Julian Ackerley, director of the
Julian Ackerley is the director of the nonprofit Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and in his expansive office, books line the walls, including a set of volumes of the “Dictionary of Music.” Frames full of pins from places the chorus has traveled hang on one wall.
The Nebraska-born Ackerley never thought choral directing would be his lifelong career, but if you ask just about anyone, they’ll say Ackerley is well suited for it.
He certainly has the background. He said he remembered being “Mister Music Man” in first grade. In sixth grade, he started playing the piano, and in high school, sang in choir. The music played on in college, where Ackerley earned a bachelor’s and master’s in music education from the University of Arizona. A doctorate of musical arts followed in 1983.
You can see all that education and years of experience play out during a rehearsal session for the chorus. Twenty, 11- to 13-year-old boys — the touring group members of the chorus — stand in organized rows, expectantly waiting for Ackerley to give the cue to begin performing George M. Cohan’s 1906 standard, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
He raises his hand, and they’re off and singing. A swell of angelic, crystal-clear alto, soprano and second soprano voices fills the room, providing a surround-sound feel. As he stands in the front of the room, Ackerley patiently offers comments throughout the 90-minute rehearsal.
“Wow, your G was really in tune,” he comments approvingly. “Good for you!”
“What’s the most important part about singing?” he later asks the group.
“Listening,” the boys answer in unison.
Though he is the one directing the chorus, Ackerley relies on a talented team to support all the work that is necessary to produce the kind of first-class shows that TABC fans have long been accustomed to. For example, you may find Marie Sierra, one of the group’s two accompanists, sitting behind the piano during a rehearsal. The University of Miami graduate, who holds a bachelor’s and master’s in piano performance, is starting her 11th season with the Boys Chorus. Like Ackerley and his wife Jane, Sierra travels with the Touring Chorus.
“He’s a master at keeping the boys engaged and teaching them life lessons,” Sierra says about Ackerley. “He’s very efficient in rehearsal; we get a lot done. The boys are always engaged and on their toes.”
She notes that when she started working with Ackerley, she saw how the boys blossomed. She even enrolled her son, Nicholas Feldman, for a couple of years starting at age 10. Feldman is 19 now, but he picked up good habits while with the chorus.
“The boys learn how to be gentlemen; how to think of others first,” says Sierra, who also plays for high school choirs and teaches piano lessons. “They learn to lead by example.”
Since 1980, Ackerley has served as the ebullient director, mentor and overall driving force behind the chorus. The 63-year-old has been at the helm for 37 years — almost half of the organization’s tenure. In December 2019, TABC will turn 80.
The chorus performs at 35 to 50 events a year. Its headquarters, located on Pima Street just east of Craycroft Road, is where many of the practices take place. Depending on the group, choir practices range from one 45-minute session a week, to 90-minute sessions three times a week.
“My day gets complex, but when four o’clock comes, it’s such a pleasure to go into that rehearsal room and create art,” Ackerley enthuses.
About 100 boys make up the Tucson Boys Chorus, ranging in age from 6 to 21. The 6- to 8-year-olds are known as Cadets; boys in third to fifth grade are enrolled in Training Chorus; and fifth- and sixth-graders are known as Towne Singers. Ackerley describes the Towne Singers as the “JV team” to the Touring Chorus.
The Touring Chorus is the organization’s flagship group. The 22 members and three alternates perform for public and private events, as well as partner with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Arizona Opera for concerts. The Touring Chorus has performed worldwide, including China, Switzerland, France and Germany. Ackerley says the group will return to Mexico next spring and travel somewhere next summer.
About a year and a half ago, the Boys Chorus began partnering with school districts outside of Tucson proper. The successful program offers boys in outlying areas, namely Oro Valley, Vail and Sahuarita, closer locations in which to sing.
It costs $50 to $100 a month to be a member of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, although no boy is turned away for financial reasons. Ackerley says 38 percent of the chorus receives some sort of scholarship.
Ask TABC board president Renee Shane-Boyd about Ackerley’s dedication to the program and his musicianship and she remarks, “There are very few people who have done what he has done. He has been able to sustain the energy and excitement of a program for such a long time and to do it in a way that makes it relative and permanent.”
She has an extensive music background herself, and would certainly know about running a large and complex program. She served as the band director for Catalina Foothills High School for 35 years, and has known Ackerley since her son joined the chorus in January 2010. She’s excited about the MIP — Membership Incentive Program — that started in January 2016 and includes monthly drawings for “fabulous prizes,” such as remote-controlled cars, a drone and gift cards to Dairy Queen.
But the chorus has a much greater goal than simply offering material incentives to sing. Above all else, TABC instills four main values in its members: honesty, integrity, reliability and respect. “I think that the core values we develop for young men are equally or probably more important than any note we sing,” explains Ackerley, who observes that the late, singing superstar John Denver was a member of the chorus. “We develop leadership skills that will be with them the rest of their lives. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for young people.” — Valerie Vinyard