How "Gospel for Teens" is saving the music

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

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Higginsen scrapes together the money for this program from grants, small donations, and ticket sales; she insists that the kids learn to sing gospel for free.

"I want you to begin to shake your hands. Shake. Shake. Shake," she instructed her class.

Why shaking before singing? It's part warm-up, part message: leave everything but the music outside the door. Kids progress from shaking to shaking and stomping, to doing both and saying 'Ah,' then smiles.

"Any worry, any pain, any problem with your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, the dog, the boyfriend. I want that out now of your consciousness. That's your baggage. Leave the bags outside, because this time is for you," Higginsen explained.

"You feel all their troubles go?" Stahl asked.

"I feel it. I see it. The next thing I see (is) a smile. And I know that's when they're ready. And I'll make 'em shake until I get it," she replied.

And then music master Greg Kelly started working his magic. By the end of their first lesson, a single two-hour class, this group of 46 strangers had learned not one, but three songs, each in three-part harmony.

But a few weeks later, we were surprised to find Higginsen coaching the kids not on a challenging piece of music, but on something you'd think would be easy: saying their names.

It's an exercise she developed after the first auditions for Gospel for Teens, when she could barely hear the kids introduce themselves. And it troubled her.

"They were mumbling. And they were saying it under their breath. And I just (thought) 'This is terrible,'" she explained.

"To have those little teeny voices that you can't hear is almost to say, 'I'm ashamed,'" Stahl pointed out.

"I'm ashamed of who I am and where I come from. No," Higginsen replied.

The kids took turns saying their names, ages and neighborhoods, but when it was Gabby Francois' turn, she was silent.

This wasn't the first time Francois had drawn attention.

"Did any of the music masters come to you and talk to you about Gabby?" Stahl asked.

"Yeah," Higginsen said. "Chewing gum, slouching, watching, not singing."

So during the next break, Higginsen was in there, trying to draw Gabby out.

And that was just the beginning of the drama in the room that day: Rhonda, the girl who had been so nervous during her audition, meekly called out her name, and then got teary. She broke down.

"You wanna do it later? She's gonna do it later," Higginsen said, as Rhonda walked back to her seat. "But you're coming back!"

"At that point, did you know anything about what her personal life was like?" Stahl asked.

"Nothing," Higginsen said. "Only what was presented in front of me. I saw her tears. I saw her eyes. I saw her nervousness about saying her name. "

Later in the class, Rhonda came back to the stage and tried again, but still said her name quietly and through tears.

Higginsen started Gospel for Teens with the clear idea of leaving all the baggage at the door, but as she's learned - and as we saw - sometimes it creeps back in.

We wondered about Rhonda's life outside this place. What might make the simple act of saying her name feel so overwhelming? And when we asked, it led us to one of the toughest parts of New York City, the South Bronx, where Rhonda is being raised by Carmen Rivera.

Rivera is Rhonda's great grandmother, and she's had Rhonda since she was a baby. Rhonda told Stahl she knows her mother but that she only sees her two or three times a year.

"That's painful," Stahl said.

"Yeah. It's been happening all my life, so I'm pretty much used to it," Rhonda said.

And she's not alone: it turns out that the entire building where Rhonda lives is set aside for kids being raised by grandparents; Rhonda's friend Yolanda, who had been the first to audition, lives two floors up, with her great aunt Melvenia Smith.