Vy Higginsen
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Vy Higginsen

Centerbrook, Connecticut, United States

Centerbrook, Connecticut, United States
Band Comedy Gospel


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The best kept secret in music


"How "Gospel for Teens" is saving the music"

March 31, 2011 12:17 PM
How "Gospel for Teens" is saving the music

There's a street in Harlem that comes alive every Saturday with the sound of gospel music. 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 Higginsen 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.

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."

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.

"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 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 - CBS 60 Minutes


Still working on that hot first release.



Founder of Mama Foundation for the Arts & Gospel for Teens

Vy Higginsen, Pioneer
Born and raised on 126th Street in Harlem, New York, Vy is a recognized black pioneer among the city's media elite with an impressive list of firsts:

The first black female radio personality in the prime time New York City market on WBLS.
First woman to host a morning show on New York radio at WWRL.
First woman in advertising sales at Ebony magazine.
The first black woman to produce a drama on Broadway with Joe Tuner's Come and Gone by August Wilson.
The first black female writer, producer, director of the longest-running, Off-Broadway musical in the history of American theatre with Mama, I Want to Sing.

Vy Higginsen, Philanthropist

As Founder and Executive Director of the Mama Foundation for the Arts, Vy is the primary force behind her foundation's daily duties and its long-term goals. Mama Foundation for the Arts is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2000 that is dedicated to nurturing talented black youth in the art.

Vy Higginsen, Keynote Speaker

For today's marketers, Vy offers across-the-board media expertise. And, she brings her own special tools and talents as well: the rich, velvety voice that has propelled a myriad of products, people and events her infectious personality, and her natural spontaneity...the perfect package for winning audiences!

Product Spokesperson
Public Relations Professional
Keynote Speaker
Mistress of Ceremonies
Ordained Interfaith Minister
Director of Great Events

Vy Higginsen speaks from the heart through a lifetime of accomplishment. Among her many titles: Producer, Publisher, Playwright, Lyricist, Author, Editor, Radio Personality, Educator, Philanthropist, Keynote Speaker, and Interfaith Minister.

From publishers to public schools, organizations have been inspired by a Vy Higginsen presentation.