imagined. Ragazzi exists on a level way beyond what I could have imagined 32 years ago.

The boys have been eager and open and honest and expressive, and have been a delight to me, to our audiences, and to each other.It touches me deeply to hear conversations among our current Young Men’s Ensemble members and alum camp staff about how much Ragazzi has meant to them. Especially exciting is their enthusiasm for the great choral works such as the Faure Requiem. Our talented and dedicated faculty has made possible the high level of musical performance at the top level. The ongoing inspiration of our Young Men’s Ensemble has helped create the culture of safety in being an expressive human being. Our boys truly shine, exhibiting the wonderful benefits of choral music education and the goals of our mission statement: increased self-confidence, cooperation, leadership skills, sensitivity and empathy, and the tenacity to work hard toward a goal. We have truly built young men of character and distinction.

I am pleased that Ragazzi has named Kent Jue as the new Artistic and Executive Director. With Kent’s love of music and people, I know he will continue the commitment of Ragazzi to bring excellence to all boys who love to sing. We have a re-energized board under the leadership of Alan Hu, and an absolutely top-rate faculty to continue our program at the highest level. We have a large group of alumni in addition to our alum chorus, Ragazzi Continuo, and I trust that they will invest in the future of Ragazzi, sharing the opportunities they were given with new generations of boys. We have a dedicated staff giving time and heart to all the details that make this organization work.

I will continue to work wherever I can to bring singing and the arts to children, and especially boys. Ragazzi has been very careful with finances and we are in a strong position. Our motto this year is:  “Do well to do good”.

To ensure that Ragazzi will continue to offer our program to any boy who loves to sing, the Ragazzi board has agreed to establish a scholarship fund in my name. My wish is to use this scholarship to provide financial aid to deserving boys whose families need help to fully participate in the Ragazzi program, such as when their boy is ready to participate in camp and tour.

You will be hearing more details about a challenge grant that I intend to establish to seed this fund. I want to encourage others to follow my lead and support this outreach to a wider community. The world is changing and there are more boys that need this in their lives. Please join me in making it possible for every boy who loves to sing and who is willing to meet Ragazzzi standards to share this opportunity.

I am looking forward to this last year with you and all the wonderful music we will make together.

With very best wishes to Kent, Alan, our faculty, board, staff, and our boys and parents.

Sincerely yours,
Joyce Keil