Luke McEndarfer, CEO and Artistic Director of the National Children’s Chorus, has led the choir to win a Grammy Award and swiftly gain renown as one of the world’s leading children’s choirs.
The National Children’s Chorus is among the fastest-growing music institutions for youth in the United States. The chorus trains talented singers locally and abroad, with more than 35 choirs and 1,000 students based in the chapter cities of Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Austin, Dallas and Boston.
Now in its second decade, the NCC’s groundbreaking Season 2022/23, entitled Resounding Voices, expands on the chorus’ recent success, featuring an array of stunning repertoire, demonstrating the organization’s firm commitment to new music, world culture and extraordinary collaborations.
What inspired you to start your organization National Children’s Chorus?
As someone who grew up singing and learning to play the piano since six years old, music was always a big part of me. While I loved performing on stage in recitals and concerts myself, I also noticed how moved I could be when witnessing phenomenal music as a member of the audience. In my teens, I would often dream and fantasize about creating music for others so thrilling and inspiring that it would bring immeasurable joy to everyone who heard it. As fate would have it, during one particular concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in my early twenties (when English was my UCLA major, and law school just ahead), the opening measures of the orchestra that night were so beautiful that I said to myself, “This is it; this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” There was a knowing that flashed within me at that moment which I now see as a calling, and I have never questioned it or looked back.
In deciding to create the National Children’s Chorus in 2008, I wanted more than anything to provide a place for young musicians to express themselves, engage with world-class collaborators, and be immersed in extraordinary artistry. The result would be experiences for them that were meaningful, connected, and life-changing. To achieve my vision, the organization would have to operate on a level never before attempted in our industry. We would need a large infrastructure that could effectively train young voices consistently and coordinate logistics from across the nation, ultimately allowing students to take the stage at iconic venues and share their music together as one. Thus, the National Children’s Chorus was born, and while its humble beginnings can count only a few members, we now educate more than 1,000 children in seven chapter cities.
What were some of the first challenges you faced?
I think the most obvious challenges at first were just convincing people of this idea. A cohesive national structure for a world-class children’s chorus had never been done before. It seemed way too big, much too ambitious, and even laughable to some. Afterall, I was only twenty-six years old–so what did I know? The concept would also require a weekly bicoastal travel schedule for me, along with the associated costs of running our educational programs on opposite sides of the country. The organization was also in a weak financial position, and so the thought of taking this on was risky and daunting to say the least. It’s easy to see why many people were against the idea, and also why several told me with certainty that it couldn’t be done. Luckily, I believed it could be done, and there were a few others who joined me in supporting this vision, as impossible as it seemed.
What were the challenges to expand and what did that process look like?
Well, expansion is very difficult when you have no money. No money to rent rehearsal spaces, no money to book concert halls, no money for advertising, no money to help get the word out, and no money for staffing. This is why I understood the skeptics, since they knew clearly that we had no resources to acquire any of those things. But I also have come to learn that when you believe in something, when you can visualize it, when you already see how successful it will be, and when you’re willing to work as hard as it takes, the universe reveals unexpected pathways forward, one after another, many of which you could never have imagined yourself.
Since we were already based in Los Angeles, New York was our first national chapter and first attempt at expansion. As it turns out, a friend who lived in upstate New York let me use his small apartment in Manhattan during my visits. Another friend was close with the pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church near Columbus Circle and arranged a meeting for me. On that day, the pastor offered me free rehearsal space and a concert venue, and he told me specifically not to take this program anywhere else. He said he wanted me to build the National Children’s Chorus at St. Paul’s and that we should pay rent when able. Less than two years later, we made our first rent payment to the church. Word of mouth also spread quickly, and within two years, our New York enrollment went from four singers to two hundred. I was also blessed to have a gifted and talented friend from UCLA who called me one day and offered to work for the organization for free until we were on our feet, and she too said to pay her when we were ready. She would ultimately be named one of our co-founders and two years later she was promoted to the position of Executive Director.
Looking back at the journey and its many challenges, an appropriate solution appeared for each and every roadblock along the way. For myself, it meant I needed to be open, flexible, and place my trust in the process, which often did not go as I originally planned. Of course, trusting the process became easier as things grew, and I witnessed how issues would work themselves out organically as long as I stayed committed to doing my best. By 2016, the National Children’s Chorus had opened its doors in Washington, D.C., our third chapter, and later that year we received a $1M gift from an anonymous donor who believed in our educational work. Since that time, we have nearly tripled in terms of growth, with strong organizational development, even during the recent pandemic. Today, we serve more than 1,000 families in seven chapter cities, supported by a first-rate team of over 100 employees.
What future cities or areas do you plan to expand to?
The National Children’s Chorus will open its doors in Chicago this year, which will complete our geographic expansion. We are very happy with the roster of cities we serve and continue to invest heavily in refining and enriching the experience for our students and parents. Our goal has never been to be in every city. Rather, we are focused on providing live instruction and unparalleled music education within eight chapter cities, each deemed large and diverse enough to allow the greatest level of student access across the nation.
How do you balance your entrepreneur side running the business versus your creative side being the Artistic Director leading the students?
Serving in both executive and artistic capacities has been a good match for me personally, even though it is rare and unconventional. While I have met other people like me, I do not think doing both is for everyone, or necessary to have a successfully-run organization. Many fantastic groups have separate staff to cover these roles. I do feel strongly, however, that if the roles are separate, the CEO of an arts organization must have a true understanding of the art form, and the Artistic Director must respect and understand the practical considerations of running a company. In my case, I can say that since being the CEO requires me to work on the business more often than in it, I’m always grateful for the time I get to spend within my artistic projects with the students. The combination of the two works very well for me and provides a sense of balance that keeps me energized and motivated.
What special considerations do you have to take into account being that the organization serves youth and works with parents day to day?
Quite a bit. I would say that as a company, we truly work hard to understand what is going on in the lives of our families, what their specific needs are during different periods of their membership, and how our programs can best meet those needs. This requires our team to consider what is important to our parents, knowing how much pressure they are under, and delivering them excellent service that makes their job as a parent easier. We certainly don’t want to add stress to their lives and so making chorus protocols and procedures efficient and easy to follow is a priority for us. In working with the children, we strive to build their confidence, advocate for their mental health, and through music provide a source of satisfaction and fun as they build their skills and develop as young artists.
You’ve previously won a Grammy and have a new album out for consideration. What do these accolades mean to you as an entrepreneur?
Simply said, I’m very proud of them. While accolades and awards are symbols of external validation, and don’t necessarily define a person’s success, the phenomenal work of so many talented people went into both projects, and it’s very heartwarming to see such incredible artistry recognized by our industry. I know the students are so proud of the organization’s GRAMMY Award, and it was surely an honor to accept it alongside three other outstanding conductors and organizations, knowing the collective teamwork of all our groups resulted in this epic achievement. We look forward to celebrating many more moments of recognition on behalf of our own vocalists, as well as those of peer organizations, as we ideally work side by side to push the bar higher and continue redefining what’s possible for the vocal arts.
What advice do you have for others leading and growing nationwide organizations?
My advice would be to hold true to your vision, get the right people on your team, lead with integrity, and stay focused on your purpose. When the entire culture of your company is in alignment with the true purpose and intention of your organization’s mission, nothing can stop you from growing to serve as many people as you are aiming to serve. Remember that a life of leadership is a life of service, and when CEO’s can effectively serve the needs of the team, that’s when that team transforms into an unstoppable dream team. And if any entrepreneur is trying to successfully grow a company nationally or globally, a dream team is what it takes. Nothing less will do.