When James Hing prepares less experienced singers for a momentous performance, he suggests they give themselves a pinch, and then pinch themselves again. That’s what he did the first time he sang at Carnegie Hall. And it’s something he just might be doing next month when he again takes the Carnegie stage, this time in tandem with a handful of Starbucks Chorus cohorts.
“It takes a while for the magnitude to sink in,” said Hing, who is a manager leading the Starbucks Supplier Diversity program. “I’d like to be able to step outside myself and just enjoy the moment, because you get so excited.”
The Starbucks Chorus was founded during the 1996 holiday season by partners (employees) as a way to give back to Seattle, the company’s hometown community.
Hing, the director of the Starbucks Chorus, returns to the fabled concert hall September 24 for “A Concert of Hope.” He and others from the Starbucks vocal group will be part of a massed choir of 200 singers from Australia and the U.S. performing “Street Requiem,” which the Starbucks Chorus presented earlier this year at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. In Seattle, 150 singers from 39 community singing groups participated in a performance that raised $20,000 for five organizations that support people facing homelessness.
“Street Requiem” was written by Australian choral musicians Kathleen McGuire, Andy Payne and Jonathon Welch and premiered in Australia in 2014. Hing had met the creators of the work in Australia years earlier. When he learned the piece, which addresses homelessness, was making its American debut in Dallas in January 2015, he contacted the creators and began the process of bringing the piece to the Northwest.
“I just thought, ‘How timely. How applicable. How relevant,’” Hing recalled. “The number of Americans facing homelessness is just humongous for a country so prosperous.”
The Carnegie benefit brings together vocalists who’ve been involved in “Street Requiem” productions in Seattle, Dallas, San Francisco and Australia, as well as a star-studded group of soloists that includes opera legend Frederica von Stade and Broadway star Liz Callaway.
Singing for Social Causes
Hing’s training as a musician began with piano lessons in kindergarten. By the time he was 14, he was working professionally, first playing standards at restaurants and bars, and later as a church organist. Eventually he was invited to lead various church choirs. He remained active as a musician through the years, which brought him to Carnegie Hall on three separate occasions.
When Hing came to work at Starbucks in 2007, a line at the bottom of the New York native’s resume about his experience in music caught the attention of an interviewer. It happened that the Starbucks Chorus was in need of a new director. When Hing reported to work, a three-person contingent showed up on his first day with a recruiting pitch. They didn’t have to do much convincing.
“Most of my background in music is hooked to a social cause,” he said, adding that the Starbucks Chorus has maintained a strong charitable focus since its formation. “I think that’s an important part of why the Starbucks Chorus is successful. You can use that passion for something you’re good at to do something good for the community.”
Through the years, the ensemble, which now has about three dozen members, has raised nearly $500,000 for various causes. Network performances on “Good Morning America” and “The Voice,” as well as annual appearances at Seattle’s Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition fundraiser, have raised the group’s profile. Hing and company continue to look for new challenges – like taking “Street Requiem” on the road to call attention to homelessness and raise more funds for groups addressing the problem.
“It’s using our scale for good, but in our own way, as a chorus,” Hing said.