How "Gospel for Teens" is saving the music

Lesley Stahl follows a teen gospel class for a year on its musical and emotional journey

There's a street in Harlem that comes alive every Saturday with the sound of gospel music. As Lesley Stahl first reported last spring, you won't find any church there - just a brownstone full of teenagers and the woman who draws them in.

Her name is Vy Higginsen, a New York radio personality and theater producer. Five years ago she created something called "Gospel for Teens."

Never heard of it? Well, we think you'll be glad you did. And if you're thinking that Vy Higgensen thought up this program as a way to save the teens, you'd be wrong. She did it to save the music.

The faces and voices of Gospel for Teens include kids between the ages of 13 and 19 who gather in Harlem each week from all over New York and New Jersey to study the tradition and the art of singing gospel.

"It's uniquely American. It's a story of a people in song created out of an American experience," Higginsen told correspondent Lesley Stahl.

"And you are not gonna let it die," Stahl remarked.

"No," Higginsen replied, with a beaming smile.

Extra: The risk of losing gospel
Link: Libby Roderick, songwriter of the Gospel for Teens theme "How Could Anyone."

Higginsen runs an advanced class, but each fall she brings in a new group, putting out a call for auditions in local papers, on radio, and in churches. She calls them her "beginners."

Yolanda Howard, age 14, had arrived by subway from the Bronx before the microphones were even set up. "I was so happy because I was the first person," she said.

And she brought along her friend Rhonda Rodriguez, who started off a little shaky. Asked if she was nervous, Rodriguez told Stahl, "I was really nervous."

When Stahl asked Rodriguez if she thought she had gotten into the program, she admitted, "No."

"Did they really have to be great in the audition?" Stahl asked Higginsen.

"Absolutely not," she replied. "They simply have to carry a tune. We don't expect them to be great. They're teenagers."

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Of course great is welcome too. Higginsen's goal is to bring gospel to kids more likely to have been raised on hip hop. One girl who auditioned only knew the first six words of Amazing Grace. "That's why we have this school!" exclaimed Higginsen.

So she and the teachers she calls music masters - including her own daughter Knoelle - want to accept as many kids as they can, but there were a few who seemed to throw them, like 16-year-old Gabby Francois.

Something about her seemed to puzzle Higginsen. "I was curious. And I couldn't put my finger on it," she said. "What is it? There was something else going on behind the music."

While singing "This Little Light of Mine," Francois stopped singing mid-phrase, looking down and rubbing her eyebrows.

"Part of me wanted to say, 'Is this gonna be trouble?'" Higginsen said.

"Why didn't you say that?" Stahl asked.

"Something stopped me from saying it. It's almost like, 'I want to take a chance with this,'" she explained.

If there was a star of this audition, it would be 14-year-old David Moses from Brooklyn, who walked in just before the audition ended. He sings in his church choir and knew the song "Amazing Grace" all the way through.

Extra: A gospel duet

"It fills me with a lot of joy when I sing. So I just sing," he told Stahl.

David Moses had heard about Gospel for Teens from a friend and thought his dad was going to drive him to Harlem that day.

"He said, 'Listen, Dad, you gonna take me to the audition?" I said, 'What audition?'" his dad admitted.

Turns out his parents had forgotten about the audition.

So they asked a friend to take David and hold up a cell phone during his audition so they could listen in.

"My son was singing. The place was going crazy. Let me tell you, the next week, I made sure Daddy and Mommy was bringin' him back to class," David's dad said, laughing.

And that next Saturday, there they were: the 46 kids Higginsen chose as her new beginners class, including Yolanda Howard and her friend Rhonda Rodriguez, who thought she wouldn't get in.

Gabby Francois also got in. Higginsen had decided to give her a chance.

Produced by Shari Finkelstein

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